The PostDoc Experience: Reinvention

Feb 13 2011 Published by under [Education&Careers], [LifeTrajectories]

I love being a postdoc, although I often get the sense that, at least on the internets, I am in the minority. This series of posts is dedicated to some of the more wonderful aspects of this middling, temporary, and underpaid position.
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This is not the real world. This world of the postdoc, where the words "you can't" are rarely spoken.

Armed with a Ph.D., presumed evidence of his intelligence, perseverance, and creativity, a friend of mine foraged into the world of industry some years ago. There, people only wanted to hire him to do exactly what he had done before. Motivated by quarterly profits and complicated investment models, the real world is unwilling to take many chances. No chances on you learning something new. No chances on broadening skillsets, no chances on real innovation.

And that's fine, there are some other benefits in those sectors. But it's not for me. The opportunity to increase my knowledge base, the call of the experimental unknown... giddy up!  Being a postdoc, at least for me, has been like taking a trip to Disney World, and being told to "go play". And just like when you're at an amusement park, you have a choice: you can ride the merry-go-round again and again and again, or you can hop on every ride in the damn park. The former choice is comforting and fun, but the returns are diminishing. The latter choice-  disconcerting, maybe, but thrilling.

It's this opportunity for Reinvention during the postdoctoral training period that is so outstanding:

Candid Engineer reinvents herself. A) As a virgin researcher enamored with gaudy lace, Candid Engineer carried out her graduate studies on Banana Peeling. B) Dr. Candid was thrown for a loop in her new position as postdoc, and did a lot of praying to get her through a transitional period. C) Confident and beautiful, Candid Engineer slices and dices Mangoes for the first several years of her postdoc. D) Maturing in her intellectual desires, Candid Engineer cuts her hair and shifts research focus as a senior postdoc. E) Professor Candid embarks on the Tenure Ambition World Tour (projected).

And you know what? I'm getting it in while I can. Because once I'm an assistant professor, the funding agencies aren't going to want to take a chance on me, and at least for 5 or 10 years, I'm going to have to rely more heavily on everything that I already know. Not that you can't reinvent yourself as a professor, but it appears to become significantly more challenging. This is the time, I say.

17 responses so far

  • Fantastic post! I will be starting a postdoc position in a new field soon and I am looking forward to learning some new stuff. I like your perspective and I will try to remember it when I am flailing around trying to make the transitional period as productive as possible.

  • Drugmonkey says:

    This is a flipping brilliant way to describe it. Brava!

    (When do you get to the wacky religion part though? Full Prof?)

  • OmicsScience says:

    Yes like a child in Disney World, sometimes it's like you are on the Ghost train & some other times in the Tunnel of Love!
    Nice post! Thanks for sharing.

  • Bashir says:

    What's your timeline on this reinvention cycle. 2years? 5 years?

  • Pat Bowne says:

    You are so right. When I was in grad school, it seemed as if we all used being in school as an excuse for not thinking about what we really wanted. 'I don't have time to learn anything, I'm in school!'

    Then when I became a faculty member, there were all kinds of different excuses. And sure enough, even in teaching it's unrealistic (IMO) to think you'll have time to reinvent yourself during the pre-tenure assistant prof years. But once those years are over, reinventing yourself is an important skill over here on the teaching side. I don't think I know anybody who's been contented to keep going on exactly the same track.

    The only way to keep your career and your interest in it alive is to keep trying new things, and the best faculty I know have kept learning and growing. I graduated as an ichthyologist myself, but my job repurposed me into teaching A&P and pathophysiology; since then I've been doing that and supplementing it with something new every few years like administration, teaching marine biology, teaching philosophy of science, web authoring, studying how nurses use A&P, and now writing academic fantasy. For a while I feared this meant I was fickle. Now I know it means I'm fickle, and that fickleness is practically part of the job description.

  • physioprof says:

    Because once I’m an assistant professor, the funding agencies aren’t going to want to take a chance on me, and at least for 5 or 10 years, I’m going to have to rely more heavily on everything that I already know.

    No, this is not true. It's actually the opposite.

    As a post-doc, you are mostly limited in getting fellowship funding to those areas that your mentor has credibility and an existing research program in. Once you are a PI, if you can present good preliminary data in a new area, you have as good a chance of getting funding to pursue that area as anyone else.

  • Candid Engineer says:

    @CPP- Not all postdocs are limited to working on whatever fellowship they get funded. Additionally, postdocs on fellowship don't generally submit renewal applications, so we can just take the money and do whatever the hell we want.

    PIs do not have that same luxury without consequence. Maybe you can reinvent yourself with some good preliminary data, but where is that data coming from? Where will the infrastructure come from? Where is the support for it? I do not currently have to wait XX months for an R21 to come through if I want to reinvent myself.

    PIs rely heavily on renewal applications once they already have funding in place. There are much more prevalent long-term consequences to straying from the goals of one's R01 than from one's F32.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I think it can be done in either position, but you have to be smart about it. As a post-doc, you don't want to reinvent yourself too much, because when it comes time for that job talk, you need a cohesive story about Who You Are, not a showcase of all the techniques you've collected. So if you're learning new fields and methods that's awesome, but be sure that you're doing it in a way that makes it look like you're moving your research in an exciting new direction, and not like you've got a short attention span. I know you will be the former, and not the latter!

  • Right on! This is (in my opinion), the best use of a postdoc. I was really sick of PhD research sub-field when I finished my PhD. So, I took the skills I had from my PhD, and applied them to a completely new field in my postdoc. It worked out great--postdoc advisor needed the skills I had, and didn't care that I had no background in the field as long as I got up to speed quickly. I moved to a new, more interesting to me research area.

  • Abel says:

    C.E., I'm kind of with CPP on this one because of two issues: I suspect that you will be in a recruitment situation where you will get enough start-up funds to cover exploring a new area during the first two years of your independent career and, second, don't forget that there are often small ($10K - $50K) local foundations of one sort or another where you can get pilot support on a very quick turnaround where you can develop a new area.

    Your record on your F32 is not lost - and in fact your pub record will show a R21 or R01 review panel that you can do well even if you change areas significantly.

    There's also often a reticence to ask for help from senior colleagues when you're a starting assistant professor. Yes, yes, you are supposed to develop an independent research program but that shouldn't stop you from pursuing another interesting area with more senior folks at your institution or elsewhere. You may not know that TDFs like me are often looking for brilliant folks like you to help develop new angles that serve us both. I swallowed my pride and asked a senior prof to help me in the first few years of my asst prof and he sent his grad students to do rotations with me on a related project and we published a few papers together. I got a small grant in that area but never made it a main thing. But it gave my CV a little more meat going into tenure review and showed that I was an engaged citizen in my department.

    With that all said, the postdoc years are great *if* you have a supportive PI and environment. Should you have that, go ahead and suck the marrow of these years and expose yourself more broadly around your institution.

    Because once I’m an assistant professor, the funding agencies aren’t going to want to take a chance on me, and at least for 5 or 10 years, I’m going to have to rely more heavily on everything that I already know.

    I just came off what became a five-year term on study section and I can assure you that new investigators were both encouraged and eagerly supported if they had reasonable ideas and a record of previous success in any area.

  • physioprof says:

    Like I said, you've got it pretty much backwards.

    Those of us who have actually written successful competitive renewals know that the fact that an application is a competitive renewal doesn't mean that it can't represent a dramatic change of direction from the prior project period. Furthermore, those of us who have managed R01s know that there is a tremendous amount of freedom to move off in new directions that weren't explicitly entertained in the original specific aims, and this will not harm you at all in relation either to continued annual non-competing renewals nor in relation to competitive renewal at the end of the multi-year project period. All that matters is that you are productive and generating good science.

    Also, yet another important benefit to having multiple sources of funding--including multiple R01s--is that you have the fiscal flexibility to move in very new directions to test novel waters. If you are in a position where the only way you can try something novel is to get an R21 funded, then you are not managing your lab effectively.

    Finally, one of the career stages in which you will have the absolute *most* flexibility is after your post-doc, and when you start your new lab with a nice big start-up budget. At that point, you can do whatever you want, and so long as you are productive, you will be in a position to translate that success into an externally funded sustained research program.

    Yes, post-docs can "reinvent" themselves. But it is erroneous to contrast this with a supposedly greater rigidity and constrained playing field of a PI.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Since this is relevant, I will mention that since I've entered grad school I've met several scientists at different career stages who think that dissatisfied postdocs are overrepresented in the science blogosphere. This includes scientists who had gruelingly miserable postdocs in the labs of unhelpful PI's as well as scientists who had fantastic successes and fabulously good times during their postdocs.

  • Juniper, I've also found the representation of unhappy postdocs on the interwebs to be larger than it should be... thus, these posts. I don't necessarily want to fart rainbows, but I do want people to know that it's not always terrible.

    As for "relevant" comments, you are welcome to leave any type of comment, wholly irrelevant or otherwise.

  • Nat says:

    Even though I'm a washed up old loser, I still love being a postdoc. For the marjority of the time that is.

  • Juniper Shoemaker says:

    Hey, thanks! I appreciate it.

  • Dr. O says:

    I will mention that since I’ve entered grad school I’ve met several scientists at different career stages who think that dissatisfied postdocs are overrepresented in the science blogosphere.

    This is definitely the case, and it's because problems do exist in the postdoctoral training system. Most postdoc bloggers start blogging because they want to see things get better, or they want advice on how to improve their own situation without the worry of repercussions (in the case of pseudonymous bloggers). This has resulted in some positive outcomes for several postdoc bloggers that I follow and respect.

    As for the discussion on rigidity versus flexibility in later career stages, I certainly wouldn't be gunning for the TT if I thought I would be tied down after moving on. When I see PIs that play it safe, I think "They're too busy KEEPING their job to DO their job". I know there's a need to get things done and not just play around, but I think the same can be said for a postdoc, as Dr. Becca stated above. However, academia as a whole does seem to be WAY more fun than industry, IMVHO.

    Oh, and I totes <3 your Madonna-esque evolution - you rock. 🙂

  • msphd says:

    No one ever told you "you can't"?? Then you're not being creative enough.

    I agree with CPP. Most postdocs are *very* limited in how far they're allowed to reinvent.

    Also, how long have you been a postdoc? Give it five more years, and see how positive you still feel.