What is a postdoc? Finding answers amidst ambiguity – Part 3

Welcome to Part 3 of this series, the final instalment in this discussion of the arduous postdoc phase.

Parts 1 and 2 looked at:

  1. vague job descriptions
  2. limited training opportunities
  3. fighting for independence
  4. competing for your career.

You can find both parts here and here.

  1. The paralysing fear!

Let me be clear – if you find postdoctoral research relaxing, you’re doing it wrong (or work as a marine biologist in the South Pacific). To be a researcher is to be a proverbial Swiss Army Knife – you need to be universally capable. In terms of actual activities, we postdocs in the life sciences have to design research strategies, perform experiments, analyse data and communicate our findings. Mentally, we need to scrutinize conflicting results, work with a diverse collection of colleagues, expertly manage time and become incredibly resilient and resourceful when things don’t work. We must also manage our research space and tools, as well as stay organised (back up your data people!).

We also need to sleep, exercise and eat food that would ideally originate from somewhere other than a vending machine. We have relationships to foster, friends and family to see and some of us even have children to raise. As someone who doesn’t yet have offspring of their own, I am completely amazed that postdocs are able to fit parenthood into their lives. I tip my hat to you!

But there is one activity that we all do constantly and its unlikely to be found in your schedule or planner. Can you guess what it is?

Worrying.

How many of us spend at least a few minutes each day worrying? As a general rule, I am incapable of multitasking but the only exception to this is my ability to worry whilst doing absolutely anything. In fact, I’m pretty good at it but I wouldn’t count it as a skill…

The worrying principally stems from the uncertainty and anxiety that consume academia. Our contracts aren’t permanent (check here for national legislation on postdocs in Sweden) and international visas are often dependent on employment status. Academia is also tiered professionally and unlike other industries, remaining at the same career stage beyond a certain period of time counts against us. We have little choice but to keep advancing down the academic career path and existential angst is just accepted as part of the job.

So how can postdocs push back against fear and worry? Being equipped and being prepared are two of our greatest weapons in this battle and I hope that some of the suggestions in this series serve to give you a greater sense of calm. But crucially, no matter how many hours you feel you need to work each week, you have to make time for yourself. 50 hours of research in a week is not substantially more effective than 49 hours research and one hour of exercise. I’m sure you’re aware of the positive effects of sleeping well and being active but also know that many universities provide services, classes and advice to improve health and wellbeing. Make sure you also stay social, even at work. Sweden has a fantastic fika culture which, by combining pastries and conversation, can help bring your blood pressure down when in the midst of a challenging period.

Image by Simedblack from Pixabay

A formula for survival

The postdoc period, on top of the day-to-day activities we all face, is a cocktail of everything discussed in this series. A postdoc is someone with an indefinable job description, with the only certainties being competition and anxiety. It’s someone trying to prove their independence and own scientific identity, and having to do so with limited opportunities to develop themselves.

In short: a postdoc is demanding. Increasing numbers of researchers leave academia at this stage in search of better stability and work-life balance. So how can you survive the postdoc stage, to either pursue a faculty position or your dream job outside of academia? And can we make this phase more enjoyable?

Be prepared. ”Fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.” Benjamin Franklin’s words suit the postdoc period perfectly. Think of your next professional ‘leap’ like joining a mission to Mars in one year’s time from now. As a researcher, you would undoubtedly spend the time reading up on all things Martian. So why not apply the same effort and logic to the next career step? There is no better time than now.

Be brave. Take risks and leave your comfort zone. Which item will you probably attempt last on your “to do list”? Instead, you should actually begin with this task and embrace your limitations so that you can overcome them quickly. This could be a fear of presenting in front of a crowd, proposing an idea to your supervisor, or just admitting you need help with something. Make ‘courage’ one of your most prized skills.

Be involved. Universities have an obligation towards supporting and enabling postdocs, given their status as pillions of society and advocates of truth and social enrichment. However, universities, PIs and supportive colleagues can only do so much. Your life is yours to live, especially with respect to your career. Academic research can be overwhelming but so many opportunities exist for you to develop professionally and personally. For self-improvement, look out for training courses; for self-expression, try science communication; for self-value, experiment with outreach; and for selflessness, why not join an association (wink wink).

One last thing.

Not all of us are philosophers, but we are all ultimately seeking happiness. I like the Japanese concept of Ikigai as a way of understanding which path to take in the next few years as a postdoc. Ultimately, we all need ‘a reason for being’ much more than a first-authorship in Nature.

In this series:

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