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Posts Tagged ‘postdoc life’

Change of state

Friday, November 25th, 2011

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.

Becoming a postdoc

Becoming a postdoc

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.

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

Sometimes this is all the help you get...

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 all about the small achievements

It's all about the small achievements

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

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Juggling Scientists

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Recently, I came across a BBC article about juggling.  Apparently, it can increase the white matter of your brain by as much as 5%.  I have not done much juggling in my life, so I really hope that the juggling I am doing now as a postdoctoral researcher counts! Let me explain…

The position title Postdoctoral Researcher is given to someone who has completed his doctoral degree but who is not quite ready to be hired as Professor or Researcher at some university.  It is the transition from being a Ph.D. student, who was told almost always what to do, to this mature scientist who can take decisions by his own and can lead a particular project of research.  I became a “postdoc” not too long ago, after a rather quick period of doctoral training, which made it a very tough enterprise.  Like any other Ph.D. student, I sometimes felt really exhausted with my academic work and its intensity, so I have to admit that I was a little scared about becoming a postdoc.

In fact, the life of a young postdoc does not become any easier, on the contrary, you are being demanded a lot more than when you were a student.  Basically, you have to juggle with many activities that range from aiding graduate students with their physics analysis (something really new that requires a different mind set) to working on your own physics analysis.  In between, you are expected to complete little service projects in a fraction of the time you spent in a similar project as a student.  To summarize, stress does not decrease.

Life is now much better though. It is maybe that I found that learning how to lead and how to abandon that advisor-dependency is much more enriching and fulfilling.  I still have a long way to go, but so far, I have been having quite some fun with this new postdoc life.

Edgar Carrera (Boston University)

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