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Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 8: What Are You Going to Do Now, Redux

I'm quickly approaching the first anniversary of my thesis defense, grad-school departure, and the dawn of the new life that I have lately been chronicling. Although life has in some ways improved since the end of graduate school--No more ramen! New clothes! Better living situation!--regular readers know that there has been much gnashing of teeth and tearing of hair regarding what I need, what I want, and what I actually have. I've experienced more downs than ups during the postdoc experiment but, weirdly, it's starting to seem like I still managed to maintain a slightly upward average trajectory. With perseverance, luck, and a healthy sense of denial, I managed to get enough publishable data for what might be two publications by the end of this first year. And I may even be a little closer to making some decisions.

I know what you all are wondering, dear readers: Will she stay for year two?

That's an excellent question and one I worked hard to dodge or obfuscate as I conferenced recently with former colleagues at one of the discipline's major soirees. But even as I ducked the hard questions, I managed to extract some advice and opinions. I learned, for example, that in the opinion of most, now that I'm approaching the end of my first year (with data to show for it and publications in the works), it's officially okay to start job searching and applying for other jobs, guilt-free. My reward for finishing those two papers (once they are finished) will be a full-fledged (not halfhearted) job search! And because I don't plan on defending another thesis anytime soon, and because I'm feeling less obligated to convince mentors and advisers that my degree will be "properly utilized," this job search should be a bit more comfortable than previous ones. I should be able to remain saner and therefore--hopefully--more in tune with what kind of situation is likely to work better than the current digs. And if that makes it sound as if I've made up my mind to reenter the job market--well, maybe I have and maybe I haven't, but I have put on my bathing suit and I am approaching the water. I look forward to getting in (unless it's freezing cold).

I did a pretty good job of networking while I was in graduate school. The mask was on pretty tight in those days as I worked my way through mornings and afternoons full of talks, plus drinks, dinner, and all that chatting in the hallways. In graduate school I met tons of people, including some who were interested in my success--not necessarily in contributing to it but wanting to rejoice in it all the same.

This was my first return to the conferencing circuit as a postdoc. I could have presented my thesis work, but I wanted to come back with something new, so when the opportunity arose, I trotted out the new project to the old community. But the lingering feeling from the conference has little to do with the work I presented. What lingers is just how disagreeable I found the whole networking experience. All the obfuscation and misdirection I indulged in at the conference--feigning interest, involvement, and decisiveness--made me feel like I was wearing a thick, ill-fitting plaster mask--is that me growing out of the need to please and impress fellow conference goers? Now that I'm home, I'm feeling a very strong desire to chisel that sucker--the mask I mean--right off my face.

The shiny newness of conferences and the excitement of travel have worn off. The conference experience has become dull and draining. That sense of awe about some of my colleagues and other leaders in my field is wearing thin; somehow I feel more their equal even as I come to realize I have less in common with them than I did (or thought I did) before.

After years of conferencing and meeting and greeting, you learn how to identify a few different types on the circuit: rising stars, supernovas, wolves, fawning sheep, and the casual/aloof observers. Some people fall into more than one category; we are all players in the game, although we don't all play with equal intensity or the same style. I fall more into the last set, with admixtures of all the others; I'm the aloof observer type, watching the games the brainy set play, seeing what motivates people to win (and how bad they want it), even as I do a bit of playing myself. And as I watch the game unfold, I become more convinced that I'm not the type to stay in the game for life.

Speaking of which, whenever I catch up with colleagues the question "What are you doing now?" seems always to be followed by that harder question that's been tormenting me: What next? By now--especially given how much time I've spent wearing this mask--you'd think my response would be quick, slick, and superficial. But like I said before, that thick plaster mask isn't fitting so well anymore. I'm just not as comfortable as I once was faking it. I could talk about my promising plans--interviewing for faculty jobs, working for such and such lab, starting a company--but that would all be hogwash. The little people pleaser in me still wants to give them what it knows they want to hear, but these days the rest of me is keeping that little traitor's mouth taped shut. It's not her turn anymore, and I've heard enough from you dear readers to understand that living my life to please other people isn't going to work.

I remember the first time I let the following words out of my mouth: "Well, I'm just trying to make my Ph.D. adviser happy." This was one of the few times Laura said something (almost) useful to me: "You'll never make it through grad school like that." At the time, given her general whiney attitude about grad school and her poor relationship with Jeff, she was not someone I was willing to take advice from, but in a sense she was right. It was probably harder, not easier, to make it through trying to please everyone but myself. But the mask remained on, and I proved Laura's prediction wrong: I made it through grad school. But I now know she was right in the larger sense.

But back to "What's next?" The honest answer to that question is, "I'm on the edge of a cliff, at night, in a fog--got a flashlight I can borrow?" In some ways, I'm back where I started, or maybe I never left. Maybe it's not the same cliff, but it's foggy, so it's hard to know for sure.

Still, somehow things are different this time. I'm standing up a little straighter and taller than I used to, wobbling less and faking it less, and caring a little less what other people think. I'm getting more comfortable out here on this cliff. It's funny how you think you know something for years, and then you realize you've just learned it for the first time; I guess you just learn it better. Advisers, recruiters, even friends and other people who see your potential--even the ones who care about you and really want what's best for you--try to steer you in a direction that works for them. In the end you feel wanted, sure, but also a little used. What I've learned better is that it's completely up to me to find the answers I need, and I think--in fact, I'm sure--that I'm up to the challenge.

Comments, questions?

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym, obviously.

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DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700125