The one year old postdoc

There’s something different about this Tuesday.

Today marks exactly one year since I started my postdoc – or, as I keep calling it, My First Proper Postdoc – in the Botany Department at Trinity College Dublin. I actually realised this yesterday lunchtime, and had to celebrate by going to buy myself (another) coffee; some things don’t change.

While sipping my celebratory coffee and considering a salad, I had a chance to think about the first year of my two year postdoc: how had the experience compared with my expectations, had I learnt anything worth sharing, and had anything surprised me? Had coffee consumption increased significantly relative to before?

Well, the jury’s still out on the coffee consumption. The first year of my postdoc has certainly offered some surprises – I think it’s safe to say that my expectations were almost completely wide of the mark. Still reasonably fresh from my PhD, I’d wanted expected a project with a similar degree of flexibility attached – lots of time to digest the literature, and decide what to do. Of course, with a lot to do in two years, I’d need to get on with it, so everything I needed to do was already set out in the project proposal. That feels like a mixed blessing: there’s certainly still plenty of space for me to use my initiative, and I remember the times during my PhD when I wished somebody would just tell me what to do – I hope the time for me to really develop my own lines of enquiry will come later on.

Getting to know a new department / school / university / city has been the overwhelming theme over the last 12 months. Arriving in the Botany Department and finding myself surrounded by a very different group of people to the group I left at Lancaster Environment Centre was very interesting indeed. I think I’ve just about worked out what everybody does. I’ve also – to both my pleasure and surprise – started hanging out with Zoologists! One of the best things about coming somewhere new has been finding out about lots of cool new ways of doing things, which aren’t necessarily discipline-specific. There have been new ways of working to explore too. I have to admit that I’ve found moving from a busy open plan office to my own (!) office much more difficult than I thought I would – having someone look over your shoulder every half an hour might seem annoying, but it’s a great way of getting work done.

I could go on dissecting, but you’re probably bored already – the main point I’d like to make is that my first year of ‘proper’ postdoc-ing have almost entirely exceeded my expectations. I’ve met some brilliant people, discovered many new and useful ways of doing things, been to some cool places and had a chance to hone my thoughts for the next 12 months, and beyond. In short, it’s been grand.

Academia and the infinite horizon

Last week I took part in a very interesting NERD Club (run by @EcoEvoTCD‘s @nhcooper123 – check out their marvellous blog for loads of useful information and perspectives on all things ecology and evolution) session on alternatives to academic careers. In a competitive field, making the choice between a traditional academic career and something that, well, isn’t that, is increasingly becoming a talking point among PhD students and early career researchers. The perceived process of getting a foothold in an academic career is frequently accompanied with expectations of long hours, continual transit between short-term contracts, and much heaping of responsibility – whether these perceptions are correct or not, the result is an increase in conversation about the alternatives.

As I fall into the ‘early career researcher’ box, I can’t really contribute much in the way of hindsight or perspective. However, there were two guests at NERD Club who could – they had both done PhDs and post-docs, and now had non-academic (but, crucially, not non-scientific or non-research) jobs outside of the university circuit. This first fact was interesting in itself, suggesting that, without actually trying a post-doc, it’s difficult to know if you’ll like it or not. If you’ve made the effort to get a PhD, it seems worth the further effort to try the academic route, to decide whether or not it’s for you, unless you’re completely certain that it isn’t for you. My own experience of a post-doc has been quite different to that of my PhD, in ways that I didn’t think it would be.

I got the impression that choosing a non-academic career involved a compromise between the ‘flexibility’ and ‘infinite horizons’ theoretically offered by academic posts, and something with more security, but less autonomy. This post isn’t intended to express a certain position on the issue – rather, I’d prefer it to prompt some discussion. Please do comment below if you’d like to. There were several other useful hints and pointers to come out of the meeting, which I’ll list below.

  • A ‘non-academic’ career doesn’t necessarily preclude ‘doing science’ – it could just mean that the pressure to publish is reduced. However, it might also mean that you have less freedom over the things that you do.
  • Consider approaching an organisation that isn’t a university. Kew Gardens, or the National Biodiversity Network, for example.
  • Do think about career alternatives – decide what you’d be trying to do if you weren’t considering an academic job, and start acquiring the skills that you’d need if you were to apply for a role in that field.
  • One particularly focused way of obtaining the skills you might need is to volunteer. Personally, I’m interested in science communication – I’ve managed to develop some of the relevant skills through maintaining this blog, along with others, maintaining social media profiles for the organisations that I’ve worked with, and maintaining websites. You may be able to pick up some of the skills you need in a way that enhances your current role.
  • The ScienceCareers Individual Development Plan site might be work a try.
  • There are some useful materials on Versatile PhD.
  • Dynamic Ecology has some interesting perspectives on the matter:

* It stands for ‘Networks in Ecology/Evolution Research Dynamic
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