Woulda, coulda, shoulda. But that was then and this, I'm afraid, is now: Someone you know (we'll call him/her Sam) received an advanced degree, such as a PhD, about eight or nine years ago and has been working in labs as a post-doctoral fellow ever since. Sam published a few observations in `specialized' journals that most folks don't actually read, and has helped out on a few more, earning middle-authorships. But Sam knows that Sam isn't competitive for the job Sam really wants, and Sam needs more time to make that happen. Here's the question: is Sam `post-stuck'? And if so, what should Sam do about it?

There are a lot of reasons this can happen. One fairly common reason is that a rather exciting, difficult and important project, which took years to complete, was based on an idea that is just wrong. Or it was right, but several other labs published it first. Or an overwhelming technical problem arose that just stalled things. Or (and I hate that this is happening) the money ran out and the new funding didn't materialize. It's not Sam's fault, right?

Of course not. But let's face some hard realities. Nobody cares. Oh, I mean that as a fellow mammal, I care, but as an entity recruiting to fill a really attractive position I have to go with the applicants who have a history of success. We even have a name for it – a track record. At one level I know that things can go wrong for even the most talented scientists, and even those with terrific track records can go through bad spells. But what else do I have to go on? Anyone can fail, at any time, but we want to help those who are most successful join our departments, companies and institutes, and see if they can keep it up. So Sam, I'm afraid, is trapped.

So here's what Sam needs to do. Sam has to ask, right now, if another year or two will make any real difference. Has a truly important discovery been submitted for publication (bearing in mind that it might take up to a year to address issues and concerns that arise in the review process)? Has such a discovery even been made? How many manuscripts are being written?

Usually, when I'm talking to Sam (and yes, I know a few Sams), the answers to the above are “no, no, and, um, none”. But Sam says that Sam just needs more time to work on this interesting area and something cool will happen, because it just has to. And next year Sam and I will have the same conversation.

Sam has to make a hard decision soon, because it is only going to keep getting harder. Because Sam is going to have to get a job in the next year or so. The decision Sam has to make is `which job?', and Sam has a limited number of options.

The first is to become an independent scientist. Maybe the track record is actually good enough to do this, but Sam didn't want to take the leap? Sam will have to get funding, and recruit eager young researchers, and might be wonderfully successful. I've seen this happen. Once upon a time, Professor Meerkat was recruited to a position despite my strong objections (he had a terrible track record), and has emerged as a leader in his highly competitive field. We're great friends, and I'm hugely proud of him, and he showed me I was wrong (and I told him so). So maybe Sam has the right stuff after all.

But there are other alternatives, and Sam must explore these, because another year or two could fly by in the job search. Lecturer, Project Leader, Core Director, Lab Manager, Editor, Sales Representative – the list goes on.

In some cases, Sam has gone for other training: MBA, patent law, teaching. And this has opened doors as well. But in every case, Sam has had to dig deep to decide that a new course of action is a new commitment to succeed – a new, and hopefully much better, track record.

What can I say? That's life. Everyone has to go through this, the transition from `Tell me what to do to be counted as successful' to `I can do this'. And guess what? The rules keep changing.

You might think that I've been talking to only a few `Sams' out there, but the truth is, we're all Sam. If we're successful, independent scientists we write proposals (whether to funding agencies or corporate directors) and these compete for limited resources. If we ask our reviewers “what do I need to do to be successful?” then we're channeling our inner Sams. We publish papers, and track our `impact factors', and crave recognition, often asking our peers the same question. Some reach for prizes or honors, and again, it's Sam who's reaching. Any time we ask others what we need to do to be successful in our own eyes, we're Sam.

Nice to meet you. Me? I'm Mole. I'm just trying to do the best I can.