Professional identity crisis 

“Looking back I think I was depressed for the first year or more after leaving academia. I felt lost, directionless and shut out, just deeply unhappy that I’d worked so hard for and given up so much for a career that I couldn’t have. I viewed myself as having completely failed. I frequently found myself questioning who I was now that I wasn’t a researcher, that sense of identity as a researcher, something I’d never considered before, was suddenly so important, as if I was grieving for my lost self and a lost future.

Andrew, former postdoc, Zoology

What is professional identity crisis?

A professional identity crisis is when you feel a loss in your sense of self and in your professional identity. You may feel confusion and grief: concepts of self can operate outside of conscious awareness, so it can be painful, and unanticipated. 

If any of these are feelings that you have experienced there is a good chance you might feel in crisis. We rarely talk about this with our peers, or friends or advisors, so we don’t often have a chance to evaluate these feelings.  

You are not alone in feeling this. We all have emotional issues that build up over time. Humans are messy and this is our nature.  

Why does professional identity crisis happen to postdocs? 

Fantasy and emotional suffering

Falling in love with the work of researching often happens during the PhD period, before the long hours, lack of job security and/or poor relationships with senior colleagues and start to grind. 

Research in 2018, by Burford, sought to understand why so many PhD candidates hoped for an academic career, despite the economic realities:  

Three conventional fantasies that students appeared to project onto doctoral education are identified: social mobility, job security and a place of ‘retreat’ away from more stressful forms of work.’

Burford, 2018


Fantasy is not just wishful thinking, it is a defense mechanism that affects decision- making. It involves both the future and the past.  

Here is how fantasy can look in an academic context; a postdoc approaching the end of their contract may choose not to think about alternative careers because when they do they feel panic or fear. They end up applying for another postdoc role because of these feelings. 

The feeling of ‘leaving’ academia subconsciously sets off associations that tap into core beliefs, formed sometime in the past – such as ‘I’m useless’ - and the fantasy that this belief is coming true when really it isn’t.  

Emotionally strong feelings of fear and sadness take hold. You will do anything you can to quench those feelings.  

Fantasy is future-orientated also. The PhD students in the survey based their academic aspirations on projected fantasies, gambling on a future that is not likely to happen.  

A postdoc may fantasise that the next research role, grant, fellowship or collaboration will bring more of the benefits of academia and less of the bad.  

Loving research is not the same as wanting to continue working in an academic job. 

What are the signs of professional identity crisis? 

An overwhelming sense of duty, attachment and or guilt to current role or PI

“I also left a lot of people behind who I had built close relationships with. I did have a sense that I was no longer part of the ‘research family’.

Connor, former postdoc, Biology


The feeling of ‘ending’ relationships with our ‘research family’ can trigger childhood feelings of fear of abandonment. For example, unconscious parent-child dynamics between you and your PI means that leaving or disappointing them, feels emotionally perilous. It may also involve projection on your part, and not be to do with the other person’s behaviour. 

‘Don’t be trapped by fear. I fretted that if I didn’t publish anything from my postdoc, no one would hire me. That’s one reason I stuck with my ill-fated lab. But the concern turned out to be unfounded.

Wong, 2019

The fear of disappointing others can explain an overwhelming sense of responsibility. Perhaps we equate our self-worth with measures of external success, such as published papers. If we boost our self-esteem with metrics or the sense of validation and belonging that we gain from others, poor results, disappointing or leaving that community, threatens our self-esteem.  




Feelings of ethical obligation can influence your sense of duty. A postdoc working in Virology in 2019 describes his perception of duty during the coronavirus pandemic: 

“Because I had access to coronavirus-related tools that were broadly unavailable at the start of the pandemic, I considered it my ethical obligation to work more than 50 hours a week. Now that those tools are more widely distributed, and the extent of the threat facing us has been clarified, that urgent sense of duty has waned significantly, but not disappeared completely.

Postdoc in virology

FOMO and indecision 

Are you terrified of choosing a new career direction, because you might make a mistake and you might miss out on a career you would like better? You might sink time and energy into something that you regret and do not enjoy as much as being a researcher? 

This is a legitimate fear. But you have to ask yourself what is the cost of not allowing yourself to take any risks? 

You also need to examine what it is that you are afraid of – being unhappy in your job? Then dig deeper – what does ‘being unhappy in a job’ look like, feel like, mean?  

Keep asking yourself: ‘Why?’ and ‘What does that mean?’ Until you uncover the root of the fear. 

For example: 

‘I viewed myself as having completely failed’ 

Why? 

‘...because I have devoted my life, my hopes, my aspirations to this thing that I thought was really important and now my dreams have died.’ 

How common is professional identity crisis?

Vitae carried out a survey with 856 researchers who made the transition from European universities to employment beyond academia. They noted that ‘the loss of social identity comes through as a strong theme in the career stories and survey free text responses’ (2016, p. 46). 

It is worth emphasising that of those Vitae surveyed:  

‘The majority are positive about their move away from academic research. Three-quarters are satisfied with their current employment, while only 18% of respondents continue to have aspirations of an academic career.

Vitae

In their study of factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to scientific careers beyond academia, Hayter and Parker (2019, pp. 7-8) note “personal crisis” as one of the individual factors (PI and policy factors are the other two categories). About 20% of postdocs in their study reported undergoing some kind of personal crisis as they set about changing their career goals to beyond, rather than within, academia. 

The example blog posts listed in the resources demonstrate that feelings of confusion or loss, when considering career change are experienced by researchers from non-STEM disciplines also. 

How to handle identity crisis 

Being present in the here and now

List the five most real reasons why you want to change careers.

Get perspective. Look at the list you've made with objective eyes. Detach yourself from fantasies about the past or the present. These are holding you back, and making miss out on real life (Afonja et al., 2021) (Kahn and Ginther, 2017 p.93) (Woolston, 2020). 

Talk to others going through the same thing

One way to reduce emotional distress and the sense of isolation is to talk to other people who are going through similar situations. 

See if there is a postdoc buddy scheme at your institution. If one doesn't exist you could start your own.

You may also find it reassuring to read about other people’s experiences: 

Stack Exchange and Reddit can be a great source of support for postdoc career changers. 

Leaving Academia to join R & D department how to cope with not publishing  

Existential crisis on leaving academia 

What nobody tells you about leaving academia 

This is the hardest thing about leaving academia 

 

Explore your emotions

Writing about emotional experiences has been shown to lessen distress. 

The Atlas of Emotions is a useful interactive tool for building emotional awareness around difficult or uncomfortable emotions. 

Professional identity crisis prompts:  

  • What are you currently afraid of? 
  • Are you allowing yourself to explore, process and accept the emotions that are coming up? Why or Why not? 
  • What are your experiences of obligation, guilt and responsibility in your current working relationships, or working situation? 
  • What is the root of your sense of crisis, anxiety or overwhelm? 
    Does this identify any fantasies you need to let go of? 
  • What new truths do you need to believe about your identity in order to move forward? 
  • What personal strengths, experiences and support do you have that will help you through this? 

Suggested tasks

Login or register to add these tasks to your personal development plan.

Support and Resources 

Seek mental health support if you need it 

If you find yourself getting depressed or anxious, you need to seek help, as soon as you possibly can. If you feel hopeless or unhappy most of the time, or you find yourself worrying excessively about any of the issues raised in this article or anything else, you don’t need to suffer alone.  

See your GP, who will refer you to appropriate services and assess whether you need medication. There is usually a long waiting list for counseling on the NHS. You may be able to access counseling through your University's mental health and wellbeing services sooner. 

You can also call the Samaritans for free on 116 123 for a non-judgemental listening ear. 

Support Organisations

Samaritans
24 hour free phoneline: 116 123
email: jo@samaritans.org

Mind
phoneline: 0300 123 3393
Need urgent help

If your life is at risk right now; 

If you feel like you might attempt suicide, or may have seriously harmed yourself, you need urgent medical help.

Please: 

call 999 for an ambulance 

go straight to A&E, if you can or call your local crisis team, if you have their number. 

If you can't do this by yourself, ask someone to help you. 

Mental health emergencies are serious. You're not wasting anyone's time. 


References

Afonja, S., Sakmon, D. G., Quailey, S. I. and Lambert, W. M. (2021). ‘Postdocs’ advice on pursuing a research career in academia: A qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses’. PLOS ONE, 16, e0250662. 

Burford, J. (2018). ‘The trouble with doctoral aspiration now’. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 31(6): 487-503. 

Hayter, C.S and Parker, M.A. (2019). ‘Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study.’ Research Policy, 48, 556-570.

Kahn, S and Ginther, D.K. (2017). ‘The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine.’ Nature Biotechnology, 35, 90-94. 

Vitae (2016) What Do Research Staff Do Next? Cambridge: CRAC. Available at: https://www.vitae.ac.uk/vitae-publications/reports/vitae-what-do-research-staff-do-next-2016.pdf (Accessed: 22 November 2022). 

Wong, V.S.C. (2019). ‘Lessons from a postdoc gone wrong’. Science, 363, 314-314. 

Woolston, C. (2020). ‘Postdoc survey reveals disenchantment with working life’ https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03191-7  (Accessed: 19 November 2020). 

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