The Resilient Postdoc: Keep the exit rows clear at all times.

If you are seated in an emergency exit row you may be called upon to assist crew members in the unlikely event of an emergency evacuation.

Those who contemplate disaster may enjoy the extra leg room. Thankfully, the probability of any given academic career stalling and rapidly losing altitude is orders of magnitude higher than it happening on your average flight, but my conceit is simply to make the point that preparing for emergency leads to a more comfortable ride. The same can be said for bunker-dwelling, tin-can stockpiling Doomsday Preppers, who are easy to make fun of, except that their backs must be stiffened by a dose of confidence inspired by addressing their perceived existential threat.

In this uncertain and hyper-competitive job market with falling availability of research-focused academic positions, if a postdoc is not preparing to walk away every two or three years they’re a star-performing outlier, or blissfully unaware. It is shocking therefore how often I have encountered postdoc research scientists who simply have never thought about how to get a job outside of their narrow research domain. This should start in their PhD years. In fact, in light of the harsh jobs climate in research, it is unethical for a supervisor or university department to be ignoring the pressure for postgrad students to develop career capital that can serve them and the community outside the narrow field of academic research.

At the end of my first postdoc in 2015, I was beset by anxiety blooming from the combination of scarce opportunities and academic job rejections. I needed to look beyond academia and it took me months to refine strategies to identify jobs that I might be capable of getting an interview for. Eventually I got an interview for a government department, which turned into a job offer. It sounded like an ok job, I didn’t end up taking it, but the fact that I had been offered a decently paying position after successfully marketing my unique set of skills was strong salve to my career anxiety. It gave me some confidence that I could walk away when I needed to.

The chart below shows every ongoing role I’ve applied for since completing my PhD in 2013. As you can see, I have applied for 15 ongoing university academic roles in the past six years and received exactly one interview. Contrast this to the ongoing non-academic government jobs I’ve applied for (five), where I’ve attracted two job offers—a substantially higher strike rate! My research is not easily and directly tied to government priorities, so I’d argue that my single case study supports the assertion that the world outside the ivory pressure cooker is wide and full of opportunities.


I have applied for 24 ongoing jobs since 2013. My two job offers have come from non-academic government roles, for which I have only made five applications. (Scroll below article to see the same visualisation for fixed-term applications)

In light of my experience, this post is for academics who want some pragmatic advice on accessing the diversity of alternative careers.

– Learn to job hunt. You might not have ever used non-academic modes for job-hunting, you might be baffled as to what keywords will find you relevant positions, and one of the big uncertainties is often not knowing what’s available to you. So take the time to learn how to drive the commercial job advertisement search engines, as well as the relevant government and industry outlets. From the Australian point of view, this means, federal, state, and local government job sites. Spend time using all the keywords you can think of, learn which ones are productive, then set auto-alerts for these (e.g., keyword “plant” was useful to me). Doing this, you will probably learn about interesting jobs you never knew existed.

Screenshot 2019-12-18 10.07.09

Actually there are no jobs in “speciation”. Four employers misspelled “specification”.

– Scan for jobs early and often. Start looking early. Earlier than you think is necessary. Repeat your jobs search regularly, at least once a fortnight. Make it a part of your weekly routine, or spend time doing this instead of wasting time online on a demotivated Friday afternoon. It’s really not arduous. This ongoing jobs market research will a) arm you with information about the reality of the jobs market before you need it, and b) identify opportunities that might sound attractive now, perhaps even worth leaving a postdoc for. Don’t miss out on a promising alternative career opportunity because you weren’t paying attention.

– Learn to apply for non-academic jobs.This is a big one, and something you want to practice well before your first “must-get” job. Other industries have their peculiar CV or resume formats, and virtually no industry has CV conventions like academia. Learn to craft a CV targeted to the job/industry. For example, consider adding a “skills and expertise” section highlighting your strengths and transferrable skills. While you might need to completely overhaul your academic CV, that doesn’t mean you have to avoid mentioning all your papers or teaching. Just re-phrase and perhaps contract the detail. For example, I reduced my teaching experience to eight lines on a recent CV because it offers evidence of important skills, but the detail of subjects taught and years of experience don’t matter outside tertiary teaching. Learning to apply for non-academic jobs is learning to market your skills to a non academic audience. A PhD and postdoc in science equips you with a diversity of useful skills, but you have to translate them into the keywords that employers want to hear. Examples of skills most STEM academics can speak to include:

Communication Analytical Management: projects & people Technical
Writing complex and technical subject matter for specialists

Communicating complex and technical concepts to non-specialists

Professional oral presentation and seminars

Grant writing

Tertiary teaching to a diverse student population
Research and synthesis of specialist and technical information

Critical thinking

Higher order logic and reasoning

Executing sound professional judgment from expert knowledge

Conducting and interpreting statistical analysis

Experimental design

Rigorous attention to detail

An ability to quickly assimilate new and often complex information

Managing complex and competing priorities

Supervision and mentorship

Communicating with influence, in writing or in person

Working effectively in teams, building and maintaining collaborations

Working independently with minimal supervision, demonstrating initiative

Careful and effective stakeholder engagement

Programming skills

Laboratory skills

Field skills

Data visualization


– Practise applying. Even if you don’t think you’ll take the job, apply anyway. If you’re offered an interview, you might find out information that changes your mind on accepting the job. If you’re offered a job, whether or not you accept, I guarantee this will make you feel better about possible future academic extinction.

– Arm yourself with skills for your desired job. See a job you like, but can’t fulfil the selection criteria? Great. Now you know what you need. Find the time during your postdoc to develop some of these skills. Craft yourself as a candidate for the job you want, ideally by building skills that you can apply to your research now. The counter to this is: Avoid sinking time into skills that are not marketable outside academia. This is a tough line to walk, because some skills that might serve you in research are a hard sell on the outside. For example, learning to master that peculiar and poorly-written R package for detecting hybrids in polyploid organisms, or the latest technique for extracting DNA from sub-fossil sea-urchins might be useful for your research program now, but long-term useless. Can you get a collaborator on that, and instead spend time learning general stats and programming skills to analyse and visualise the results?

– Network, and learn from others. Don’t just sit on the internet reading quit-lit. Tee-up coffee meetings with other scientists who have made the jump. Ask them the obvious and practical questions you think sound dumb. Meet for coffee with people you don’t know who work in the jobs markets you want to explore. Find out: where are the jobs?, how are people getting them?, what are the attractive things about the job you might be overlooking?, what are the negative things you might be overlooking? Networks pay off in unforeseen ways. A 30 minute coffee meeting with someone new is never a wasted 30 minutes.

– Share job information, help each other! Whether or not it’s an academic job, keep your close colleagues and collaborators in the loop. While an isolated job ad can be zero-sum, you operate in an environment of repeated opportunities that is certainly not zero-sum. If you’re applying for a lectureship, don’t let it pass by your postdoc colleagues, share the job ad (but only to the nice, supportive, friendly ones). If you don’t get the position, you’d prefer they got it than a stranger, right? If you see an attractive non-academic job that’s not for you, pass it on to that postdoc colleague who seems like a good fit, even if they are not looking for jobs. A small network of colleagues helping one another catch the opportunities that fall through individual nets.

Overall, the most important and productive thing is to prepare yourself for an exit before you need it, even if you never need it. Taking concrete and practical steps towards building a safety net will give you confidence working under uncertainty. Even if you stay in academia your whole life, never having to break the emergency glass, planning for the event will be invaluable experience to pass on to your future students.


All 16 fixed-term roles and fellowships I have applied for since 2013.


The Resilient Postdoc: How to be ok with uncertainty.

Building resilience in the face of career anxiety…
One of my favourite plants.

In arid Southern Africa there exists a most fantastic species of cucumber. Like other cucumbers, its fleshy fruits are refreshingly high in water. Unlike just about any other flowering plant, these fruits develop beneath the ground, concealed and entombed by soil and sand. This bizarre trait gives the cucumber its scientific name: Cucumis humifructus, humi- referring to soil, fructus referring to fruit. To understand this deviant fruit, you must know who or what is responsible for fulfilling the purpose of this, or indeed any fruit: to promote the spread of its seeds. The only creature capable of finding and eating the fruit of Cucumis humifructus is one of our most fanciful and enigmatic mammals: the Aardvark. And this gives the plant its common name: the “Aardvark Cucumber“. In the context of seed dispersal, Cucumis humifructus is an extreme ecological specialist, having evolved to employ just a single species to eat its fruit and distribute its seed. The Aardvark itself is also an ecological specialist, its diet is composed exclusively of ants, plus the occasional Aardvark cucumber.

One of my favourite animals.

The Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri) is one of only a handful of extant lobe-finned fishes, having existed largely unchanged for over 100 million years—a time when the Cretaceous Empire of the Dinosaurs was at its ferocious zenith. The fish is remarkable for having the ability to breathe air via a rudimentary lung, which when combined with its fleshy limb-lobes, gives it the power to locomote and survive for days out of water. It is also the only fish with a soul (Figure 1). The age of first breeding for a lungfish female is 22 years. Read that again. 22 years! Lungfish development and reproduction is a longer and more drawn-out affair than our own spawning. You see, the lungfish is what ecologists would class as a K-selected organism, she grows slow, reproduces slow, and invests heavily in a few offspring. A temperate and upstanding lungfish will lay a few hundred eggs over her lifetime, while for contrast, the profligate and rapacious common carp can spawn 300,000 in a single season.


Figure 1: Cladogram for the vertebrates placing the evolutionary origin of the soul approximate to the divergence of the Actinopterygii.

The maladapted postdoc

So here I’ve described the extremities of two separate axes in ecological strategy. The generalist-specialist axis describes the narrowness with which certain organisms have adapted to specific niches in their environment. A generalist can tolerate a wide range of environmental variables, while specialists (Aardvark cucumbers) are exquisitely adapted to maximising the narrow case. The r- and K- selected life histories describe how organisms reproduce and grow, from boom-bust generations and mass dissemination of cheap offspring, to the heavy investment and delayed pay-off of fewer offspring, with better odds of survival for each one.

Academic science incentivizes production of K-selected specialists. Specialists are encouraged, and rewarded, because one has to specialise to not only reach the horizon of knowledge for a subject, but also to contribute to moving it back a meaningful amount. And academic scientists are K-selected. The gestation and development of a scientist is slow and long (4 years undergraduate and 3 years PhD at minimum), and the best outputs of academics take years to produce. It routinely takes years to get an original study from idea, to funded, to conducted, to published. It can routinely take a year to merely progress a paper from first submission to publication!

The problem with being a K-selected specialist however, is that they do very poorly in unpredictable and variable environments. The early career trajectory in research science is both highly unpredictable, and highly variable. With the scarcity of jobs, fixed term contracts lasting a maximum of three years and most frequently shorter, and low funding rates in grant schemes exacerbated for the young, those navigating this foggy career path frequently find themselves dealing with the anxiety of not knowing where or who they will be working with in the coming months. Add to that most support for ECRs drops off after five years, and its a direly unpredictable environment for a K-selected specialist to find itself in.
There are plenty of other careers that are similarly “contract-to-contract”. Freelancers, some Government roles, creatives, consultants, and so on. Compared to those careers though, academic success depends on the outcomes of projects borne of very long gestation periods (K- selected outputs). For a researcher, it can feel pointless developing new ideas, growing new collaborations, and applying for research funding if the funding outcomes are not known for nine months, and the money won’t be available for another six months—a future point for which they cannot forecast their own employment status. Therefore, many researchers must prepare to walk away every couple of years, a cycle that corrodes career momentum and mental health.

Learning to be ok with uncertainty

At the end of my first postdoc, I had a crisis. The end was steaming up and I had nothing to go to. While it’s a common feature of academic careers, no one knows how they will handle it until they get there. For many, it’s tough. The anxiety of the unknown can run riot through your life, dominating thoughts, detracting from focus at work, interrupting sleep, and sapping motivation—a cloud of noxious gas growing in saturation as the contract end date approaches.

I wasn’t totally surprised that it was hard to nail down another job straight away. What really caught me by surprise was how I responded to the uncertainty. Since I was a kid I had wanted to be a scientist, and now confronting the long-held idea that I may not be a professional biologist challenged a deeply held and largely unexamined part of my identity.

I was able to jump that chasm in 2015, and I’m on my third contract since that time. But I’m glad I went through that, because it forced me to face uncertainty, reflect, and adapt. I have learned to be ok with uncertainty, and today look at the possible future extinction of my research science career with much less emotion than I did four years ago. Not to say I don’t occasionally have bad days, but the days of amity now outweigh the days of anxiety.


The resilient postdoc

In case the time I have invested in wrestling this might return some interest for postgrad students and postdocs with the same worries, here’s some unsolicited advice on building resilience in the face of postdoc career anxiety.

Where are the exits? The most important and productive thing to do is prepare yourself for an exit before you need it. I have a whole post on this in the works. So for now, lie down on this couch and lets talk about our feelings.

Is your job your identity? This is both an asset and a liability. Academic careers reward those who let career conform the shape of their lives. Surrender to it and your platter of opportunities broadens. But hitching your identity to a job also makes you vulnerable when things aren’t working out at work. Finding meaning outside of work is a healthy strategy for taking pressure off career as a means to fulfillment. Think of it like an investment portfolio, spreading risk and associated reward. If your relationships, family, pets, hobbies, community work etc are thriving and fulfilling, you’ll be buffered against career anxiety.

Another sensible strategy is re-framing your identity around skills, rather than a role. The talents and skills you hone are more a part of you than the job title, however society more often places prestige on the title, not the skills.

Thinking about what else you could or should be doing is totally normal. Everyone is doing it, all the time. Most postdocs I talk to, many lecturers, most people in most jobs. I don’t know if this cognitive bias has a name, but it probably should. There’s no harm in occasionally fantasizing about the vineyard/cafe/photography/alpaca business you could go and open, but you’re probably falling victim to the focusing effect (see below).

Exiting academia won’t be your last move. There’s only so much momentum a publication record gives you to exit, re-enter and remain competitive. This increases the stakes on the decision to leave or not. However your first move out of academia need not be immune to revision. Release yourself from the pressure of finding the perfect job straight out of research. Trying new things is the only way to settle on what works for you, and in many ways researchers have been conditioned to avoid swapping and changing, because singular focus and narrow expertise is rewarded in academia.

Beware the grass-is-greener. Focusing on contract impermanence might lead you to think that other jobs with ongoing status are more desirable than they really are. This is the focusing effect, where we compare complex things along only one or two axes of variation. Plenty of people with ongoing jobs are unhappy and think your job looks marvelous because…

There are perks to this job. In science and academia we have the opportunity, at times, to make work a pleasure. Take advantage of that. If you’re not going to get to do this job forever, focus on the good things, don’t make it shit for yourself. Enjoy the moment.

The abyss is exciting. The end of a contract and unemployment can be seen as a career existential oubliette, or an exciting opportunity forcing your hand into taking a risk and trying some new things. Framing is powerful. Deliberately try to look at the same event from different angles.


Talking to colleagues can get tough. Don’t whinge, but never avoid communicating the facts. If you let your anxiety too often cloud your interactions with co-workers, you will find no one wants to get stuck in a conversation with you. When you need to talk, find the colleagues/mentors who you trust and can speak to in confidence, vent to family/friends, or speak to a counselor.

Stop looking sideways. People are going to get the jobs you want and missed out on. People are holding jobs you could probably do better than them. Dwelling on the number of people with your equivalent expertise who have found an ongoing role is demoralizing and unhelpful. It is also classic survivorship bias. It is easy to count the number of jobs that get filled by someone other than you, but much harder to count the number of failed job applications alongside yours.

If you’re feeling down, get off Twitter. Academics on Twitter are commonly whining or flexing, neither of which will make you feel better.

You won’t starve, life goes on. You’re a highly trained, intelligent individual with skills to offer. I cannot speak for all economies, but in Australia there are jobs everywhere for people like you. It’s also the case that for most of us, we return to baseline fairly quickly and adapt to what’s in front of us. The very worst outcome of a career change is highly unlikely to live up to the weight of anxiety the transition can create.