Monday, April 20, 2015

The wonder(ful) years? Being a postdoc.

A surprising number of academics talk about their postdocs the same way some people talk about high school – as the best time of their life. It’s enough to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong if you don’t feel the same way :). In fact, postdoc jobs vary greatly and are usually a bit more complex than the “wonderful time to do the research you love and have few responsibilities” memories.

The truth is, every postdoc position and postdoctoral fellow is different, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Not every postdoc will be a glorious NCEAS position--self-directed, collaborative, community-oriented (and in Santa Barbara). And not every postdoc will be part of a funded, predetermined research project where you are just a cog in the lab-machine. (Though some people would legitimately prefer the latter to the former).

There are many great aspects to being a postdoc. After a PhD, you no longer need to take classes, you may not need to teach, and research is finally your primary focus. Even better, ‘the thesis’ isn’t looming over your head. And usually you make actual money, rather than poverty-level grad student wages, even if the actual amount is modest. Finally, you probably don’t have nearly as many responsibilities as the average tenured or tenure-track academic (and so, the assumption is, your stress levels are better). (And for those who need a little ego boost, you occupy a slightly better position in the lab hierarchy, maybe you get a better office and get a little more respect.) Best of all, you can finally stop saying you’re a student.

These are all wonderful in theory, but sometimes the reality is more complex. Because academic positions, including postdocs, are hard to find, not everyone will be able to land a position that is well-matched to their skills and research interests. This can feel frustrating, since academics in general want intellectual stimulation and skill development. Finding the perfect lab is difficult, and finding the perfect lab with money to pay you is even harder. As a result, that perfect path on the CV from PhD to postdoc lab where you expand your skills or fine-tune your interests is exceptional.

For many people, the postdoc is a time with a large set of associated stresses; first and foremost, “what’s next?” (for you, your family, your career, your geographic position on the earth...). This is the period when the next position and, more generally, your career, is at the forefront. And the timeframe in which you must sort everything out is short, since most postdoc positions last only 1-3 years. It is not uncommon to run out of funding before the next position has been acquired. Get a group of postdocs together in a room, and the undercurrent of worry will be palpable.

And of course, the short length of most postdoc jobs means that you will probably have to move more frequently than ever. Combined with the unorganized nature of postdoc labour, this can make for a lonely time. In smaller departments, postdocs are few and transient, making it difficult to feel part of a community. No longer a student, not quite a faculty, only temporarily in a place, it can be hard to find a sense of belonging.

None of this is to bemoan the postdoc life, just to note that as with all things, it has pros and cons. I like being a postdoc. I’ve also been lucky to have independent funding though, which no doubt has made things easier. Still, the upsides have included the ability to developing a research plan for the long term (and to make mistakes and fail while the stakes are still low), to supervise undergraduates, to develop a new skills or viewpoints, and definitely to have time for manuscript writing. But I do hope that these aren’t the *best* research years of my life, because—like high school—things can always improve. 

(or any job, really)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is a great post! I had continuously heard from junior professors about how the post-doc years were their best. Although I had a sweet post-doc gig (funded on fellowship, in a fantastic lab, lots of academic freedom and intellectual exchange), I found my post-doc years incredibly stressful. The crappy job-market and what's next loomed large, in addition my non-academic husband was caught in a temporary holding pattern unable to do long-term meaningful work. I think those who glorify the post-doc years probably do not have families to support and spouses and children to factor in decisions.