Holey Science - Gaps in the Research Career

No matter what profession we look at, career gaps are a common experience. Sometimes career gaps are a choice, all too often they are not. In the research world, where short-term contracts are considered the norm, especially during the early part of a career, researchers often find themselves looking for a new position and source of income every few years. Regardless of the reason, unemployment often comes at a high emotional cost in addition to financial difficulties.
In this post, we collect stories from five authors from different backgrounds, touching on family planning, mental health, privilege, difficulties, and ways to success in and outside of academia. We thank our authors for sharing their experiences and advice to provide early-career researchers and those who support them with insight into challenges and opportunities associated with career breaks.


Deirdre D. Ryan, PhD
Postdocotral Research Associate
MARUM, University of Bremen, Germany
Research profile

   I was completely unprepared for my ‘gap’. My plan after completing my thesis was to stay in Australia – I’m a US citizen. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out that way and I moved home. I mean home-home. I was one of those thirty-somethings living with their dad again. To say I was deflated is an understatement. 

     It wasn’t all bad. My dad worked pretty much his entire career as a vineyard manager for the same winery. I had my first ever job there at about age 12 and had worked there on and off throughout the years. Many of the employees had known me since I was a kid. They’re family too. It became a company joke that after every university degree I went back for a $1 raise. So it ended up that after my PhD I was working as an environmental health and safety officer at a winery where I had already done everything from working on the bottling line to claiming tax back on international wine shipments. This time around I was responsible for helping make sure the winery and vineyards were compliant with county, state, and federal environmental regulations and kind of being the ‘cop’ on campus; somewhat relatable to my Master’s degree in Environmental Planning and Management but not so much with my PhD work, Quaternary coastal geomorphology.

   BUT it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing. I was fortunate that the winery allowed me flexible hours and time off for travel. I wasn’t paying rent so I was able to save up money and fund multiple trips back to Australia to carry out additional laboratory analyses to strengthen publications. I attended conferences as a student volunteer, which saved me some of the registration costs. I attended workshops, including one on resume writing. I joined the Northern California Geological Society and once a month would drive 2.5-hours, one-way, to attend the meeting and network. It wasn’t all travel and conference fun though. I would work a 32-40 hour workweek, then read literature or write most evenings when I got home. I usually spent one of my ‘days off’ on the weekend at my desk. There were a lot of failed applications to studentships, internships, and jobs – both in academia and industry. There was even a failed National Science Foundation (NSF) grant. I think I suffered some as well not having a network outside of Australia. This is why going to at least one big international conference during your PhD is important – I didn’t do that.

   The whole process did help me realize where I really wanted to take my career. Initially, in addition to academia, I was considering industry and government positions; largely consulting or regulatory-type jobs. Going through the application process was valuable in that I realized that those types of jobs weren’t what I wanted. What I really wanted was a research position. I realized how much I enjoyed academia and its environment, even with the imperfections.

   Finally, after nearly two years I got an interview and I got the job. I moved to Germany for what was supposed to be an 11 month contract, but now I’m here until 2021 and taking advantage of every opportunity that comes my way. I am extremely grateful to Dr. Alessio Rovere, the group leader of Sea Level and Coastal Changes, for not being put off by my career gap. Thank you Alessio!

…and if anyone wants to know where to find a good bottle of Pinot Noir in California, I have an answer for you.

"As a pregnant woman alone in a new city, I worked on my dissertation each day at the grocery store, befriending the local retired men’s group."

Melissa Lucash, PhD
Research Assistant Professor
Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, USA
Follow Melissa on Twitter

     Being a stay-at-home mom (SAHM) for five years has left an indelible mark on my career. When I got pregnant during the fourth year of my PhD, my husband and I played “Who gets the best job first?” I lost and we moved from Syracuse, NY to Portland, OR. As a pregnant woman alone in a new city, I worked on my dissertation each day at the grocery store, befriending the local retired men’s group. I defended my dissertation when my daughter was nine months old. As she grew, I was a SAHM by day, but two nights a week I pretended I was a scientist again and worked on my dissertation publications. My friends thought I was crazy to spend my precious free time working on papers. But I knew I didn’t want to be a SAHM forever and needed to keep publishing. Even after my second daughter was born, I continued to write each night at the glacial pace of an exhausted mother who slept in two-hour increments every night.

     One year, I decided to apply for tenure track jobs. One college rejected me saying I didn’t seem that interested in the position, given I asked for so many breaks. I had been too embarrassed to tell them I was still nursing my daughter. Another university rejected me saying I didn’t have an active research program. They were right. I stopped applying for jobs.

     When my youngest daughter turned three, I decided to try again, but this time to find a postdoc and build a research program. Unfortunately, my husband had a good job and we didn’t want to move for a temporary postdoc. So I took a job as an adjunct instructor at the closest university. I also volunteered in a research lab at the university, but I had no relevant skills. My PhD involved fieldwork with roots; this professor worked with computer-simulated trees. I felt totally out of place in his lab, like a SAHM masquerading as a scientist. Eventually though, I acquired the lab skills I needed and was able to feel comfortable in my roles as both a mother and modeller.

     This is my eighth year of working at my current institution - first as postdoc and now as a research professor. It’s been an uphill climb, recovering from my stint as a SAHM, but it was worth it. I was able to stay at home when my daughters were little and transition back into academia when they went to preschool. Today I have the largest research program in my department. But the mark is still there. I’m the lowest paid professor in my department (since I only have funding for half my salary) and my attempts to get a tenure track job this year haven’t been successful yet.

     I have learned that perseverance and flexibility are the keys to overcoming a gap. As I doggedly fought to stay in my career path, I retained my love for academia and discovered a love for interdisciplinary collaboration and simulation modeling. When I finally get a tenure track position, I will know that I’ve erased the mark. Until then, I’ll just dig in my heels with an eraser in my hand.

"[...] I felt like a hermit crab without a shell, nervously watching the seagulls circling above me."

Chris Kiahtipes, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow
Institute for the Advanced Study of Culture and the Environment
University of South Florida, Tampa, USA
Follow Chris on Twitter

The Hermit Crab Theory of Postdoctoral Life
     A career gap is an isolating experience. During mine, meeting people (even friends) gave me terrible anxiety because they might ask me about my plans for the future. For six months of my eight month career gap, I honestly didn’t know what was next. I habitually defuse my inner tensions through humor, so I would joke that postdocs are basically hermit crabs. We’re born in huge numbers and in order to survive we have to take on bigger and bigger shells along the way. At that time, I felt like a hermit crab without a shell, nervously watching the seagulls circling above me.

     Life kind of felt like a race that I was losing.

Wake up… we’re going to have a baby
     My career gap started on November 30th, 2017 in Cologne, Germany. My significant other and I woke up early, mopped the floors of our apartment, and pulled our bags to the curb to hail a cab. Our visas were only valid as long as I had a university contract. Two weeks later at my mom’s house in Utah, USA my SO woke me at 4 am to show me a positive pregnancy test.
     At this point, the plan had been to visit family in the USA, work on our resumés, and do some writing. I had three job applications and a major grant proposal out for review. By February I had received two rejections and we leased an apartment in Salt Lake City, found an OB/GYN we liked, and we both started applying for jobs locally. She was successful. I was not.

Embrace your inner hominid
     The most insightful thing about my hermit crab analogy is what it revealed about me. I was, at some level, conceptualizing my success as a scientist as a life-and-death struggle. The notion is deeply embedded — “publish or perish” comes to mind — and is ultimately false. My career is a choice like any other, more of a garden of forking paths than a life or death dichotomy. All of the things that really helped me navigate my career gap were part of my hominid heritage.

     Relationships, personal and/or professional, are the most important things we have. From spending some time with my family to connecting with old mentors and friends from graduate school who were active in the scientific community, I found that reaching out was the medicine for my hermit crab-like isolationist tendencies.
     Be flexible. I landed a job in an unlikely way — my current employer needed someone with my skills on relatively short notice, but it offered benefits that I couldn’t refuse.
     Family life is a good thing. My wife gave birth to a little boy on the 17th of July, 2018. It both motivates me and forces me to be more rational in my time management.
     Stay ambitious. I kept analyzing samples, worked to expand my coding abilities, and applied for small conferences with early-career researcher travel support. Don’t burn yourself out, but do make some time to think like a scientist and work at your craft.

     Finally, this experience revealed to me the inequity in our current academic system. I’m a first generation college graduate, but I still come from a position of privilege that made it possible to survive a career gap. If we’re serious about making scientific disciplines more inclusive, we need to do more to make sure postdocs don’t find themselves out in the open without a shell. 

"Rejections were inevitable, but imposter syndrome hit hard whenever one came in."

Izzy Bishop, PhD
Research Manager
Earthwatch Institute
Follow Izzy on Twitter
     Like many people, I was not lucky enough to have any work lined up for me as soon as I finished my PhD. The last few months of my PhD were hectic and all of my energy was focused on reining the beast that my thesis had become into a clear, logical, and beautifully bound piece of work. Being a recently graduated PhD without any form of employment is not for the faint hearted. It is an emotional roller coaster 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 now have a job that I love and, to my surprise, it is not in academia.

     The fact that I am now working for a non-governmental organization (NGO) was not part of my life plan. At my PhD viva, I expressed my strong desire to be an academic. My examiners advised me to spend a few months focusing on publishing my thesis 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 publications. The following months were characterised by me tearing my hair out trying to meet multiple deadlines: deadlines for postdoc applications, publication deadlines, conference deadlines, deadlines for grant proposals. Rejections were inevitable, but imposter syndrome hit hard whenever one came in.

     I was hugely privileged. Thanks to the support of family, I could afford to spend time writing papers, attending conferences, preparing solid applications, and making valuable connections. It is these things that helped me to secure the job I am in now. My family and friends were also able to offer valuable emotional support when the strain of not knowing what I would be doing with my life started to show. My friends outside of academia were all buying houses and starting families. My future felt incredibly insecure. 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. It was incredibly uncomfortable for me to have to ask for financial and emotional support from my family, but, now that I am in my new job, my parents and I agree that it was all worth it. 

     My work now has a strong academic leaning, blending science with outreach and applied conservation (the areas of research that I enjoy the most). Unlike most postdocs, I have the security of a permanent position, a salary (as opposed to grant funding), and a pension scheme. I still get to do 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 still want to return to academia, but, for now, I feel I have landed on my feet.

     To all those unemployed ECRs who are in the same position that I was in, I have three pieces of advice:

1: Try not to take the rejections to heart. It may not feel like it, but there is something out there for you.
2: Don’t be afraid to ask for help when things get tough.
3: Remember, academic postdocs aren’t necessarily the holy grail that they are made out to be. 

This is a summary of the post originally published here.

"Having the courage to step away from something that no longer worked, and trying something I had never done, was very liberating."

Adriana Bankston, PhD
Policy & Advocacy Fellow
Society for Neuroscience
Follow Adriana on Twitter

     “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say yes - then learn how to do it later.” (Richard Branson) This quote somewhat defines my life in general, as I have always sought to challenge myself and maintain a growth mindset in my professional endeavors.

     Immediately after my postdoc training, I worked remotely as an independent contracting editor for American Journal Experts (AJE). I enjoyed the flexible schedule and ability to help science advance in different ways than from the bench. At the same time, I was looking for broader ways to improve society using my research background. I got involved with Future of Research (FoR), a nonprofit organization that allowed me to study an aspect of the biomedical workforce which I became very interested in.

     I quickly fell in love with this area, and realized that I could achieve a broader impact in science through a policy career. But I knew nothing about how to effectively do that. I also had very few opportunities due to geographical limitations at the time. So instead, I focused on what I could control and improve on, and sought to gain skills through experiences that would get me closer to my ultimate goal.

     To keep these skills current, I wrote posts and papers, gave research talks, and participated in panels and tables giving students advice on science policy careers. These activities allowed me to practice talking about and honing in on my professional interests more specifically. In order to keep relevant in policy, I also read many papers on biomedical workforce policy issues and engaged in relevant conversations through local meetings or on social media. Being on Twitter also helped me tremendously to engage in discussions with policy experts, and keeping visible while figuring out my next move.

     Due to my involvement with FoR, I became really passionate about the organization, our mission, and what we stood for, so I took a part-time position in fundraising. This was both a tremendous opportunity and a great challenge. It required leaving my comfort zone, and thinking more broadly about how to develop relationships with outsiders whom we had never approached before, and ask them for money.

     After the contract with FoR, I transitioned into my current position as the Policy & Advocacy Fellow at the Society for Neuroscience. This is a natural fit for me, as I was looking for a place where I could leverage my scientific background into science policy. I am now on a path towards developing the policy career I’ve always wanted. What held me back in the past were in part factors out of my control, but also limitations I placed upon myself in thinking that something was out of my reach and not pursuing it. Never let any experience get you down and always seek to keep your skills fresh and continue learning. And don’t be afraid to take risks and follow your passion along the way.

     Leaving academia without a clear direction was both challenging and exciting, but I would never be where I am today if I had not taken that initial risk. Having the courage to step away from something that no longer worked, and trying something I had never done, was very liberating. So, when in front of you, take that amazing opportunity that you are unsure you are ready for - you will learn and grow a lot in the process, and be happier in the long run. And, if you’re lucky, you might just find the thing that you were always meant to pursue.

Your thoughts and further reading

We thank our five contributors for sharing their experiences with the community and hope you enjoyed reading about them. As everyone’s experiences are different, please share your thoughts and experiences in the comment section below or on Twitter, or send us an email if you’d like to write a post.

You might also be interested in the following posts:
1. I divorced science for a while, and now we’re getting along just fine (Scientific American)
2. Career gaps: Maternity muddle (NatureJobs)
3. You can return to research after a career break (Science Magazine)
4. The emotional toll of unemployment in academia (NatureJobs)
5. On academic job insecurity and the ultimate tenure (NatureJobs)


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