Monday, November 26, 2007

Qualitative thoughts about the potential postdoc abroad

In previous posts, I've tried to stick to general issues about the postdoc, common to many postdoc positions. This post is entirely my attempt to formulate my personal confusion.

The year before I started grad school, I lived in the country where the potential postdoc is. Just now, while visiting for just the few days that I was there, I felt like I still lived there. I was in grad school for many years, so it's surprising that after such a long gap, I would feel like a resident, but I did. Within hours of arriving, I ran into half a dozen people that I knew, and throughout my time there, I ran into others who I knew, or people that I should know. E.g., the woman who found me the postdoc advisors, who I'd never met, turns out to be the country's major expert in the area of my current postdoc. I'm not sure why I didn't notice that before; maybe because it wasn't my area of focus at the time we first emailed. She was really excited to find out the subject of my current postdoc, and said that the field is still wide open in the country, and that I should consider applying for a faculty position at her university.

(A side note: at a conference, I met a woman because I noticed she was one of few people speaking the language of this country, so I introduced myself. She got her PhD in the department where my postdoc is, and told me all about how great the department is, and how she misses it now that she's working in the US. Say her name was Wanda Armadillo-Anteater. While visiting the department, I met Bill Armadillo, who was about her age, and within 10 seconds, I realized why Wanda might have moved to the US. How sad.)

I have a strong emotional attachment to the potential postdoc. I haven't lived abroad since I started grad school, and I really miss that, and want the chance to live abroad once more before my life settles down to be permanent. It's difficult to be in a temporary job before finding a permanent one, but I may as well take advantage of that while I can. The postdoc is located on a remote branch of the campus, making the commute a big pain, but unspeakably beautiful in places. On my way back after my meetings, I looked out on the surroundings and, feeling like there was no way that I could take the postdoc, started crying that this would not be part of my daily life. I was actually crying that I would not have what is undoubtably an annoying commute. Definitely a beautiful annoying commute, but still annoyingly long. A male friend said that I was emotional that day. Perhaps. Still.

One of my worries on going to the country temporarily was that most people there, even (especially?) expats, want to stay; even if they were willing to move, the two-body problem gets more difficult when crossing oceans. While visiting, I stayed with a guy who I met during my year before grad school living there, who I'd always liked as a friend, but not more. I liked him so much as a friend, in fact, that I wanted to set him up with my best friend; she never met him, but didn't like the idea. He and I were never so close, but we saw each other occasionally on vacations because he grew up in the city where I have some relatives.

Oddly, this time when I was staying with him, I felt like we were together. He was having a dinner and I helped him out a bit while preparing for it, and it eerily felt like we were a couple. He was more confident than before, and he looked oddly cute. He emphasized that he didn't want to stay in the country, and was relatively flexible about moving, and while he was very pointed about it, it didn't seem to be anything more than a statement. We went out together a fair amount while I was there, and it felt like dates, sharing some street food, playing pool. Actually, I want to correct that. It didn't feel like dates at all; I was not uncertain and I don't think he was either; it felt like we were already a couple even though we've never been on a date before. While we were waiting for my taxi, he crept his arm up the bench we were sitting so that it was eventually around me: extremely silly, but cute.

On the other hand: half of the postdoc is with someone who will be difficult and frustrating to work with; the resources and office space leave a great deal to be desired. At the foreign postdoc, I was promised a desk, but my current office is far larger and nicer than even the professors' offices. The grinch advisor was sharing a tiny office with 1-2 other people; he said it was a temporary situation while their building is being remodeled. The nice advisor mentioned how important it was to have good funding sources, and that the prestige, and not just the quantity, of funding matters a great deal. Being a foreign institution, getting funding from the US is prestigious and difficult to do. My current postdoc is a great opportunity, well-funded by prestigious sources, and I'm much happier in it than before. I'd been miserable in my current postdoc until we had a conference connected to the project and I started dating someone in the city. Now I'm pretty excited about the project we're working on, and I'm starting to realize that the major reason that I never get to see the person I'm working for is because he's always out speaking and raising money, which is what makes everything possible. I need to learn how to do this, and can probably learn a lot from him, and can also start working on some new projects once the current short-term project ends.

It's not possible to optimize everything. If I decide that for personal reasons, I want to be abroad, the fact that the US has better resources and opportunities should not matter as much because I've chosen to prioritize my personal interests.

The reasons that I've enumerated so far are all very personal and specific to me, but I think the basis of my ambivalence is relatively universal. One side of my mind says that since success in an academic career is not assured even in the best of circumstances, I may as well have fun along the way. Another side of my mind says that if academics work hard, they can end up with freedom and flexibility, and otherwise they have more constraints and more difficult choices. Especially since I slacked off during grad school, the efforts that I put in now may make a huge difference for my future, so it matters a great deal to have good resources.

The mentorship at the postdoc abroad may be somewhat better than here, but if I tried harder here I could probably find a mentor since it's a huge place.

The main issue is whether I want to be responsible and hope that it pays off in future dividends, which is actually something I haven't done a great deal of during my life, or go for personal gratification and hope that the future works out.

If I were the type of person who believed in fate, I would say that I felt like circumstances were pulling me very strongly towards the postdoc abroad: we could have had my current postdoc's conference in literally almost any part of the world and we had it close enough to the potential postdoc that it would be feasible for me to stop in; this guy who I've never been interested in, never looked at romantically, and haven't seen for at least 2 years happened to have a roommate who was traveling whose room I could stay in, and gradually I feel like we have a really compelling connection; in the few days I'm visiting the area, I run into way more people than I'd arranged to see. On the other hand, the situation here is compelling too, not as strongly, but definitely solid.

To be perfectly honest, moving abroad midyear scares the pants off of me. Definitely, moving at mid-year is more difficult: finding subletters, finding a sublet, packing and storing (plus I left a few awkward things back in my old city out of possibly misguided optimism). There's nothing scary in that difficulty, though. It is scary to walk away from the promising beginnings of a research project and the promising beginnings of a romantic relationship, towards a wonderful place with a lot of uncertainty. Leaving (reasonably) certain good for uncertain potentially better is scary.

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