Post-Doc, 1 year in
I’ve been meaning to do a kind of accounting of my experiences after a year of work as a post doc. In truth, it’s now been nearly 1.25 years since I started the post doc, so I guess this is overdue, but I guess that doesn’t matter so much.
In short, the experience is very positive. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve been able to publish something ahead of expectations. I’ve got a few other things in the pipe. I believe in myself and think the work is exciting and important and am confident others will think so too. However, it’s not always ideal. Although my working relationships are great, as a scientist, I think freedom to pursue what you want is one of the ultimate goals. Because I’m working underneath others, I’m still a bit constrained in that regard. Let me expand:
Unlike when I was a grad student, as a post-doc, I have had a very clear idea of what I want to do and what I need to figure out in order to accomplish that. There has been no flailing around for a year or two trying to figure out how to ask a good question, or not understanding the basic mechanics of research. Straightforwardly, this means that instead of tackling ideas and problems blindly, I’m engaging with them with a very clear sense of what the scope of the research looks like, how it should proceed, and what I should expect.
Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean that I always know what I’m doing or that I understand a method or technique that I need to use. However, I do have a much better sense of how much effort and how long it will take me to learn something new and fruitfully apply it.
Also good - I have a better sense of the field. I have a sense of where there are holes in the literature, or whether a specific line or type of research will be useful or interesting. I know which of my projects have the potential to be groundbreaking, and which are incremental. In theory, this should let me distribute my work among these types a bit more strategically.
Perhaps the coolest part about my experiences so far is that I can see myself running a functioning, productive research lab. If grad school taught me how to do research, then the post-doc has taught me how to collaboratively run a set of projects. It’s an incredible insight when you realize you’re leading a group of hard-working people to answer research questions. I’m fortunate to have such a great group working around me.
I’m also lucky to have primary mentors who are encouraging, patient, and trusting. Everything I’ve learned in the first year is thanks in large part to their help and insights.
I really miss teaching. Obviously, I still do a little bit of it. I don’t know that it’s possible to lead a research project and not do at least a little instruction. But I always found the formal type of teaching energizing. Of course, formal teaching is also a lot of work, so I’m glad I can focus my energies on research for a while, but I miss the experience of helping students wrestle with new problems on a regular basis.
Also, while I’m fortunate to have a stable funding situation, there’s definitely this unpleasant flavor of constantly looking at the next thing. A post-doc is a temporary position. The implication is that you spend a good chunk of time thinking about and attempting to secure that next stage. It’s not ideal, but I guess there isn’t really a good alternative.
As I pointed out above, it’s also great to have complete scientific freedom. Although I have quite a lot of scientific freedom, it isn’t total. I kind of think that might be a bit of a mirage. I’m not so naiive to think that my mentors have total scientific freedom either, but I think they are masters of their own fate to a greater degree.
Oh yeah, and the pay could be better. Those student loans don’t pay themselves, after all.
So, it’s been great. I’ve learned a bunch of new techniques that I think are unique for my field and I’ve got a bunch of time in front of me to play with the ideas that have emerged in the last year. Onwards and upwards!