Today, three related questions from Andrew:
When is it appropriate to abandon a line of research? Is there a point of no return when you finish a project regardless of how lackluster the results have been or seem likely to be?
If it is appropriate to stop a project, how do you break the news to collaborators? And how do you deal with pressure from them to continue a project you no longer believe in?
When should you abandon the hunt for a tenure track job? What indicators warn you that obtaining a TT job is improbable? The data in this article indicate that the probability of obtaining a TT job declines to <1% 10 years post-PhD.
Jeremy: When to give up on research project is a very context-dependent judgment call, so it’s hard to give advice. I have an old post that posed a similar question to the commentariat, but didn’t get much feedback, unfortunately.
When to give up on the search for a TT job is a very personal decision. I decided to give up after four years–and then got lucky when Calgary offered me the job I currently hold. But had my personal circumstances been different, I might well have kept trying. I’d been getting multiple interviews/year for four years, a strong indicator that I was very competitive. Conversely, had my personal circumstances been different in some other way, or had I not been getting any interviews, I might’ve given up a bit sooner.
If you no longer enjoy what you’re doing, then you should look for something else to do. Don’t worry about wasting your PhD (you’re not, not even if your new career doesn’t require a PhD), don’t worry about letting anyone else down (it’s your life, not theirs), don’t feel like you’ve failed (you haven’t), and don’t feel that you’re settling for second best (you’re not).
Try to be clear-eyed about what sort of TT job you really want. For instance, if I recall correctly, Terry McGlynn has an old post at Small Pond Science arguing that many people who only apply for (and fail to get) TT jobs at research universities would be just as happy (and more likely to get hired) if they applied for jobs at teaching universities. Giving up on a TT job at Princeton or Stanford doesn’t mean giving up on a TT job.
Think about what else you want out of life besides a TT job. For instance, do you want to live in a particular place or type of place? A big part of why I gave up was that I really liked life in the city where I was a postdoc, and so did my wife, and she had a good job there. So I decided that, rather than moving again to continue chasing a TT job, I’d rather do something else so as to be able to stay in the same place (then Calgary called, changing the calculation). And of course, if you’re determined to live in a specific city or state, that’s going to make it difficult-to-impossible to get a TT job.
Learn about other options. You don’t want to keep chasing a TT job just because you have no idea what else to do, or because doing something else would seem like a scary leap into the unknown. We have a series of guest posts on non-academic careers for ecologists that might help. Starts here. But you don’t necessarily have to limit yourself to non-academic careers that will make use of your degree and skills in some obvious way. I know of a guy who left academic ecology to open a brewpub, and a commenter on an old post said that her backup plan was farming llamas. I suggest doing what I did: think about what you like about academia, and try to identify other careers that have those attributes.
Finally, regarding your odds of getting a TT job: ideally you want to estimate your odds. Not the odds of the average person. Different individuals can have very different odds, for all sorts of reasons. If you’re getting interviews, you’re competitive and your odds are reasonable. If you’re not getting interviews, ideally you want some information as to why not, so that you know how to improve your odds. Informal feedback from someone on the search committee is helpful (your supervisor may be able to get this for you, if he or she knows someone on the search committee). Comparing your cv to those of people who’ve recently been hired at the sort of place you would like to work can give you a rough sense of how you stack up, as long as you aren’t naive about it. (Thinking “Hey, I have X papers and didn’t even get interviewed for the job that John/Jane Doe got even though he/she only has X-3 papers! The search committee must’ve been full of biased morons!” is naive. See here and here if you want to know how faculty search committees actually work.) Asking your supervisor or some other experienced close colleague who knows you well and is familiar with the current job market to give you honest feedback is useful. But yes, if you’re an ecologist who is 5-6 years or more post-PhD, and you’re not getting interviews (phone interviews and/or on campus), your odds are probably pretty low and there’s a good chance they’re going to keep dropping.
Brian: The first two questions are rather separate from the 3rd. When to give up on a project? It’s context dependent. If you’re early career and its not panning out, you may need to just optimal forage and move on to something you’re more certain will lead quickly to a paper. If its mid-late career and you’re convinced that you’re onto something even when its hard slogging and other’s don’t agree, well stick with it. That’s how a lot of Nobel prizes have been won. In short, if you can afford it, go with your scientific intuition about whether it is good/important work or not. If you’re early career you may need to be more pragmatic. But regardless of career stage, if you’re scientific intuition tells you it’s a loser, listen to that. Pursuing something further just because you already spent a lot of time on it is never a good idea – time is the main limiting resource for most scientists (of course that doesn’t mean you can’t ask yourself if you can’t get a quick paper but not killer paper out of what you’ve already done).
As for abandoning the pursuit of a tenure track job, that’s a tough one. Of course the ideal is you get good mentorship and guidance so that you don’t make this decision far down the road but are steered in alternative directions earlier. When that doesn’t happen, I think its a very tough decision. Jeremy is right that somewhere around the end of your 3rd postdoc, there starts being a stigma that will only compound the troubles. That said, I think being realistic about how far you’ve been making it into search processes is important. Actually being the one person to get a signed contract in a specific job on a specific campus has a lot of stochasticity. But making short lists, getting phone interviews, getting on-campus interviews are good signs. If those are happening with some regularity, then being persistent waiting for the right fit/stars aligning is rational (it becomes a bit of a lottery where you just have to play enough times). But if those things are not happening by your second postdoc (plus or minus one postdoc – i.e. that’s very approximate), then that is probably a strong signal. I think Jeremy’s reference to Terry McGlynn’s post is very relevant. And more generally, I think it is a question of how open you are. I hear people say they really want a tenure track job but then say they’ll only take a job in state X and at a research intensive university (or never at a research intensive university). That’s just not realistic in academia (unless you’re a superstar, and even then I don’t think its realistic, but might have a non-zero chance of happening). There are a lot of scoping questions to ask. Will you take a job anywhere in the US? Anywhere in the world? At any type of institution? or if not all types of institutions, then what types? This obviously has a big impact on how long you will have to wait/likelihood of getting a job. (Of course preferring a non-academic job if you can’t get an academic job in state X is a perfectly reasonable life choice – its just important to be realistic about how much you’ve upped the odds of “non-academic”).
So in summary, I think realistic assessments of whether you’re coming close or not (short lists, phone interviews, on campus interviews) and whether you’ve scoped yourself out of the job by where you don’t apply are two important questions to ask before deciding whether to look elsewhere.