The transition from a PhD student to postdoc can be a tricky one. Finding money, finding a group, choosing a project, perhaps moving university or city or country. Once all those decisions are made, what is it like? We asked two postdocs to list the 5 best things and 5 biggest challenges they face.
Esther Maas finished her PhD early this year at the VU University Amsterdam, and has started a postdoc position in Vancouver, Canada, and Elaine Toomey completed her studies this year at University College Dublin and has moved to Galway for her postdoc.
5 best things
1) Challenging yourself
One of the best parts about this job is the fact that I feel like I’m pushing my brain and myself each day, and challenging myself to try and achieve as much as I can. It’s a job that you can get a lot of satisfaction out of, especially when you achieve something you never thought you were capable of.
2) Making a difference
For me another fantastic part of the job is the feeling like you’re making a difference. Especially as my work is in healthcare research, I do feel at the end of the day that I’m trying to make life better for someone, and this motivates me to do things as well as I can. It’s also incredibly rewarding when you meet people that have directly benefited from the work you have been involved in.
In my current post-doctoral role, there are so many opportunities! Opportunities to apply for grants to travel, opportunities to meet new people and so many opportunities to develop ideas, and run courses or set up networks or loads of other things. At the moment (maybe because I’m fresh in the post-doc door!) there is almost the feeling that there are possibilities to develop any good idea into reality – which is really exciting.
4) Independence and flexibility
One of the biggest benefits of an academic research career has to be the independence and flexibility of the work. Because of the nature of the work (and the nature of human concentration!) it means that some days I can come in late if I’m particularly tired, or head home early if I need to be somewhere else. This flexibility is fantastic, and it’s something quite rare in the working world!
5) Actually feeling like you know something – lessening imposter syndrome
One of the things I didn’t expect to get from the post-doc was the feeling that I might actually know something about something Having been plagued by imposter syndrome the whole way through the PhD, I recently chaired my first scientific session where I was amazed to find I actually could contribute and knew a good bit about what the speakers were talking about…so it was nice to actually feel like I might know what I’m talking about!
5 worst things
So like the flip side of a coin, most of these pros actually have related cons!
1) Too many opportunities!
One of the flipsides of having so many opportunities is that it can be really overwhelming. I still haven’t quite figured out how to best manage my time between grant applications, writing up papers, collaborating with other groups and actually working on the project I’m supposed to be working on – and it can be really stressful trying to juggle everything. Also, it’s hard to know how you’re supposed go about setting up networks and collaborations without coming across like an idiot or a stalker I’m presuming I’ll figure it out as I go!
Of course, the downside of having so much flexibility is that you don’t have a set time to clock off by. So with all the crazy deadlines it can be easy to fall into a routine of working constantly and never fully switching off. Coming from the PhD, I wanted to set up a good work/life balance from the outset, but it’s not as easy as I thought it would be, especially when you’re trying to make a good impression. Again, I’m hoping that I’ll get better at this as I go.
3) Imposter syndrome is still there!
It’s probably something that might never go completely, and maybe some amount of imposter syndrome is a positive, but I still sometimes feel like I don’t know enough to be in my job and someone will find out just how poor my knowledge of stats is one of these days!! It’s definitely improving, but there is always a slight undercurrent of a feeling that I am not knowledgeable enough. This obviously isn’t restricted to a research academic career, but I wonder sometimes does this type of job foster it more than others…
4) Future uncertainty
To be honest, a lot of the imposter syndrome might stem from the lack of future certainty in this job, especially at my stage. Long-term, stable, permanent research jobs seem to be like hens’ teeth and it seems that to get something like this you need to be constantly better and better. Which can be great in a way, but doesn’t also help with any potential feelings of inadequacies or uncertainties! And planning for a family or a home, i.e. ‘settling down’ the way most of my friends are doing at this stage seems quite daunting when you don’t know where you’ll be or what you’ll be doing in three years’ time (if you’re lucky enough to get a three year post-doc!).
5) Explaining what you do
A tiny con really, but explaining to my family and friends what I do is always a little bit tricky – especially when you’ve done ‘all that training’ to be a physiotherapist, and they still only think you massage people…so explaining about implementation science research in behaviour change interventions can be a bit of a chore!
Overall, for me the list above is not equally weighted, and the pros far outweigh cons – at this stage of my career anyway . I love what I do, and I hope I can continue to do it and do it well.
5 best things
1. Travel. A new step in your career. This gives the opportunity to move to another environment: disciplinary, university, country (in my case all three).
2. Creativity. Generate, explore and work on your own research ideas. Being creative. For me, a postdoc position feels like a first chance to set a line in your research with your own ideas and interests.
3. Autonomy. Being able to divide your time the way you want, flexibility.
4. Diversity. Getting a new task set after working for years on your PhD project. This involves a greater variety of tasks: multiple projects, grant writing, spending more time on supervising students (OK, and finishing your PhD….)
5. Inspiration. Working with a new group of people. My experience is that most people working in research are intrinsically motivated people, which is very inspiring.
5 worst things
1. Loss of identity. Where do you belong? It’s great to change environment after your PhD. Now it’s time to start a new exciting job, but what are you going to do, and where to begin?
2. Waiting. Waiting on feedback, waiting on papers to be published, waiting on supervisors, waiting waiting waiting…. The good thing in research is that you have time to explore problems in depth, but patience and discipline are key characteristics for a researcher, and sometimes a struggle….
3. Insecurity. Job insecurity, especially during a relatively short post-doc, but actually on every level in your academic career.
4. Isolation. Having the feeling to work on your own little island. The work is less practical, it involves less patient contact, and (even) more computer work. I have to remind myself to reach out to the ‘real world’ and start networking.
5. Underappreciation? Having a ‘postdoc-appreciation week’ says it all… Lack of recognition in no longer being a student, but not a ‘proper’ faculty member either, sometimes I feel like between two ships.
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