Saturday, 7 January 2012

To post-doc or not to post-doc

It was a Thursday night, sometime last year, and my friends and I were having dinner in a restaurant in Dublin. The food was lovely, the atmosphere jovial, but the conversation drifted, inevitably, towards our PhDs. One of us was having problems with his supervisor and with his project, and had actually decided to quit. One of us had a lovely supervisor, but her project just wasn’t kicking off, and she was getting worried. One of us loved his project, but his supervisor was a ghost, he had very little contact with him and found himself making all of his own decisions without knowing if they were ok. One of us liked his project and his supervisor, but had just been scooped. He told us how he was at an international conference the week before and someone presented graphs that were identical to graphs he had produced in a series of experiments he had done two years ago. Since he hadn’t published it yet, he would now not be able to.
So as we were talking about all this, a strange man came up to us from another table and said: “Look, I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I hope you don’t think I’m being nosy, but I just want to tell you this: Do a post-doc. You won’t know whether or not you want to stay in science until you do a post-doc. It’s completely different from the PhD. I hated my PhD. I have now been a post-doc for 15 years and I absolutely love it.”
We were a little flabbergasted at the time (and very embarrassed that someone had overheard all our whinging), but now I find myself thinking about that random piece of advice in the restaurant. My dad has said the same: ‘Just do one post-doc. See how you feel about it. Don’t give up just yet.’ And of course, that makes you feel like you’re backing down, being a quitter, that you couldn’t handle it, and were supposed to be stronger etc. Dads have the unique, subtle ability to make you feel that way.
But why do a post-doc in the first place?

Doing a post-doc is the only way for you to actually remain a ‘scientist’. No alternative career will allow you to do that. Of course you can keep on doing experiments in your kitchen, but unless you live in the 16th century and paint Mona Lisa’s in your spare time, it doesn’t really count. In the modern world, there is a system which you have to be part of if you want to be a scientist. The system involves politics, publishing, and pain (no not painting). And of course, some perks. One of them being simply the fact that you are a scientist, which is kind of cool. And in a lot of ways, it is precisely that part, the being a scientist part, that is the hardest to give up.    

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