Monday, December 14, 2009

The myth of the postdoc

In the midst of job season, we all have romantic ideas about what fellowships are like: you picture yourself in a different environment, doing different work, and you come home to a fulfilling social and personal life that is just like the one you have now. Obviously a complete fantasy.

Right now, I feel extremely productive. I am doing research that is interesting and relevant, and the projects are coming along at a fair clip: I have given or will give several distinct conference presentations this academic year, written a grant application and part of another, and have a few papers at a good stage of preparation, but virtually everything that I have accomplished has been this year.

In the first few months of my postdoc I felt disoriented to live in a new city and university with completely different patterns of life; distracted by moving and the endless tasks that have to be done, and the lack of money due to having moved; and overwhelmed by the need to make friends and professional contacts simultaneously in order not to be lonely. Meanwhile during all these adjustments, I felt lonely, scared, tired, and sluggish, and just plain non-resilient. Any setback was discouraging, and there were so many.

That's really not a good mood in which to take on new projects. Craving the familiar, I just finished old projects and got them published. That's precisely not what you're supposed to do, but it was hard to do otherwise. New projects have lots of unpredictable setbacks and at a time when every single part of my life was in upheaval, I didn't feel that I could handle setbacks well. The first time I went to a new project group and the first 5 minutes was two faculty members (one research-track and one tenured) dissing my advisor, and the remainder of the meeting was just boring. Between the awkwardness and lack of interest in the project, I didn't continue.

As I prepare job applications, the cost of moving and transition has been forgotten. And it really has to. New jobs require a leap into the unfamiliar and willingness to take the consequences, whatever they are. But I am pretty sure that even though right now everything feels so good and right that the loneliness and disorientation of moving seem so far away, I will have another lonely and disoriented and perhaps even depressed season as I move to my next position. I will forget all of that as I interview (thankfully I have gotten some), and will be nothing but sweet and light on the interviews.


Anonymous said...

your post is quite timely. i am a new postdoc, who is feeling broke from the move, lonely in a new city and unproductive in the lab. its always reassuring to hear that there is light on the other side....

Anonymous said...

Hello there

Sorry for the bother. I just wanted to say that I'm really happy to have found your blog. As a postdoc who started in 2007, reading over your older entries was sort of like a trip down memory lane for me (except for all the dates, I'm practically married). I was amazed how similar your academic experience has been to mine, and probably is to many others too, but I guess people arnt as frank in real-life as they are on the net.

All the best.