Sunday, February 28, 2010

File with leprechauns, elves, and the Easter bunny

There's been a lot of discussion, questioning, and 'splaining about the postdoc position: its purpose, why it's awesome, why it suckswhat it's really selecting for, how to change the experience... Personally, I have mixed feelings about the position, in general, and mine, in particular; I suspect this dichotomy comes across in my comments on other blogs. It's not something I have really discussed here, but since at least a few folks come around to learn something about this postdoc thing (not surprising, given I have subtitled this blog "A postdoc's tale"), perhaps it's time I did. Before I go into what the postdoc is about, though, let's talk about some of the big myths surrounding the postdoc.

Myth #1: You have to do a postdoc.
Negative, ghost rider. As a grad student nearing the end of your PhD work, you adviser will almost invariably talk to you about looking for a postdoc position--and from my colleagues' and my own experience, s/he will rarely mention other options. I suspect the reason behind this is that (a) it's what they know because it's what they did and/or (b) they assume all grad students are planning to head down the research track, if not the tenure track. If you have a pretty good idea of the path you want to forge, and you know it isn't the tenure track, then it's worth questioning this dogma. Talk to people in the positions you want to pursue; find out how important doing a postdoc is-or isn't.

Myth #2: There is only one type of postdoc-the academic research postdoc.
Most likely, when you hear the word "postdoc", you think of a PhD working at the bench in a lab with other postdocs and grad students at a research university. However, there are several different flavors of postdoc. You can do a research postdoc in a government lab or with a biotech or pharma company. If you're interested in teaching, there are postdoc fellowships and programs that mix teaching and research or focus on science education instead of research. You can even do a research postdoc at a predominantly undergrad institute; this grants the advantage of working with undergrads on a day-to-day basis. Plus some PUI departments, instead of hiring an adjunct for a semester, first offer postdocs the opportunity to fill open courses. I will confess that I know little about these other types of postdoc positions, as I am the typical research postdoc, but they do exist.

Myth #3: The only reason to do a research postdoc is to take a crack at the tenure track.
Another confession: I once thought that the only sensible reason for doing a postdoc was if you wanted to stay in academia and start your own lab. Sure, some people changed their mind along the way, but what was the point of doing a postdoc if you knew, upfront, that you didn't want your own lab? Turns out this is an absolutely ridiculous view. There are actually several career paths for which a research postdoc is preferred, if not required. Over lunch with trainees, the executive editor of a glamor mag (the science type, not the fashion type) commented that when hiring new editors, they liked seeing postdoc experience, especially in a field different from the applicant's PhD work. The reasoning, I gather, is that an editor should have some idea of how science is done and should be broadly trained, as a vast array of topics will be crossing his/her desk. So you go do a research postdoc, and after a year or two, you decide you're done with bench work; there are many places, both in and outside of academia, where that postdoc might help you get the job you really want.

These are major preconceptions that affect how grad students, postdocs, and advisers view and approach the postdoc. If they continue to be perpetuated, then it is going to be tough to have a productive conversation on the subject. What other urban legends about the postdoc need to be put to rest?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Consistency along an unpredictable path

Continuity. As scientists, it's something most of us seek each day with every experiment. We look for consistency in our results, and when it is missing, we go back to see what went wrong. We search for those self-consistent details in our system, and if something does not meet expectations, we begin thinking of possible explanations, alternative interpretations, missing pieces of the puzzle.

Yet I sometimes have trouble identifying continuity in my life. My early career has sometimes felt like a random walk, bouncing between cities, adding and merging disciplines and skills, tweaking the path of my research and my career, sometimes making big decisions largely on the basis of a gut feeling. The last two or more years have been especially difficult, bringing doubt and guilt about choices I made regarding my career and my family. What seemed at times to be constant change and continual doubt was absolutely disorienting.

There has been one constant through this insanity: my husband, Paramed. Many people talk about the two-body problem--the challenge of organizing and executing two independent career paths, preferably in the same or nearby cities. It's stressful, frustrating, exhausting but can also be exciting and satisfying when things come together; sometimes it's a mix of all these thing. But there can be advantages to this "problem". I haven't had to worry about finding a roommate. There's someone around to help out with the laundry and cooking when I'm swamped...

Most importantly, I get to come home and talk to my best friend nearly every day. And that has been integral to maintaining another essential aspect of continuity in my life: staying true to myself. Training and work--from elementary school to EMS work to research--bring out the type A personality in me. I put a lot of myself into my work--some might say too much. I expect as much, if not more, of myself as my advisers have and do. From my viewpoint, this, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But some institutions (like the one I'm in now) have a reputation for changing people--and not in a good way. Or maybe it's just the training process in general that changes people. I don't know. It's easy to become mired in politics, to let the stress get to you, to lash out because of your own insecurities. These things have happened to me and sometimes still do. Paramed knows me well enough to see when this is happening. He has listened to me rant and vent and cry. He has provided encouragement. He has told me when I'm being ridiculous or out of line or wrong (trust me not easy--I was born a red-head, and a stubborn one at that). He has asked me the questions I refused to ask myself. In short, he has been my minder, my Sam, the one who reminds me who I really am. Who I am is just as important as what I do. With help from my friend, I hope that is something that will remain consistent through out my life.


This is my contribution for the Scientiae Carnival
. There are still a few days to submit, so go forth and blog! :)

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Relationship questions

For those on RSS feed, sorry for the re-publish. I seemed to have mistakenly deleted this post :\

Whilst I am furiously seeing how hard I can push my computer before crashing it (aka processing and analyzing a few GB of data in multiple programs), I thought I'd leave my readers with a few questions. Feel free to elaborate in the comments section.

Top posts

S&E blog roll

Where in the world are you?