When your job makes you unhappy

Being in a city full of highly ambitious scientists, I’ve walked into a (maybe even not) surprisingly large number of people who are quite unhappy in their jobs. Like I realised earlier, people come to Oxford feeling they’re the next big thing, only to figure out they are one of many a few months in.

So, what do you do when your job makes you unhappy? If you’d asked me half a year ago, I’d have said easy, find another job!

Some of the people I’ve met, made me see it’s not always that easy. Say, for example, you’ve gotten your postdoc position through a friend of a friend and your CV isn’t that great. Maybe you did your PhD in a country where it’s normal to wait 3 months for the delivery of a chemical and any kind of publication is great. Maybe it isn’t so easy to leave that precious postdoc position in a well-known lab in Oxford. Or maybe you’re on a fellowship, which has the rule that you’ll have to pay back money you received if you quit earlier. Your girlfriend has a job she can’t leave so you don’t want to leave either.

Some of those people are really in a bad shape. Coming to work every day, doing virtually nothing, going home. Waiting for their contract to end. Or being used by bosses who don’t give due credit. It isn’t always pretty. What I can’t understand though, is that people allow themselves to be swallowed by this kind of lethargy.

There are some things they can do in my opinion:
1) Try to make change happen. What exactly is making you unhappy? What can you do to change it? Are there any bosses of your boss that you can talk to, if talking with your boss doesn’t help? Usually there are places you can go to, people who might have good advice for you. Rather often, people are unhappy because they aren’t speaking up about the things that make them unhappy. Sometimes, a simple conversation is all it takes.
2) If you’ve reached the conclusion you really can’t change anything, look for alternatives. What does your dream job look like? Go through job adverts, even though you feel like you can’t change positions yet. See what the requirements are, and use the time left in your current job to prepare you for exactly that. Many Universities have excellent skills trainings, make use of those!!
3) Network! Go to seminars. Go to social events. Go to conferences if you can. Join the PhD or postdoc association and if there isn’t one, create one! Or start a journal club. Meet people. Make sure they remember you. You never know who you’ll walk into a new boss, a new collaborator, a new letter-of-recommendation writer, a friend. If you are so unhappy with your job you’re not being productive anyway, this might be a good way to make more of it.

The side-effect of broadening your skill set, is that they can be very uplifting. I’ve been volunteering at a Museum and after the first (very scary!!) session I’ve spent with 6-12 year old kids, multiple moms and dads told me their kids really enjoyed it and wanted to come back for more. This nicely balanced out a less successful week at work! It’s nice to have some things to fall back on when work isn’t great.

And finally: realise that work isn’t everything. You work to make a living, not the other way round. I’m in a way quite happy with my upbringing, because my mum works at the till in a supermarket. And she’s happy. Which taught me early on that there’s more in life than work… If anything, even if life in academia gets frustrating every now and then, it still is very rewarding. When I’m not happy with how things are going, I’m off to read some totally unrelated articles, or teach a bit, Skype with my old boss, pick up some random experiment that I’ve been planning on doing ages ago. In what other job do get so much freedom really?!

What you should do though, is stop moaning about the things that make you unhappy. Constructive conversations, fine. But many people are happy to moan a LOT, without aiming to get feedback or anything. Which isn’t getting anyone anywhere really…


One comment

  1. Sometimes, some people lose their ambitions because of an event, a comment, a person, a personal reason or maybe because of a mental issue. I’ve met several people who just let everything go and do a dull task and wait for the paycheck. I have to confess, I even admired them at some point in my life. Think about this, you can just read all the books/articles you want, watch movies, have fun but do just the basic requirements of a job-nothing more.

    Personally, I feel terrible when I am not active. I HAVE TO work, do experiments, read etc. I wish I could only sleep 1-2 hours a day and that was enough so I could spend the rest doing something useful.

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