Thoughts from a (post) post-doc
In what seems like an eternity, I'm revisiting my much-neglected blog. In search of inspiration, I was scrolling through my previous posts and came across this one about advice I would give my PhD self.
Needless to say, I am no longer a second-year PhD student! It even seems like a lifetime ago that I was walking up on stage to be capped:
So what have I learned in the five years since that last post?
1. Still write everything down!
I got much better at this as time went on. My notes included: my (near) every thought, experimental changes, notes on subject behaviour, steps to data processing, how to use the computer software, who was helping me that day, meeting notes and ideas to include in a future manuscript. For the post-doc, writing good notes and keeping tabs on everything was particularly important because, once you're gone, your notes are all that others have to go on! I'd like to think that one day my notes will be excavated from a dusty archeological dig and advanced alien civilizations will pour over my cryptic scribbles.
2. You are an equal now
The post-doc is very much an apprenticeship. You are learning how to be a successful researcher and work with your colleagues. That also means accepting that, while you might not agree with everyone in your department or even university, your voice and experience is valid and, in some cases, you may actually know more about a very particular topic than others! That's not meant to sound arrogant, but the point of a university is to be a gathering place where researchers bring their knowledge and join forces to better the world. We're basically super heroes guys.
3. Be flexible
Being self-guided is both a blessing and a curse. It's great being able to direct your own research project, ask the questions you want to ask, get the software you want to get but, when something goes wrong or takes longer than you thought, it's also up to you to figure out how to overcome that hurdle. I very clearly remember having several panic attacks last year (it still terrifies me to think about them) when I was overwhelmed by how much data and how little time I had. Being far away from my family support system was personally also difficult. I definitely had thoughts of giving up and going home. It was tough and I came face to face with some mental-health issues I'd never considered before. I took a week vacation, decided to give it one last push and finish the project.
4. Be OK with change
I guess this is an extension of the last point. The biggest thing I learned from my post-doc is that, actually, right now, I don't want to be a research scientist. Again, this realization was a terrifying prospect. I had a nicely-laid plan that was ticking along and now I felt like I was staring off into a foggy, unknown landscape. I think my identity was so tied-up with "being a scientist" that I felt like I lost part of myself. The success of my peers and (what looked like from the outside) their climb up the career added to the stress. I really had to sit down and be honest with myself about what I enjoy doing, what I'm good at and what's important to me in my life. Having time, the flexibility to work when I want and make an impact are what stood out. That's how I decided to take the dive and commit to science writing. I still grapple with uncertainty. With doubt. That's a learning process. (I heard Miley Cyrus's The Climb this morning and it was too real haha).
If all else fails, maybe this advice from a poster in the dairy barn will help:
"If it's good, milk it for all it's worth. Successful people are moo-vers and shakers. Don't just be one of the herd. The cream always rises to the top. Don't stoop to a barnyard mentality. Don't be bossy. It is better to have milked and churned, than to never have milked at all. If you need to get somewhere, hoof it. Some days can be udder frustration. If you're feeling low, moo yourself a little song. Chew your food 50 times before swallowing. Don't let others corral you. Munch hay while the sun shines. He who lives with the herd learns to watch his step. Following your heart will always steer you in the right direction. Party 'til the cows come home. Live for-heifer young. Here a moo, there a moo, everywhere a moo-moo."