Falling through the “leaky pipe”

My sister and I were very lucky to have parents who always encouraged us to follow career paths that interested us and that would make us happy. We were both drawn to the sciences, but, when it came to choosing the undergraduate courses that would ultimately define our eventual career paths, we both took very different approaches. My sister has always been a person who needs security and a clear path set out ahead of her, and she decided to take a vocational course – medicine. I placed less of a priority on job stability and decided to follow my passion for the environmental sciences, expecting one day to end up doing a PhD and becoming a fully-fledged research scientist. Thirteen years later, my sister and I are both very happily following careers which we find enjoyable and fulfilling, but, upon finishing my PhD, I found myself incredibly envious of her earlier decision to chase job security. Being a recently graduated PhD is not for the faint hearted. It is an emotional rollercoaster, defined by lack of job security, financial uncertainty, and a strong dose of imposter syndrome. I know from conversations with fellow ECRs that I am not alone in this experience. Twelve months after graduating I have finally secured a job offer. I hope that, by sharing the journey that I took to get there, I can help to reassure other ECRs that they are not alone.

I started my PhD at the relatively young age of 24, but, having suffered from some mental health problems during my twenties, didn’t enter the final stretch of writing up until I was 29. For me, the last six months of the PhD were the most enjoyable. I was finally back to full health and working hard on something I loved. I was realising that I was much more capable than I had given myself credit for a few years earlier. Hand-in day – as it is for everyone – was emotional. I felt like I had achieved something wonderful, but I was also wondering what I was going to do with my life. My thesis had been such a big part of my life for so long that it felt a little odd saying goodbye to it.

The successful viva bought with it a lot of celebration and one mighty hangover. It also gave me an opportunity to discuss my future with my examiners. Having expressed my desire to stay in academia, they advised me to spend a few months focussing on publishing various chapters of my thesis in peer reviewed journals before I started to apply for postdocs. I already had one first-authored published paper, but, in the academic world of “publish or perish”, they correctly thought that this would be insufficient. This is sound advice, but real life doesn’t work like that. I had been self-funding through the final years of my PhD and I was still paying rent and living costs in London out of my savings. There was only so long that I could sustain that. I found that I had to start applying for jobs as soon as I could in order to mentally justify the time I was spending working on writing up my research.

The following months were characterised by me tearing my hair out trying to meet multiple deadlines. Applying for postdoc jobs whilst simultaneously writing research papers is, believe it or not, more demanding than writing up the thesis. No two postdoc applications are the same, and those projects that advertise for applicants often ask for an in-depth knowledge of the wider project scope. I found that the research for each one of these types of applications could take several days. I also wrote some of my own project proposals and applied for grant funding. These required much more work because of the depth of research design and background reading required, and some took me several months and required international collaboration with other academics and researchers. All of this was a full time job in itself, yet I was not being paid. I had an important decision to make. Should I invest all of this time working on publications and applications for jobs that I actually want, or should I try to get a temporary job to start bringing in some income?

I stuck it out for about six months before eventually starting to apply for more temporary roles. I decided to keep my focus on jobs in the environmental sector, knowing that they would do more for my CV. I managed to secure a place on a knowledge exchange program called “Pioneers into Practice”, and was offered several interviews for various different temporary roles. These things were all excellent experiences that taught me a lot, but they ate into time that could have been spent working on papers and project proposals. By this stage, I was starting to get rejections from some of the postdoc positions I had applied for, and most of the feedback was centred around my lack of publications. I attended an interview for a three month internship with a charity at minimum wage and ended up as the reserve candidate. When I asked for feedback, I was told that 150 people applied for the role and 35% of them were recently graduated PhDs. This shattered my confidence. How was I supposed to compete in this job market? It was incredibly disheartening.

The strain of not knowing what I would be doing with my life was starting to show. I was applying for postdocs all over the world, and it was incredibly difficult to make any plans in case I was suddenly offered a postdoc that I had applied for and had to move abroad for two years. My friends outside of academia were all buying houses and starting families. I had money saved for a house deposit, but with no income on which to get a mortgage and no idea where in the world I would be living, I was forced to spend a large portion of it on rent. I was also starting to worry about the future. I had a student loan to pay off, and, unlike those who started work when they left university at 23, I had not paid any national insurance nor been putting anything towards a pension whilst I was doing my PhD. I felt like I had no security at all and that I was so far behind everyone else in terms of “growing up”. I was relying on my parents for financial and emotional support, and feeling incredibly guilty about the pressure that it was putting on them.

After eight months or so, I finally received an offer to take up a position as a postdoctoral researcher on a project exploring shallow lake ecosystem resilience. The science was exciting and the PI was someone I already knew that I would get on well with. The only downside was that the job was in China. I don’t know anyone in China and it is a very long way from home and very different culturally, but I was reassured by the fact that there are a lot of British ex-pats in academia in China and their inclusion of foreigners in scientific culture is very well respected. Nevertheless, moving to China for three years was a big decision. I decided to put another chunk of my dwindling savings towards visiting the department for a couple of weeks in order to try to make the decision. During the visit, I led an undergraduate seminar and took part in a field expedition, as well as spending some time getting to know the university and the city. The department that I would be working for was very new and I would have been the only foreigner. The city was not a tourist city and I would not have had much access to any home comforts at all. Although the job would have been a good career move on paper, I made the very difficult decision not to accept it on the basis that I felt that I would have struggled with everyday life and found the experience quite overwhelming and isolating. Work isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, and I made a decision based on work-life balance. Returning home from that trip knowing that I was coming back to no job and what felt like no prospects was incredibly difficult, and I spent lots of sleepless nights worrying that I had made a stupid decision and thrown away a golden opportunity.

Six months – and many, many failed applications and project proposals – later, I have found a postdoc position which I think will suit me perfectly. It is not inside academia (I will be working for an NGO), but it does have a strong academic leaning. When I originally applied for the job, I was unsure about this aspect of it. I know that academia suits me. However, throughout the interview process, I was honest and open about my desires with my interviewers. The more I learned about the role, the more excited I became about it and the more I could see how good a fit it is for me. It blends science with outreach and applied conservation, and these are the areas of research that I enjoy the most. Unlike most postdocs, I have the security of a permanent position (as opposed to a temporary contract), a salary (as opposed to grant funding), and a pension scheme. I will still get to science and I will still be able to publish my own research, but I will also be able to participate in other training events, policy consults, and a lot of public outreach. I am incredibly excited to get started in a few weeks’ time.

Looking back on my experience, I am a little saddened that I have succumbed to the “leaky pipe”. I have always wanted to be a scientist, and I always pictured that being in a university. However, I am also confident that I have made the right decision. I have been incredibly lucky to be able to live the last year as I have. My savings and the support that I have had from my family have undoubtedly given me a huge advantage when it comes to being able to afford to spend time writing papers, attending conferences, preparing solid applications, and making valuable connections. I am also lucky to have been in a position to be able to move locations. Many aren’t so lucky, and their search is extremely restricted as a result. I know of many other ECRs who have been in a similar position for much longer than I was. Those that do go on to do a postdoc often secure a position for two years, and are then faced with a repeat of the same situation over again. Consequently, they start searching for the next postdoc position as soon as they start the first. My sister has been in a position of relative security for the last five years. She has bought a house and is engaged to be married. I finally feel like I might start to experience the same level of security within the next few years. Many academics can’t make life plans that involve settling until they get tenure. Is it any wonder, then, that so many PhDs fall victim to the “leaky pipe”?

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