The sunk cost fallacy is a cognitive bias that rears its irrational head across nearly every sphere of human behaviour and decision-making.  

It refers to the tendency to prioritise past investment (whether of time, money or effort) over future opportunities when making decisions. 

It often manifests as doubling down on a prior course of action/investment simply because you’ve come so far and invested so much. 

What’s that got to do with my career as a postdoc? 

'Don’t we owe it to ourselves to keep fighting to stay on the set path after we invested all that time, money, and energy? After others invested in us? If we don’t stay, will all those years be wasted?'

Changing direction can be the rational choice-how to base career decisions on your present, not your past – Karolinska Institute Career Blog

Have you ever found yourself thinking: 

  • "I can't afford to take a step backwards"
  • “I’m too far along my career path/too old to change course now” 
  • “If I don’t get a permanent academic position, all those years as a PhD student/postdoc will have been for nothing” 
  • “If I leave academia I will have failed” 
  • “I’ve spent my career specialising in a niche field, where else could I work now?” 

They are all, one way or another, manifestations of the sunk cost fallacy in the context of career decision making. 

The danger of the sunk cost fallacy is that getting hung up on the past can pointlessly incur new, future costs. It can lead to making irrational career decisions (or, often, avoiding decisions), and can end up meaning letting your future self suffer to please your past self. 

Here are some signs you might be stuck in the sunk cost fallacy rut: 

  • “Should” Statements: You find yourself saying things like, "I've already invested X years in this academic field, so I should stick with it and try to get a permanent academic position.” 
  • Fear of Failure: The thought of leaving academia feels like admitting defeat, a waste of all that effort in graduate school and postdoctoral work. 
  • Neglecting Opportunities: You dismiss exploring alternative career paths outside academia because of the time already invested in your current research focus. 

Strategies for avoiding the fallacy and making empowered career choices 

1. Reframe your thinking:  

While the time, money and effort you’ve invested in your career-to-date are sunk costs, that’s not all they are. The experience and skills you acquired are valuable assets in the present, and for your future too. 

'There is no such thing as a career path. It's crazy paving and you have to lay it yourself.'

Sir Dominic Cadbury

2. Focus on the future:  

The skills and knowledge you've gained can be applied in unexpected ways, both within and beyond academia. The skills you've developed as a postdoc –  for example data analysis, communication, or project management – are valuable in a variety of roles, settings and sectors. 

This about where you – present day you, not past you – wants to be a few years down the line. What kind of role you might enjoy, what sort of work environment would be most fulfilling. Disregard what past you thought about these questions, or what someone in your position “should” be thinking and feeling. 

'It is rarely a waste of time to pursue something you're drawn to, even if you end up changing direction.'

Emilie Wapnick

3. Identify your personal threshold:  

Set a clear "trigger point" to guide your career decisions. This could be a specific number of unsuccessful grant applications, a timeframe for obtaining a desired academic position, or a personal deadline for exploring non-academic options. For example, you might say: 

  • ‘I’ll submit [number] of fellowship applications and if I’m not successful I’ll start to look for career opportunities beyond academia’ 
  • ‘I’ll try to get a tenure-tracked role for [number] of years, if I’ve not achieved this by [year] I’ll do something else’ 
  • ‘If X number of grant applications fail, I’ll consider re-orienting my research focus’ 

4. Evaluate your options rationally: 

Perform future-looking cost-benefit analyses: when faced with a career decision, weigh the potential gains and losses of both continuing your current academic path and exploring alternatives. Ask yourself: "What would I gain if I stayed in academia?  What would I lose if I pursued a non-academic career?" and "What would I lose by staying?  What would I gain by exploring new opportunities?" 

Evaluate your skills and knowledge base from the perspective of future career paths.  Imagine waking up with these skills, as if it were your first day on Earth – what career options become possible, both within and beyond academia? 

5. Talk it out:  

Discuss your thought process and career aspirations with a trusted mentor, career coach, PI or another postdoc. It can be a lot harder to articulate and justify a line of reasoning based on the sunk cost fallacy when you’re talking aloud – getting your thinking out into the open can help you reflect and spot the fallacy at play. 

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