A few weeks ago I bumped into one my group’s former students, Rozmin. She’s still jetlagged from her journey here and she had the look on her face that told me she’d been through the change of state. She’d transitioned from a grad student to a postdoc. The metamorphosis is not an easy one, and in fact no matter how much time you spend preparing for it, and how long it takes, there are always some surprises.
A while back she was still editing her thesis. Today she is finding her feet in a new role, one with more responsibilities, more challenges and fewer safety nets. From now on, students will look to her for help, and expect to get answers. I should point out that grad students do a great deal of the work here at ATLAS, and they answer a lot of the questions we have, and perform a lot of the studies that we need. But they’re here primarily to learn, the postdocs are primarily here to work, and at the back of our minds we have prejudices about our roles. As a postdoc I feel that I should be mentoring students and helping them, rather than having them help me, even though I spent most of my first year here playing catch up with students who knew the experiment inside out. As a student on BaBar, what mattered most was getting the thesis written, and I felt that it was okay to make mistakes, ask for help and tell people I didn’t really know what I was doing.
The difference between being a student and a postdoc is mostly cosmetic, and a lot of the time it’s hard to tell whether someone has graduated yet. The real difference is one of attitude. When Rozmin was a student she was impressed that I seemed to know a little bit about every part of particle physics, especially the history. She would ask me how I knew about the history of CP violation and the tau-theta puzzle, and I’d reply knowingly “It’s a postdoc thing.” “Like a special power?” “Yeah, postdoc power!” Of course at that point she knew it was a bit of an act. I knew little more than she did, but I said it with confidence, and that inspires confidence in others. I’ve had quite a few roles where I had to put on an act of confidence like that. One of my favorite examples was when I worked for a telephone helpline where there was a locked desk drawer full of secret help for the coordinators. When I finally saw what was inside I was surprised to find nothing but a bottle of gin, some chocolate, and an electric drill. I asked what the drill was for and they replied “To stop volunteers messing around with it.” Huh. It looks like sometimes we need to be told that the only source of reassurance is feigned confidence.
There’s no magic solution, no ancient wisdom and in research, everything is new. Once you realize that, and once you realize that everyone is out of their depth and everyone is working without a safety net, life becomes much easier. Then you can tell your grad students what they need to hear. “That’s an interesting question, let’s look it up online” means “I don’t know any more than you do”, “Let’s talk to Frank about this over coffee” means “I have no idea how to even get started on this problem, but I could use a break”, and “A similar study was tried at UA1″ means “I have a tiny amount of information about this from a long time ago, but at least that means it’s not completely new.” And so on. It’s takes a while to get used to. I even managed to get a taste of life as a Professor recently. When faced with a particularly challenging problem the head of our department told me simply “Welcome to the world of supervision!” In that world, the stakes are higher, the help is rarer and it takes even more courage to make decisions with so much uncertainty.
Naturally there are more changes than a slightly different day job. Rozmin has had to move house (to a different continent) again and settle down somewhere new. This is one of the most traumatizing experiences a person can go through, so doing it in French, when your husband is thousands of miles away and you’ve got a high pressure job (as well as your student’s high pressure job) taking up all your time, it can get even more tricky. The dynamic of our friendship has changed since she got back, as we spend more time together, going for a coffee or a drink, talking about our respective jobs and problems. The shift in our friendship has brought us closer and now we’re both free of our theses, and can focus on what we came here for, the physics.
It’s challenging, it’s scary, it’s all about the unknown and even the unknowable. But it’s like I always say: We don’t these things because they’re easy, we do them because they’re hard.
Happy Thanksgiving Weekend! Thanks to Jorg Cham for the comics. PHD Comics