27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: September 2014

The postdoc experience. The staff scientist experience

Ah, it’s that time of the year again. When new grad students, bright eyed and bushy tailed, start their classes and rotations. They’re so cute. They have so much energy and are so excited about science. I love them. I really do.

Earlier this week I had the chance to spend some QT with a new grad student in my boss’s lab. This student is bright and while at first they seemed a bit intense, turns out they have a soft-ish side and seem quite trainable. I’m really happy for said student and hope they chooses wisely.

While having a convo with the new student, I was asked about my educational background and how I felt about my current job. I’m bound by some sort of corporate thingie that prevents me from eviscerating my boss, so I was kind and smiled and told them about my former department, what I did for my PhD, the topic of my thesis and then delved into my postdoc and what my role is here and now. I paused for a moment and mentioned to them that now was the ideal time to consider why and what they wanted to do a PhD. I mentioned that during rotations, they should start forming an idea of what they want to become an expert in. That their ideas may or may not change as time passes, and discover that maybe they truly aren’t into cancer bio as much as they thought and that this is OK. We eventually talked about my postdoc and for the first time in a long time I didn’t say that I hated my postdoc. But I did say why I thought I’d failed miserably at it and the conditions that lead to me choosing the particular lab I went in and what I liked and didn’t. The convo then moved to how I’d become a staff scientist and what were the pros and cons. I explained that most staff scientists I know are not on contract and how that translates to job security (ie. none). How we still depend on profs getting grants and how when we head the instrumentation part of the lab, whatever happens is our fault, always out fault, even if we haven’t touched the stupid dry nitrogen tank in 2 months!!! I also told them about my interests and how after grad school I didn’t get “married” to a topic, but welcomed anything that fell in my hands because I couldn’t get attached to a project the way I did in grad school, especially if I’d be handling large volumes of samples for others. I knew that I had a job, ie. to prepare samples, to make sure the ideal conditions were achieved prior to data collection and that data was properly collected, recorded, processed and archived. I told them about how, in the grand scheme of things, I do a lot of work, a lot of the slow-type work, collect the raw data, but how this excites me because I get to see the data before the PI or even the grad student or postdoc sees it. I get to pass on the knowledge and train people to collect data. And I get to see how excited they are when they see they can do it on their own. I told the student about how some PIs still want to squeeze you and your time as if you were a grad student, how they would love to see you here at 7am and have you leave at 10pm like everyone in their lab. I relayed how when one is bright eyed and bushy tailed one may want to go to the very top and choose a PI based solely on their publications in C/N/S, while ignoring crazy working conditions and/or inhumane treatment. And how some people are OK with that, while others have different expectations and they have to know what they’re getting into and whether that’s OK in their book. You will be in a lab for a few years and you have to ask the tough questions, check out physical cues and trust your instincts, especially if they’re telling you to run for the hills. Papers ARE the currency in academia, but you have to remain level headed and feel good, and some labs are not very good at that, even if they only publish in C/N/S.

This whole conversation made me think about how lucky I’ve been. I haven’t had gaps in my education or work history, I’ve managed to get out of bad labs/experiences before (I’m not having good luck this time around, but I’m growing a thicker skin for some things, so I guess that is one of my lessons to learn in this job) and how I was pretty sure from the very start, that PI-dom wasn’t for me. I couldn’t see myself writing non-stop, begging granting agencies for funds for my own ideas, mostly because I felt that I had no original thoughts that were worth funding. And how I was OK with that and I much I enjoyed, and still do, providing a supportive, training role to students and postdocs. How happy I am to see the data before it gets to the PI, how I help people troubleshoot. I how I get stay current in my game, while still saving money for retirement, something I couldn’t do as a grad student or postdoc. There are many advantages to being part of the scientific staff and I wish these kinds of positions were available and found more often. I feel accomplished (when my boss is not acting like an ass) and happy in what I do. I’m proud of my job and how I help my lab. I feel important and (somewhat) valued. Things I didn’t feel while I was a postdoc.

Then later, I got to spend some time with a very bright older grad student. This person is friendly, intelligent and has some pretty big ideas. They’re now shopping for a postdoc. This student wants to go the TT route and was looking for my opinion about certain PIs and cities, but also asked me to train them in some protein stuff I know how to do and they don’t, but we have to do it quietly, without raising suspicion because neither their PI nor mine can find out we’re training them, even thought their defense proposal has been accepted and they’ve been told to start writing. It brakes my heart that we both have to resort to “extreme” hiding measures to make sure this student is prepared for the postdoc, with skills they can’t acquire in their lab but are expected to know for their postdoc. This made me feel shitty because I would like to think that if I was a PI, I’d be thrilled I got to expand someone’s training, even if they weren’t in my lab (but I had a longstanding collaboration with their lab). I guess that’s yet another reason I’m not a PI. I would be a semi-softie and I know I’d have to make hard decisions that PIs have to make in order to keep the money coming and have it spent well. Decisions that while necessary, wouldn’t necessarily help me feel like I was helping the most amount of people. I have a soft spot in my heart for grad students and postdocs. Even though it’s been over 5 years since I finished my thesis and started my one and only postdoc, I still identify with many of their struggles and I want to be as supportive as I can.

I’m happy I get to train students and have an active role in their formation, even though they’re not “my” students. I do refer to them as such, because there are times that we spend long, long hours and see each other more than their PI or labmates.

Let’s see what happens in the coming months.