After a frustrating year on the tenure-track job hunt, my eyes are still on the prize, and I've learned that sheer will might be the most important quality required for this career track.
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A new post by Ambivalent Academic caught my eye this morning, posing many of the familiar questions that I and other postdocs in the blogosphere often ask ourselves:
However, I am thinking about the what ifs…What if I don’t get this NRSA, and what if PI still doesn’t have an R01? Can he still support me? Will he still support me? What if he can’t/won’t? What if I end up unemployed? How long will it take me to find another position? Should I start looking now, just in case? Would that be a faux pas? Should I look outside of academia? What if I do and I get offered a position? Do I want to leave academia? Do I really want to stay? What if this is the only job I could ever be happy at? What if I choose to do something else for a while and find that I hate it and can’t break back into academic research? What if I don’t take that risk, and stay in academia, and end up living hand-to-mouth for the rest of my life? What if my life/job/whatever is meaningless?
As I near the end of my postdoc (and plan to head off to only God knows where - hopefully a TT position), I realize that a postdoc is, more than anything, a time and place for young scientists to come of age - kind of like a teenager heading off to college. Some postdocs have a smooth experience, impressing their mentor, and finding their scientific independence without falling flat on their face. Sometimes two or more attempts are necessary to find the right "fit" and postdoctoral success. Quite often, young postdocs leave academia altogether, finding happiness outside the academic world. The postdoc is a time to find out who you are as a scientist. There's no one right or wrong "postdoc experience", as every person/scientist possesses their own personality, abilities, and career preferences. Naturally, this time of growth is filled with quite a bit of uncertainty, questions, even a bit (or more) of misery. It's normal and, even for the most successful of postdocs, expected.
These days, I'm spending much of my time thinking about what I want my [hypothetical] future lab and research program to look like. My planning has involved plenty of conversations with PIs in my department, collaborators at other universities, and tenured/TT faculty right here in the blogosphere. Through these interactions, something has occurred to me - these questions will never go away. I may get better at handling them, as an adult learns how to deal with any kind of uncertainty in life, or a parent learns that there's only so much they can control about their child's upbringing. But I'll always be left wondering - why am I doing this? I wrote a while back that science has taught me to embrace uncertainty - in my career, my life, even my faith - and I think I'm a better person and scientist because of it. For now, that's going to have to be my answer.
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I think "what if" questions can be fun, but if they stop being fun then it is time to stop asking and start answering. Having a backup or alternative plan is always good too.
For me it started with "what if I am in the wrong field" or "what if I never find a question that I find profoundly interesting or of real worth to humanity". In trying to answer these questions I considered retraining in different fields. I finally realized that other peoples’ science will always be more interesting than my own because I really do not have the patience for relentless details and troubleshooting and boring benchwork!
I think people get too caught up in what they think they should be doing or that there is "no going back". You do not have to be young to be student or an early career scientist and you are never too old to take a few years out to try something new.
I once believed professorship would be an escape from benchwork, and that I could finally spend most of my time doing what enjoy - thinking, learning, talking, and writing about science! Then started asking "what if being a professor is not how I imagine it". I found some cool science (and plenty of uninspiring science) but not one professor or project leader that I wanted to be!
I don’t think that “what if” will ever go away. However, if they get too noisy or bothersome they should not be ignored.
Great post, Dr. O. I think that it is completely normal to feel a little uncomfortable when transitions are looming. Change is often hard and a little messy. I like to think that if you are never uncomfortable then you are probably not growing. But who knows, that is just the way I choose to muddle through.
I have been looking many post docs around me. To answer those "what if" questions is difficult. I will be in those shoes in an year.
It rarely happens that life goes as expected. Especially for scientists. Well, after all we deal with day to day uncertainty.
If your heart wishes Academia, go for it. You might take time to settle, but you just mentioned that you are mature enough in science world to deal the things.
Uncertainty - yes.
In my first couple of years at grad school, I was fascinated by the students who were hell-bent on "becoming a professors", as their main goal post-PhD. I had never thought that way about it, although staying in academia was always a possibility. For me, a PhD was an opportunity to do what I loved, while living overseas, and giving me time to think about what I wanted to do next. I had grown up with the notion that a PhD gives you opportunities everywhere - it's not just a research degree, it's training in how to solve problems. So I kept my options open, but my decision ended up easy - post-doc with view to TT.
As I've progressed, my field of view of my options has narrowed - not because I've forgotten that there are options, but because I still love the research and academia. Now my uncertainty is mostly about "where next" - my adopted home, or my birth home (or option 3?). And for that, all I can say is this: everytime I change jobs, I get to make that decision again.