The Plight of the Post-Doc


Stars of Track and Field

In high school I was a runner.  Running suited me because it required little to no coordination (at 5'9" by age 14, you can imagine what a gangly mess of legs I was), and because the first time I had to run a mile for the Physical Fitness Test I did it in 8:13 without even trying too hard.  But even with all that natural talent (ha!) I was no track star, probably because I continued not to try too hard. I liked running, and I was happy just to do well, usually placing in the top third-ish of my races.  But I didn't have the competitive attitude; the idea of actually winning a race just wasn't enough to turn me into one of those girls who sprinted to the finish line in unmasked agony, only to promptly hurl the previous night's carb-fest all over their coach/parents.

There was this one time though.

About 30 seconds into an 800m race I noticed something strange--I was in front of the pack.  Numero uno.  How is this even happening? I wondered.  This is...different.  But also kind of cool.  I guess I'll just stay here? And stay there I did--up until the final hundred meters or so, when someone passed me to take first.  As I realized what was happening, I think the internal monologue went something like Oh hmmm...OK.  Well, that's a little more normal!  And you know, second place is also awesome.  


I mean, second place was awesome--it was the best I'd ever done in any race ever and my coach was really pleased.  But amazingly, it was only after many years that it occurred to me to wonder why, when I had a chance to actually WIN, I didn't just gun it and kick her ass?  Where was my fightin' spirit?

I feel like my science career has, in some ways, mirrored my high school running experience up until that fateful race.  I've been happy doing good work, answering the questions that interest me most, without worrying too much (heh) about whether I'll be accepting a Nobel in 50 years or whether my name will ever be uttered in the same sentence as "paradigm shift."  (yeah, yeah carebearsfuckingteaparty!) But unlike high school track, whose winners did not actually matter, science is not an extra-curricular activity; it is my life, and it is competitive as hell.  As Candid Engineer recently noted, competition all too often reveals the ugly side of the human condition, but it's also necessary to have at least some competitive instincts if you're going to make it in the end.

That girl, coming up quick on my right, she is the 200+ post-docs who apply to every job that I do.  This time, though, I'm making some moves.  Things are in the works, people!  A little too early-stage for me to tell you the details, but maybe soon.  Rest assured, though, that this time, second place is not also awesome.


Ewan said...

I haven't, really, given up on a Nobel. But I *have* given myself permission to take time for my kids (to be fair, my postdoc mentor - who probably won't _quite_ get a Nobel, but is not far off - explicitly told me to do so, noting that he regretted not having done so) and even to just take time off occasionally.

And I do worry, sometimes, because there are of course competitors who do neither of those. I was reviewing grants this past week, one of which was from a PI who has 4 active R01s and who had written a genuinely excellent proposal for this award, and there's certainly a little regret for paths not taken. In the end, right now, I'm following the advice given (and taken) by a good friend when I was planning my wedding: "forget perfection. Just aim for excellence, and have a great time." Not sure that I'm ever really going to figure out 'the answer,' though.

prodigal academic said...

I *have* given up on any Nobel aspirations. I like being successful, and I like having my work recognized, but I have long since realized I want a more well-rounded life than most people who win the major prizes have.

I try to do excellent science, and to try to figure out the things that interest me. I don't lose sleep over what other scientists are accomplishing that I am not. When I am not being the best prodigal academic I can be, I feel dissatisfied. But when I am, I am genuinely excited by other peoples' great ideas and successes.

That said, I try not to give it away. Going back to Dr. Becca's story--I am happy to finish in the top third most of the time. But when I am in that race where I find that I am in first, I try to stay in first and win it all. One of the reasons I left the National Lab world was that I felt I was losing my edge. Being back in academia, I feel sharper once again, pushed to excellence by my amazing colleagues and students.

Candid Engineer said...

I need to write a follow-up post about being competitive, because I am extremely competitive. I hate being beaten. I think it is interesting to be able to be competitive but not a particularly jealous person.

However, I think there are sometimes in life when it's important to be the "best" (maybe if you want to win a race), but there are plenty of other times when it's important to be one of the best. Say 5 of the top 10 schools in my discipline have faculty position openings, then I am totally cool with being one of the top 5 and getting one of those positions- it doesn't serve a whole lot of extra good to be the best. You just have to be good enough.

I'm glad to hear that you have something up your sleeve. :)

Anonymous said...

I figure if I can get age<papers then I might be OK for a while. It's more a competition with myself than anybody else.


tideliar said...

Hmmm...too painful to comment. Still.

Becca said...

age<papers!! Crap, I have a long way to go until that day comes.

I think in the end it comes down to what makes you happy. For some people, science alone (and the dream of a Nobel) makes them happy. But for others it's not enough, and you make choices accordingly.

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