The Plight of the Post-Doc


Standards Deviation

Growing up, there were a finite number of video tapes in our house. We didn't even have all that many, but it's like at a certain point we just stopped buying them, or bothering to record free HBO weekends. What this meant, then, is that my sister and I had seen everything we owned literally dozens of times, and could (and probably still can) quote most of them from start to finish. The brain's capacity for dialogue (and song lyrics!) is truly staggering, isn't it?

One of our favorites was the 1992 Cameron Crowe classic Singles, which while on the surface may seem to be your run-of-the-mill ensemble cast non-story about a bunch of 20-somethings looking for love in grunge-era Seattle, I'd argue that the film is notable not only for cameo appearances by some of the period's most influential figures--Chris Cornell, Eddie Vedder, and Tim Burton, to name but a few--but also for its genuine insight into the way people value themselves, and how that translates in their day-to-day interactions.

The movie is also eminently quotable, and one that has really resonated with me through the last 18 years (ZOMG) is a scene in which Campbell Scott asks Bridget Fonda what it is women really want from a guy. She replies:

Well, when I first moved out here, I wanted a guy with looks, security, caring...someone with their own place, someone who said "bless you" or "gesundheit" when I sneezed...someone who liked the same things as me, but not exactly...and someone who loves me.

He's all "Wow, that's a lot!" and she's all "Yeah, I've scaled back a little," and he's like, "So what's the list now?" and the answer:

Someone who says "gesundheit."

I feel like I've had pretty much the exact same conversation with myself over the last year or two, but regarding my job, not men (in that arena, as you might imagine, I have unwaveringly maintained the highest of standards). If you'd asked me a couple of years ago where I wanted to be in five years, I'd probably have said something like, "Well, I'd like a job in academia. Ideally, I'll be tenure track faculty somewhere, either at an R1 university or a prestigious liberal arts college. Either way, the students will be super smart. And it'll be in or near a really cool city, hopefully in the Northeast. And I'll be doing some teaching, but not too much teaching, and I'll have a perfectly small-to-medium-sized lab where we take an interdisciplinary and elegant approach to answering timely and clinically relevant questions. Etc!"

But had you asked me again, say, 6 months ago, my answer would have been more like, "Well, I'd like a job."  The unscored K99 made me seriously re-evaluate my place in the TT applicant pool, and like Bridget Fonda, I lowered my standards.  I applied EVERYWHERE, including many places that didn't at all fit my dream job description, and even started browsing job ads for non-academic positions.  Now, there are of course good reasons for doing this anyway, like experience and leverage and maybe-I'll-be-surprised-by-how-much-I-like-southwestern-Idaho, but if I'm being honest, it was at least in part out of feelings of desperation.

I HATE feelings of desperation!

Well, there's nothing like a couple of good meetings to show feelings of desperation the door, and I came back from two last month thinking to myself, Did I actually allow myself to entertain the possibility of a job in publishing?  We can DO this! (that's the royal "we," which I've found is also quite useful re: self-esteem.)

More concretely, I've been invited to apply for a grant from a Private Foundation, which would fund two years of work with Famous Dude.  I wrote the proposal, and it pleased Famous Dude.  Things are moving along.  I'm not letting myself get too excited, but I like to think of things as "definitely not not happening." If it all works out, my stock should rise significantly. And in anticipation, my standards have begun to creep up as well.


modernscientist said...

I have this same conversation with myself every six months or so... I love science, but academic positions can be pretty damn competitive. Can I do this? Really, can WE?

No matter how many times I ask it, I still have no answer for the question. I have attained peace by reminding myself that, regardless of what happens, I wouldn't want to be doing anything else other than the postdoctoral research I'm doing right now. Might as well enjoy it--who knows what the future holds.

Anonymous said...

I too loved "Singles" mostly because all great movies have great soundtracks (at least that's how my mind works). Anyhow, there is a song on the Singles soundtrack by Paul Westerburg called "Dyslexic Heart". One of the lyrics is "Is that your name or a doctor's eye chart", which was a popular thing to ask me when the movie came out (I've a very long Polish last name).

I find that I have more luck asking myself what I *don't* want to do.

fey said...

Thankfully I discovered I did not want the prize before I began applying.

I bowed out and now I can forever live under the delusion I that I could have gone the tenure-track route. I might have gotten that big publication to clinch the deal and win what I believed was my dream job. More than likely I would be struggling to find any tenure-track job. It is very competitive.

I sincerely hope it all works out for you.

Candid Engineer said...

Agh yes, watching video tapes with my sisters... Such good times! Except our favorite was Mrs. Doubtfire. Oh, sir! It was a drive- by fruiting!

I am so excited for you and the potential new position. Yay for an upswing in standards.

prodigal academic said...

Hooray for awesome alternatives!

It took me 2 searching seasons to find a TT position. I was picky, since I knew I wanted to do research, and I only wanted to move someplace that was better than National Lab, where I had a good job. A 2 year postdoc would be awesome, since you could afford to be a little bit picky the first year on the market. Unfortunately, once you are qualified for the TT, the rest is luck. All you can do is keep improving that CV.

FWIW. I thought that the second time around, it was much easier and less stressful. Good luck!

expat group leader said...

I just started a job in the land of "gesundheit" and everyday I have the same pep-talk with myself. It's not an easy career choice, but you are not alone.

Need to get back to "getting this shit done!!!!!!!!!!"

tideliar said...

Another line we could adapt from singles is when the couple (it's been toooo long!) are first meeting at the Alice in Chains (?) gig. They talk about masks (as in masking yourself/your emotion/being someone you're not).

"I don't wear a mask..."
"Maybe your not wearing a mask is the mask you wear..."

Part of our growth, as scientists, nowadays is figuring out what the fuck we want to do as well as what we can do. It's real hard to start taking off the TT mask and realising you're not going to make it, for what ever reason.

From your post you thought that, but have realised you do want and it and ca attain it. There's a period of self-doubt and fear and pain, but (without trying to sound like a godamned Cali hippy), it is a time we can really grow in our understanding of our wants and abilities.

Wonderful post.

and hippy isn't in the Firefox dictionary..WTF? Fucking Millennial coders...

sis said...

"...though I prefer 'bless you'. It's nicer."

It's so true! I am going through this exact conversation with myself as I look for teaching jobs. At first I wanted to only teach art or music in a good school district with a short commute. Now I am expanding to general studies, ANY school district, and a much wider search radius. I would love to think that I deserve a good school close by but at this point a teaching job is a teaching job. There is far too much competition to be picky.

Sxydocma1 said...

Our favorite tape was Goonies. We can still recite that movie line by line.

Becca said...

@sciencegeeka I've had a "Dyslexic Heart" earworm since I started writing the post! Awesome song.

Thanks everyone for your comments and support!

@Tideliar Totally! "I think that A) you have an act and B) not having an act is your act." So relevant. God, I love this movie. So glad I'm not alone!

@sis HI SIS!!!!! You will get an awesome teaching job, I just know it!!!

@sxydocma1 As sis can attest to, we loved Goonies too. A lot.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Dr. Becca! I find myself asking this question all the time...and my answer changes from month to month, even week to week sometimes. A good couple of meetings/interactions is great for picking the ego back up! I still keep the research assistant professor route in the back of my mind for times when my self esteem is a bit low and I think the TT job thing will just never happen. Worst case scenario, I think I'd make a damn good senior scientist, and then I could do science and let someone else carry the funding burden around on their shoulders. ;)

Oh, and Goonies was also me and my brother's fave.

PUI prof said...

And to add to the allegory; "gesundheit" does not mean what most people think it does.

Post a Comment