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Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition--Chapter 2: Palpable Neurosis

Hello dear reader, back with the second installment on life in postdoc land, this is Dr. DeWhyse reporting.

In my first installment, I told you that I've started a new life in a new place as a new person. Today, I'm back to talk a little more about the specifics of my new life in postdoc land and (for those of you dreaming of escaping graduate school) how different life has become. Things started off well enough, with high hopes and new projects. But life never quite turns out how you expect it to, does it?

Theoretically, the goal of the postdoc is to learn some new techniques, make some new connections, publish some new papers, and at some point hop off the big boat into your own little private yacht of careerdom. While we're still on the big boat, we're supposed to do a little steering, demonstrating that we can steer our own little dinghy, and that, yes, we do know what we're doing. Hopefully, we are on the correct ship, traveling in the appropriate direction. If that's true and if all goes well, we'll eventually reach our destination. But sometimes things go badly, and sometimes you learn that you're even on the wrong boat.

Take, for example, a postdoc I know of who, once she had arrived at her chosen location, expecting to enjoy the work that she had signed on to do, found out that the funding had been pulled from her project just days before. Never mind that she had relocated, never mind that she'd had other offers just as good as the one she had accepted. This is not the way to begin a new life in a new place. Last I heard, she was planning to jump ship.

My own situation is not nearly as traumatic; still, things are not the same as they seemed when I was looking on from the pre-Ph.D. side of the fence. In my case, it was only a side project that dried up (as money was shifted from one PI to another), but it was one I was counting on and intended to enjoy. And an in-house fellowship that would have allowed me to pursue some of my other interests is no longer being offered. So now I am stuck on a project that I am able to do but am not passionate about. Talk about déjà vu! At least now I have the advantage of experience; this time I can see it happening and try to change course before I sail too far on a ship to nowhere.

Since I arrived here, I've started thinking about maybe going back to school to learn a new subject--obviously I've become delusional and even more neurotic than usual. Yet there is something appealing about a suspended state of education--like death: If I can just stay in school forever, I don't have to make any real decisions. Maybe I'm scared that after all the work I've done, I still haven't gotten it right, that there is still someone out there with the answers. To be very honest, I'm terrified that I've walked into the wrong situation just because I was trying to flee the previous one. Like they say, out of the frying pan and into the fire.

What frustrates me most is that I did things the right way. I looked before I jumped, and everything looked like it would work out just fine. I asked the right questions, I thought. I talked to the right people, I did everything by the book, and all I've proven is that every situation is its own black box. You don't know what you're getting into until you're in it; even now, I'm not so sure what I'm in.

One thing I've got going for me is that with my new, higher level of neurosis, I fit in quite well here. The palpable neurosis is a little higher here than what I left in graduate school--or maybe in grad school my own crazy was blocking out everyone else's crazy; my mother did tell me there were moments when I was really self-absorbed. I think I may still be recovering from that problem. Anyway, apparently I have entered a land of people even more neurotic than the ones I left in graduate school. I guess this is to be expected when you enter any place where the number of advanced degrees is higher.

My new professional home is full of extra-competitive, extra-special "I'm only out for me, so get out of my way" people, as well as a few more of the "What you're doing is not nearly as important as what I'm doing/Your ideas aren't as good as my ideas/I get to go to this conference and you don't" people. Not to worry: I've never been one to participate in pissing contests, so although I engage these individuals in order to get my research done, I'm quite sure that my self-image has not suffered from these occasional encounters with "greatness." I'm too busy trying to figure my own stuff out.

All in all, I am disappointed at how different things turned out from how I imagined them. But not all is bad. I've found a kind of fit--and not just because of the common high level of neurosis. I'm working with a team of researchers who seem to trust my experience and my expertise in my subject area, even if they are sure that I don't know as much as they do (but really, who knows everything?). They ask my opinion and we have a give-and-take relationship. That is definitely a new feeling for me. It's one advantage my new situation has over graduate school.

This has been M.P.D., Ph.D. reporting. Over and out--still exploring my new digs.

Comments? Questions? Fits of rage in your own personal postdoc land? E-mail

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Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym.

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