Transitions Part II: Switching Postdocs

On a clear night in spring 1998 I found myself sitting on a beach in Florida, staring at the stars and counting my blessings. About a week earlier, I had finished my dissertation and had flown from the Netherlands to the United States to start my postdoc at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). I only had time to meet my new colleagues before leaving for Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to attend a conference.

Returning from Florida I quickly settled into my daily routine. Life at MIT turned out to be very exciting but also quite demanding. I took advantage of the outstanding infrastructure and went to almost every talk that interested me. MIT really is the pinnacle of the wealthy and communicative scientific culture that I described in Part One of this article. I enjoyed every minute of it, and my scientific and intellectual horizons widened rapidly. At the same time the technological and entrepreneurial spirit at MIT made a lasting impression on me. I realized that scientific knowledge is not something we only generate to store in papers and books; it can also form the basis for useful inventions and successful companies.

In spite of all this, after only a few months I began to feel less blessed than I had on that Florida beach. I had clearly misjudged the position of a postdoc in the group in which I was working. I assumed that I was there to continue my work as an independent researcher and collaborate with my adviser on projects of mutual interest. My adviser, however, considered me an employee and made it clear I was hired to work on his ideas. This was understandable from his perspective because he paid me out of his grant, but I felt patronized given the level of independence I had experienced during my Ph.D. As a result, my adviser was growing irritated with my perceived lack of progress on his projects. He was like a conductor forcing me to play one of his own compositions while I am not a musician but a composer myself.

To find a way out of this unsatisfying situation I contacted the MIT Career Office. From my very own career development counselor I got a number of pointers to get me started (including Science's Next Wave!). On her advice, I also enrolled in a self-assessment course and learned to articulate some important things about myself: I highly value independence, so being told what to do makes me extremely unhappy. I most enjoy the creative part of research where I think of a new view on a problem so that the solution becomes simple. Also, I am very sensitive to my direct social environment and do not function well if I feel uncomfortable.

It was pretty clear that my present job was not scoring very high on those points. After a while, the relationship with my adviser became so tense that I decided to resign, but my despair did not last very long--I was offered a position in a lab that I had visited many times as a predoc. One of my Ph.D. advisers was still at The Ohio State University (OSU) and had managed to persuade one of the other professors to hire me. This group at OSU turned out to be a great fit, and I really enjoyed doing research again.

My new adviser did not give me total freedom, but we made a reasonable deal: I would spend half of my time on our joint projects and the other half on my own research and collaborations with others. Those 2 years at OSU were quite productive and resulted in a number of conference presentations and four journal papers. Not a bad score at all! But the quest for independence was still on. Because a postdoc is only a temporary position, I never stopped thinking about my future career. I was constantly trying to make up my mind: Should I pursue an academic career or try my luck elsewhere?

Further Reading: Next Wave's Postdoc Network

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