In the 6 months leading to the end of my contract as a postdoc, and in my search for employment, I experienced a range of emotions that were not unlike the 5 stages of grief. First I was in denial, then I progressed through bargaining, anger, depression and finally towards, acceptance. Writing this piece was cathartic, but I also think that it is important to discuss the mental health of researchers….
You can grieve for a career
How is it I can grieve for a lack of employment? In actual fact it is more than possible, it makes sense. Grieving is a natural response to loss, and just as we can grieve for the loss of a loved one, we can grieve for a loss of self-identity, self-worth and our place in the world.
Faced with an ending contract, the prospect of a lack of financial security, and the fact that I am a foreigner with visa requirements, I threw myself head first into finding work. I somewhat naively (given I had worked for many years as a research assistant and had seen first hand the plight of the postdoc) thought that with my 15+ years’ research experience and a decent number of first author publications, I would be inundated with responses!
What followed was email silence. So I told myself that maybe I was applying a little too early, and that people were not interested in my applications because I was still employed. Denial. I convinced myself that these were the reasons and that I still would not have a problem finding a new job.
While often the bargaining stage occurs after denial, it can also occur early on in the grieving process. Bargaining often comes in the form of a promise to change an action or behaviour. For me, the bargaining stage was a period of great productivity fuelled by desperation, as well as a period of guilt. I felt guilty that I had obviously (in my mind) not taken advantage of opportunities presented to me. So I reasoned that if I invested more in X, Y and Z, I would improve my chances of employment. I undertook a part-time Masters Degree, I started my blog, and I emailed every contact I had no matter how tenuous the link. I asked people for advice and went to networking and career events.
I transitioned to the anger phase quickly. I was angry with everyone who was happy with their job. I was angry with people who had permanent contracts and took it for granted, at people who didn’t care about their work, at those who did not take advantage of career enhancing opportunities. I was angry at a lack of career mentorship. I cried all the time out of frustration. The slightest thing would set me off. Then there were the roadblocks to career advancement. For example, being told that I was too old to do another a postdoc and therefore not eligible for many fellowships (despite only being 30-something!).
This naturally progressed into the depression stage. For those facing or experiencing unemployment, scholars have found that self-worth, self-doubt of one’s abilities and place in society, their ability to provide an income along with financial security, is the driving force of the depression stage. I also felt shame that I was unable to find a job as a researcher, that I am disappointing the people who have given me opportunities.
However, a chance networking event showed me I could look outside the box. This helped my transition into acceptance.
What needs to be spoken more often is that even if you don’t work in a lab, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t a scientist. Rather than fighting against what is happening and further wallowing in self-pity, I have come to the conclusion that I am trying the best I can. It is as simple as that. My lack of unemployment is a reflection of the status quo in academia and research, and unfortunately, common. What we also need to remember is that there is no shame in looking for career alternatives that still utilise hard-wrought scientific skills!
This piece was originally written for the blog section of a newspaper, but they have asked me to write about something different so I decided to publish it here. Although this is a very personal piece, I think it is important to discuss how unemployment affects your mental health, and to maybe put my somewhat erratic mood swings into perspective! I didn’t write this to gain sympathy, but to put a voice to a common situation.