Post-postdoc, Post-PhD reflections

Last year I blogged about my experience of being a postdoc after enduring a difficult PhD.  I talked about the unanticipated awkward and dark months after submitting my thesis and then what I learned as a postdoc.

During my postdoc, I learned how to ask for help and the confidence to say when I didn’t need help. My first postdoc was a blast! It was three years of fun science with fun scientists.

I’m now coming up for four years since submitting my thesis. I’ve moved onto a second postdoc and I want to give an update with some post-postdoc post-PhD reflections.

I was offered a second postdoc mid-way through last year, with plenty of breathing space before my existing contract expired. It was a relief! I could put aside the vague uneasiness that my work situation was precarious and concentrate on finishing up a tidal wave of half-thought out papers.  This was more or less successful….

The new position was also a means to greatly simplifying my personal life. My partner and I had navigated nearly three years of complex home arrangements as she PhD-ed in Canberra, while I postdoc-ed in Melbourne. For the first time in years, we would be in the same city as each other, our jobs, and our furniture. Win!

In the months around my job interview, I spent a good chunk of time in my prospective department. I tested them out as they tested me out. It seems the courting ritual went well and we agreed on both sides about compatibility.  I gladly accepted the job. I packed up my poor furniture and sent it on another tour of the Hume Highway.

As with all big decisions, I was an admixture of terrified and excited.  I was looking forward to take on a more independent role in a group committed to mentoring young scientists. But I was daunted by new responsibilities.  And I was saddened to leave a productive group and a rewarding relationship with my last supervisor.

How it been? So far, so good! Here’s some early thoughts on post-postdocing.

My new supervisor is challenging in the best way. He challenges me to produce good ideas and he challenges me to defend them. At first, we had no idea what the other was talking about and we had no hope of bringing in a translator. Now months later, I can see the immense value of talking often and in detail with researchers who have different backgrounds and use different approaches.

There’s alway a wax and a wane of productivity. I was so surprised when I started my first postdoc and picked up new skills and achieved tasks far more rapidly than during my PhD. I expected this would continue with my second postdoc, and fretted after months of post-postdocing flew by with little tangible to show for myself. But of course we can never work consistently at the same pace, with the same output. In hindsight, it’s been an exceptional opportunity to have the time and space to think about my research. Even academia – the business of thinking – it’s so hard to find time to think.

Over the last four years, I’ve had many internationally renowned scientists offer me excellent advice on carving out a career in academia. During my PhD and postdoc, I dutifully accepted this advice and at times, I tried to emulate those scientists I admired. I remain immensely grateful for their time and consideration. But in my post-postdoc years, I’m trying to be my own academic, practising the kind of academia that I value. I’ll get back to you in a few years as to whether or not my determination to live in my own space in the academy was a shortcut to dead-end!

This brings me to my final point, which is the bittersweetness of accepting and starting my second postdoc. Ostensibly, this job is a dream come true. I have the chance to learn and forge my own research direction under kind and wise guidance. I supervise two brilliant PhD students, who make me smarter for every conversation we share. I get to live in Canberra!

But a post-postdoc is just the next step in the “perpetual adolescence” of a young academic. I’m on my second postdoc and hoping to win successful funding of my own through the Australian Research Council’s DECRA scheme.  But regardless, what happens after that? A third postdoc? A fourth postdoc?

I’ve just returned from a research visit to the University of Arizona, where I could not quite explain to the climate graduate students how an Australian early career researcher navigates his or her career without the tenure track opportunities they aspire to.

For now, my job is far more of the ‘sweet’ than the ’bitter’. I’ve got my fingers crossed for DECRA success. But if not, I’m fortunate enough to still have time in my current position to learn more about the kind of academic I want to be.

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