27 and a PhD

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Of independence and being a postdoc

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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I have to be honest … I’m a follower, not a leader. I have my little “fights” at home, but stay chill, silent when I’m out. Which is probably why I got along so well with my  PI from the PhD, why I was more of a follower, never really taking (or daring to take) the lead of my project. Sure, once I learned how to collect the data and process it I was in my domain, but as far as interpreting data, delving into results, coming to outstanding conclusions, having subaims for an aim, choosing a path or venturing into new territories … I didn’t do those things. Mostly because my PI from grad school was a bit of a micromanaging machine, but also because I was used to being “colonized” by others, from an early age, so I learned to sit silent and still, to follow and not lead. I think that one of the abilities that I left grad school without (or at least with very poor skills in) was the ability to think outside the box, and also to lead my way, and think critically. I can remember many of the conversations my PI from grad school and I had while attending seminars, or while practicing my talks. Even for talks, I was not given too much control over that. I molded my slides and speech according to the boss’s desires … and though sometimes when I got home and told the BF I seemed pissed off, eventually I grew … “comfortable” into that situation. Which I in retrospect was probably not a good thing since now I’m a lab where my opinions not only count, but will dictate largely where my project moves.

Recent events have me thinking about this. My PI comes to me yesterday to talk about how things are going. He’s a bright guy and gives you freedom to do whatever you want as a postdoc (and sometimes even as a grad student, at least from what I’ve seen). While in grad school I consulted with my boss how to do things, which path to take … pretty much everything she approved I did (I also did little tests on ways to process data faster, or that, but nothing too extraordinary). I realize now that this postdoc project is in my own hands. I can mold it and form it whichever way I want … and it’s proving to be a scary thing, because not only am I dealing with a project, topic and technique that are totally new to me … I’ve been given free rein over it. I can do as I see fit … as long as it doesn’t take me forever to do it. And I am scared shitless, mainly because I’ve never been given free rein over anything (scientifically speaking, I’m pretty independent otherwise) … but while I’m guessing I’m supposed to feel happy and free and do as I want … I feel like I still need direction, like a still need a guiding hand … but then I realize I’m not doing a thesis anymore, I’m not a scared grad student who has her boss to take her hand and guide her … I am on my friggin’ own! As I’ve said before, there are over a dozen people in my lab, and I don’t want nor feel the need to be observed and scrutinized by a boss every 5 minutes, but I would like to see more structure and/or organization (I’m guessing this is part of why I feel lost in my new environment). Maybe a weekly or biweekly meeting where we lay out on the table the recent events or frustrations of my project would help. I have to say, this is the second lab I go into where lab meetings are suspended just as I’m entering the picture. And I guess I’m a bit frustrated by that, because I was used to having, seeing, feeling structure, rules, boxes, categories, whereas now it’s a bit too free, too new, too raw, and too different from how I used to see and do things.

Maybe I just need to get over myself, get a grip, grab the bull by the horns and venture into this without depending (or feeling as dependent) on my boss as I think I should be. I’m really unsure as to whether I want to become a PI  … not just because I feel too lazy or incapable of writing a stupid grant to beg for money, but because I’m afraid of the huge responsibilities this process carries with it. I’m afraid of wanting to be at the top of the game and not being anywhere close to it. I’m afraid of second guessing, of appearing (or being) a complete dumbass even though a diploma, a thesis, several papers and references say I have the 3 little letters following my name, saying I’m capable, that I’m a good, or even great scientist. I’m scared of being a failure, or letting people down, of not being the best scientist and thinker I can be.

I had an “official” meeting with the boss today. We talked about the immediate parts of the project where he’d like to see my attention and efforts focused on. At the same time he expects me to be this independent entity which I feel as if I’d never been properly trained to be … and I cannot hide behind grad school now to vouch for me, or to give me a break from who and where I’m supposed to be. I don’t know how to develop independence in the lab, how to think on my own two feet, judge and have a say if I think a project or technique are completely wrong for the project. And most of all, I feel like I’m back at square one in grad school … but now I have a degree that says I can think and do …. and I may be afraid to use it.  

Anyone out there feeling the same? Scientific blogosphere … have you ever felt like this? Who do you go for guidance?

 

****After writing this I realized that if I want to see and set some changes and rules I need to take charge of the situation, and I cannot and should not sit on my ass for days without talking to the boss, bounce off ideas and plan the next steps. I need to motivate myself and be/become independent … and it has to happen from within, it’s not fair (and it’s not his job) to expect my boss to do and tell me everything. Change has to start with me.

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3 Comments

  1. leigh says:

    i had the opposite experience- totally free rein in grad school, and now one of my postdoc bosses is a nanomanager. it drives me BATTY. i am a little nervous for the grad student i work with in this lab, simply because i see how the boss is in some ways preventing this student’s development…

    it’s not an easy thing, learning how to handle a project of your own. doing this in grad school, you have the opportunity to fall flat on your face before you even know how to do the science. in a postdoc, you know the science (though maybe not the technique in intimate detail just yet) so you’ve got a little bit of an advantage there. be confident in yourself!

  2. 28 and a PhD says:

    Thank you so much Leigh! I had a meeting with the boss and we defined a couple of the next steps to take before the Winter break. It’s getting better now. I’m so sorry your new boss is a controlling greak. That sucks. Mine wasn’t too bad, but on bad days it could get on my nerves. I guess that it all boils down to knowing that some skills will be acquired at different points in your career as a scientist, some as a grad student, some others later on.

    Many thanks for stopping by. And good luck negotiating your postdoc situation. I hope Mr. Leigh’s (your husband, he) job situation sorts itself soon!

  3. lcc1844 says:

    I’ve just started my first postdoc and haven’t had my PhD viva yet. It’s all happened so fast and I know I am lucky that I haven’t had to work in a bar for a year while I painstakingly job hunt. But I feel lost. During my PhD I had the same thing where my supervisor was quite controlling. I basically couldn’t do anything right because he wanted me to think for myself but wanted things his way and to always know what was going on. But I had help where needed and when I learnt new things I didn’t feel on my own. In my new lab everyone is quiet and does their own thing. There is a technician who is doing some experiments on a similar project to me but she is too busy to help me get used to working in a new cell system (yeast) and I just feel like an idiot because techniques I know (like Westerns and co-IP) I can’t do in this lab because the equipment is all different and I need to be shown where things are. I realise as I write this I sound like a prat but I am scared that I got this job over many other applicants but wont live up to the expectations of the PI. I am prone to getting quite depressed and just don’t want things to get on top of me but I don’t know what I am supposed to be doing and even if I did I wouldn’t know how to do it without some initial start up help. I just hope it gets better.

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