As graduate students, we look to the degree as the end of our troubles. As postdocs, we see our first permanent position as the last hurdle. As junior faculty members, we believe that tenure will bring peace. We are wrong every time. With each step up, our problems increase in complexity. Still, we believe in the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, in that day when we'll say, "It was worth it."

In transitioning from postdoc to independent investigator, I was not as naïve as I had been during my student-to-postdoc transition. I researched what to expect. I knew there would be challenges. But there are always surprises, especially at the end of the rainbow.

Expectations

I applied for this position because the university was warm, comfortable, and friendly, in sharp contrast to the indifferent and sometimes hateful atmosphere of large institutions. I had read about the "courting period," so I was prepared when the warm and friendly atmosphere cooled a bit and the rosy prospects tarnished slightly. My job is a good fit for me.

Although I anticipated challenges, the degree of the challenge sometimes surprised me. With my new position, I transitioned into a new field of research, relying heavily on collaborations. That was every bit as difficult as I expected. In fact, we were all overly optimistic about how long it would take our collaboration to gain traction.

Surprises

Despite my preparations, most of my transition challenges have been entirely unexpected. After years of crowded postdoc and grad student offices with a single phone line, I relish my comparatively spacious office and having my own phone. But it is lonely! I'm an extrovert, so perhaps I should have expected this, and anyway it's not a great hardship. My loneliness means it is never a burden when I'm called on to talk with my collaborators or go to a seminar.


Courtesy of Rachel Ruhlen

Rachel Ruhlen

A more significant challenge, also unexpected, was recovering from the postdoc trauma. My grad student and postdoc experiences were depressingly typical, and along the way I picked up a stress reaction whereby I would lose my appetite and throw up when faced with a particularly stressful event, like a workplace bully or an altercation with an adviser. I thought the stress reaction would go away once I found a healthy workplace, and so I was shocked when a mildly adverse event triggered my worst stress reaction to date. Luckily, I have employee benefits, something not available to me as a grad student or postdoc. Cognitive behavioral therapy helped me manage the stress reactions and panic attacks.

The pot of gold

Perhaps the biggest surprise, now that I have a faculty position, is that I'm not yet saying, "It was worth it." It appears that my passion for research was a casualty of my trainee years. I assumed that once I found a pleasant, safe, supportive environment, that passion would revive itself. I thought that one day I would look back on those difficult times and say, "It was hard, but I love my job. It was worth it." That day has not arrived, and I no longer trust that it will. I like my job, but it has not undone the damage caused by the misery of my trainee years.

This is the most troubling challenge of the transition: I'm terribly disappointed that my passion for research hasn't returned. It has triggered something of a crisis. Is this the right career for me? Do I give it more time? Do I accept that this will be "just a job" and look to my hobbies for passion? Does my lack of passion doom me as a scientist? Or will detachment improve my impartiality, an important quality for unbiased science? Apparently, the gold at the end of the rainbow is more questions.

Beyond the rainbow

The tradition of academia—that a true scientist lives and breathes for the lab and only the lab—is crumbling. Parent scientists are demanding family-friendly schedules. A few postdocs and professors are insisting that science can be done, and done well, during normal business hours, or even part-time. These changes argue that scientists don't have to be exclusive in their feelings toward research but can love and value things outside as well as inside the lab.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as Michelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music, or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, 'Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.' " Every time I read this quote, I'm inspired to go sweep streets. I find peace in this quote.

Yet, one word bothers me: "called." Who is called to be a street sweeper? King wasn't referring to a boy who dreamed of sweeping streets, a man whose highest ambition was to sweep streets. He was talking about a man who found himself sweeping streets, a man for whom sweeping streets was just a job. It doesn't matter that I merely like my job. King believed that any job can be done with pride and dignity, without passion. Or perhaps we create our own passion.

As much as anyone is called to sweep streets, I am called to be a scientist. The blush of first love is gone, but I dig deep to find passion—substituting similar ideas like "commitment" and "dedication." I might not say, "It was worth it," but I listen for all the hosts of heaven and Earth to say, "Here lives a great scientist who does her job well."

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Credit: Hidde de Vries

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Rachel Ruhlen is in her third year as research assistant professor at A.T. Still University in Kirksville, Missouri.

10.1126/science.caredit.a1300062