Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition: New Year, New Life, New Start

Here we are at the start of what I hope is a promising new position, and life, in a new city. Dr. (chuckle) Micella Phoenix DeWhyse, reporting for duty.

It has been quite a change going from graduate school out into the almost-real world. Those of you who followed my grad-school adventures already know that I chose a postdoc at a national lab over an industrial position I was offered. My decision was due in part to, um, indecision: I wanted to see if I really, truly had a calling to remain a scientist at the bench. Industry would allow me to stay at the bench--at least for a while--but I figured that in taking an industrial gig (even though it paid more money), I probably would be closing off some options, which I wasn't quite ready to do. With that in mind, I packed up, moved halfway across the country, and settled into a lab where life is very, very different than what I was used to.

On the personal front, it has been about 5 years since I picked up and moved someplace new, so I had forgotten how stressful it can be. Grad school was not my favorite place on earth, but there were people there that I knew, loved, and went out with. Some of them were in grad school with me; many of them were not. I was ready to go--anyway, I didn’t have the option of staying close by, unless I wanted to be unemployed (or remain in graduate school)--but there were, still, some tearful goodbyes.

It took years to build a supportive net of community for myself--a net I had no choice but to cut away, casting myself into freefall for a few months. Yes, there are always phone calls, e-mails, and occasional visits, but I miss being close to the people I came to love. My choice of locale didn’t make it any easier, either; I moved much of the way across the country and away from family and, although I know a few people in this town, I have no close friends here.

It’s easiest, when you get to a new place, to stay to yourself. You don't know where to go, or what to do, or who to do it with. But it's important, I find, to get out and do things--and to meet people. That's easier to do in a big city than it is in a small town--and, fortunately, I chose a big city. I am a city girl, through and through!

It has taken a few months, but I feel like I’ve found friends, intramurally and extramurally, and I’ve stopped wallowing in the “I feel so alone!” pity party I subjected myself to for the first month or two. My phone bills are not pretty, and sometimes I feel like I’m calling other people more than they call me, but until my social life gets into shape, it is what it is.

We advanced-degreed science types know that a job can take us anywhere at anytime. The possibility of finding a fulfilling career that happens to be close to family and friends is small. A friend of mine managed to stay close to home for grad school, but now she has to pick up and move halfway across the country for a postdoc, leaving her daughter with her parents for a while. Another colleague’s engagement broke up in part because they weren’t willing to relocate together; she wanted to be near her family, and he wanted to be near his--and their families were thousands of miles apart. Even though I’d like to have a significant other, I can’t even imagine what it would have been like trying to find jobs for two people that would allow us to live where we wanted without having a commuter marriage--which, although some people have made it work, isn't something I'm eager to try. So in this respect at least, I guess it's a good thing that I'm still unattached.

Professionally, things have been a little easier. There are a great many differences between postdoc life at a national lab and postdoc life at a university. Although I’m not exactly on my own project--I’m working on part of a larger initiative--I have a lot more autonomy than I would in most university-based research groups. I’m very much on my own--and not only in the good sense. I had to set up my lab, order everything, navigate the bureaucracy, all while doing my own experiments--the horror! There is a possibility I might get a technician, but for now, I feel like a first year PI at a university with no students. At a national lab, there are no graduate or undergraduate students (at least not until the summer, I’m told). So I have no one to do my bidding, which causes me great agony, (gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair), but I also have no one messing up my stuff.

One big difference between a university and this national lab is that here they highly encourage collaboration with other postdocs, staff scientists, and with scientists at universities. The goal is to keep the lab connected with the universe, to stay at the cutting edge of research, and to recruit people into the lab. These collaborations can help you stay connected both at the lab and to the scientific community. For me, collaborations will be essential, because right now I feel like a fish out of water--a physicist working with a bunch of biologists (Author's note: Scientific disciplines have been altered to protect the guilty)--so it’s hard to find people close to my new scientific home to exchange ideas with.

One thing I’m grateful for is the way that the lab protects private time for postdocs; a certain number of hours each week are set aside for personal (professional) development. This is the first time in my life I’ve been expected to explore what works for me, on the job, instead of on my own time. I’ve heard that some of the high-tech companies do something similar because, they say, it encourages creativity. I believe it. I get a little more than 1 day a week to work on outside projects of my own choice or devising, not worrying about supervisors breathing down my neck. Of course, this requires me to figure out how to balance everything else so that it doesn’t choke out the “me time.”

Even though I'm only a few months into this postdoc experiment,it’s becoming clearer to me that I’m not meant to be a hard-core, at-the-bench scientist. That was part of the goal for my postdoc, to figure out if being at the bench, on a different project in a different place, works for me, or not. It's a good job, and I'm having fun, but the answer so far seems to be “no.” Although I fit in at the lab reasonably well, sometimes I feel inadequate, like I’m not geeky enough, speaking only in equations or about equipment or the projects I’m working on.

Anyone who has read this column before knows that’s just not me. I have to be a whole person, and this whole person needs a little bit more than the next experiment, or technique, or piece of equipment. This means, for one thing, that I’m extremely grateful for the personal/professional development time, and I’ve already decided not to put on the blinders, like I did through graduate school, just to make it through. My eyes are wide open, looking around, trying new things on, looking in the mirror to see how they look on me--and trying to make an honest assessment about who I am and what I want.

The training wheels are off, and I’m hoping not to hurt myself (or my career) too badly as I pedal through the postdoc. As always, advice and commentary are welcome, at my new e-mail address:

Starting over--and out,

M.P.D., Ph.D.

In case it isn't obvious, Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700011

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