Yours Transferredly: Expert or Charlatan?


I am that most contradictory of scientific employees, the predoc postdoc. Although I'm getting paid a proper scientist's salary, I haven't yet got that crucial piece of paper that says I'm a Doctor. My thesis is written, but it's still shuttling back and forth between my boss and me. Soon, I keep telling my friends, very soon now!

However, even though I am not 'there' yet I have already sensed a difference in the way my new peer group, the nonstudent scientific community, behaves toward me--a very positive one, may I add. An unspoken barrier has dropped, and I now feel I'm 'in', so to speak. But whether all those lecturers, readers, and professors suddenly want to treat me as an equal out of respect, or merely feel obliged to do so, is open to debate. I like to think that this warm feeling of acceptance is the direct result of their seeing me emerge relatively unscathed from my PhD. Perhaps seeing me 'finish' imbues in others who have tackled a PhD in years gone by a natural sense of camaraderie. Or maybe it's just that I've taken my first postdoc job in a different part of the country, and so none of these folk remember me as an incompetent, first-year PhD. Whatever the reason, it's nice to feel that at the end of one of life's great challenges I've managed to acquire just a little well-deserved kudos.

Alongside this new sense of belonging there is also a slightly more worrying feeling. I get the distinct impression that some, at least, of the current PhD students in my new lab regard me as the fount of all wisdom. On many occasions I've been asked questions that I just haven't got a clue how to answer. I mean, sorry to disappoint you guys, but I'm still technically one of you. I wouldn't mind so much if my knowledge were not assumed to be so wide. Talk about pressure! What's more, if PhD students imagine I know it all, then how much more will a fresh-faced undergraduate student expect?

Naturally, my most pressing concern is the fear of making a complete and utter fool of myself. We all know that science is a bad career choice for bluffers, so to deal with this situation I've opted for the humble approach. When asked about a technique I've never even tried I just come clean and admit defeat. As I see it, any alternative will leave me looking like an idiot sooner or later, and with my luck it'll probably be sooner. I hope I'm not doing irreparable damage to my career, but this open approach has led to the number of unanswerable enquiries dropping off very quickly! I cling to the hope that the old management consultant's adage 'under-promise, over-deliver' will hold true for me. Who knows, if I can lower people's expectations a little, maybe I can show what I am capable of in my own time?

Unfortunately, though, during my first 2 weeks in the lab I made the big mistake of being too successful, although I should stress that it was more by luck than by judgement. And the couple of major steps forward I took turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. You see, my boss developed the habit of popping his head around the corner every hour to seek another update. Clearly, we were suffering from a very bad case of 'What have you done since we last spoke?' It didn't take me too long to cotton on to the long-term implications of this situation. Even if I could sustain this level of output, which I sincerely doubted, there was just no way I could face the constant barrage of enthusiasm. What my boss and I needed was a cooling off period. I set about consciously reducing contact time and offered 'nothing to report' when I did bump into him. This seems to have done the trick, although I may have overcooked things a little. Now, every time I meet him I get the distinct feeling that I'm a complete slacker. This all points back to the need to work at a sustainable pace--a good idea for any scientist.

Though moving to a fresh university has been a positive experience, I am missing the on-the-spot advice and support of my scientific buddies. In my old stamping ground I'd accumulated some real gems--people who seemed to know just about everything no matter what you asked them. Now I'm on my own and one of my first challenges is to start gathering my own little army of unofficial 'mentors' all over again. Although I still make use of my former friends, not to mention my old boss, e-mail or the telephone is no substitute for on-site help. Besides, I'm sure there's an unspoken limit to the number of questions I can fire at someone who isn't seeing me on a day-to-day basis. I could end up being thought of as a nuisance, or worse still, a hanger-on.

I'm finding that this alliance building is rather different the second time around. Firstly, I now realise just what a sociable business science is. The Golden Rule of 'do unto others as you would be done unto' is smack on here. You never know whose help you might need, so be good to them all. In some ways I think the cleaners and porters are just as important to get on your side as the Head of Department. Secondly, rightly or wrongly, now I've finished my PhD, I feel that the type of question I can ask is more restricted. As I've got all this assumed knowledge I find it nigh-on impossible to ask a question that, by now, I really should know the answer to. Let's face it, few of us come out of our PhDs knowing everything that we should. Currently I'm busy filling in these little gaps in my knowledge by reading up and by tactfully asking the right person at the right time. In practice this means waiting until my boss is out of the lab. Rightly or wrongly, there are still one or two basic pieces of equipment that I never did learn how to calibrate properly. During my PhD I somehow always managed to use them just after a postdoc had done it for me! Talk about chickens coming home to roost. I'm now painfully aware that it won't be too long before I'm the one being asked these same basic questions by an expectant face. A little extra effort in your PhD sure goes a long way in your first postdoc.

So, the take-home message for all you predoc postdocs is to enjoy your new-found status, but consider taking the pressure off yourself at the start of your job. After all, you've just finished a PhD for goodness sake! So cut yourself a little slack for the first few weeks at least--you've probably never had it so good!

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