Why am I doing this?

originally posted on LabSpaces

A new post by Ambivalent Academic caught my eye this morning, posing many of the familiar questions that I and other postdocs in the blogosphere often ask ourselves:

However, I am thinking about the what ifs…What if I don’t get this NRSA, and what if PI still doesn’t have an R01? Can he still support me? Will he still support me? What if he can’t/won’t? What if I end up unemployed? How long will it take me to find another position? Should I start looking now, just in case? Would that be a faux pas? Should I look outside of academia? What if I do and I get offered a position? Do I want to leave academia? Do I really want to stay? What if this is the only job I could ever be happy at? What if I choose to do something else for a while and find that I hate it and can’t break back into academic research? What if I don’t take that risk, and stay in academia, and end up living hand-to-mouth for the rest of my life? What if my life/job/whatever is meaningless?

As I near the end of my postdoc (and plan to head off to only God knows where – hopefully a TT position), I realize that a postdoc is, more than anything, a time and place for young scientists to come of age – kind of like a teenager heading off to college. Some postdocs have a smooth experience, impressing their mentor, and finding their scientific independence without falling flat on their face. Sometimes two or more attempts are necessary to find the right “fit” and postdoctoral success. Quite often, young postdocs leave academia altogether, finding happiness outside the academic world. The postdoc is a time to find out who you are as a scientist. There’s no one right or wrong “postdoc experience”, as every person/scientist possesses their own personality, abilities, and career preferences. Naturally, this time of growth is filled with quite a bit of uncertainty, questions, even a bit (or more) of misery. It’s normal and, even for the most successful of postdocs, expected.

These days, I’m spending much of my time thinking about what I want my [hypothetical] future lab and research program to look like. My planning has involved plenty of conversations with PIs in my department, collaborators at other universities, and tenured/TT faculty right here in the blogosphere. Through these interactions, something has occurred to me – these questions will never go away. I may get better at handling them, as an adult learns how to deal with any kind of uncertainty in life, or a parent learns that there’s only so much they can control about their child’s upbringing. But I’ll always be left wondering – why am I doing this? I wrote a while back that science has taught me to embrace uncertainty – in my career, my life, even my faith – and I think I’m a better person and scientist because of it. For now, that’s going to have to be my answer.

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