Postdocking 2

EngProf asked:

“Hi! I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about postdocs. Although postdoctoral experience is practically required to be considered as a top-notch applicant for junior faculty positions in most fields now-a-days (and no longer a niche practice of the biomedical field), I find that most engineering and physical sciences departments aren’t exactly sure how to handle this campus group. Do you mentor postdocs? Does your department do anything to help postdocs? If yes, how is this relationship different from faculty/grad student interactions, and what could be done to make it even better.”

I’m in a field where postdocs are not uncommon, but they aren’t this endless purgatory that they seem to be in the biomedical sciences (at least that’s how it seems based on what I’ve read on academic blogs).  I’ve advised several postdocs so far, but only two whom I’d brought in from outside specifically for the position. My first outside postdoc  was with me for four years; this was his first and only postdoc. He published well and went on to a successful faculty career (he should be getting tenure soon). I’ve recently hired my second outside postdoc; the primary reason is that several senior students graduated and I have a young group, so I need someone a bit more senior to help me wrangle them. In the past, there were several instances where I advertised for a postdoc and interviewed candidates, but ended up not hiring anyone and instead took on more students. I’d say a third-year grad student trained by me is better at the work we do than a random outside postdoc. So I often find it’s easier (and with more funding flexibility) to train a graduate student than to hire a postdoc who won’t be a very good match.

The postdoctoral experience can make or break one’s career. The position should be a good fit in terms of interests, expertise, and personalities. Ideally, a postdoc comes in with some expertise that they can directly apply, but they should also be able to learn new things in the group. I don’t want to hire just to fill a spot; it hurts the postdoc’s career and drains resources.

While I haven’t hired too many outside postdocs, I have had several who were my grad students first and then stayed for additional  1-3 years. Usually they stayed for personal reasons (waiting for a spouse to graduate, waiting out the process of the green card, etc.) and I had the benefit of a fully trained group member doing extra work for a while at peak productivity. Here we pay postdocs about $50k/yr, so a comfortable salary, even if not industry level.

Jobs in my field are well paid and fairly abundant, and all my group alumni went on to successful employment after graduation. I’d say if someone is headed for industry, they shouldn’t do a postdoc without a compelling reason (see above: waiting for a spouse to finish or waiting for a green card) or if they are quite certain that they want to go into academia; otherwise, one should get a job and move on with life.

Now, as to how the postdocs should be handled. First, it depends on why the postdoc is there. If a postdoc wants an academic position, I believe it’s my duty to make sure they are supremely prepared to write grants, write papers, present, mentor junior members, and network. They need plenty of opportunities to strike up collaborations, refine their various skills, and just do and present science. NSF makes people submit a postdoc mentoring plan, which addresses all this, and I always share it with my postdocs.

Not sure how others do this, but it seems that the fields that rely on armies of postdocs tend to be more abusive of them. To me, a postdoc is precious. They are my second-in-command, a senior fully trained group member who can work as independently as they want to (withing the broad limits of what’s fundable under active grants), work with multiple people in the group and on several projects at a time, just capitalize on all the accumulated knowledge and produce a ton of science.

I don’t actually know what the university does in terms of organizing postdocs, but I send mine (as well as senior grad students) to all the professional-development opportunities that I know of on campus and they are encouraged to explore and find their own.

Socially, IME, postdocs seem to hang out with other group members and students/postdocs from collaborators’ groups and seem pretty happy.

Blogosphere, what do you say? Thoughts on postdocs? 


Grab a Magnifying Glass, We’re Gazing at a Navel Again

Saturdays are always stupid online. Nothing happens, as folks are mostly busy doing laundry, mowing lawns, shopping, or attending kids’ sporting activities.

I’ve scheduled a couple of social events with some moms and found a speculative-fiction discussion group to join. I’m sick and tired of living an isolated friendless life and will do more to find folks to really connect with. Literary Twitter has provided me with a few good pals, but I want real local friends. I’m done waiting to magically be befriended. I will start asking more people do go to stuff and I will override my many, many self-protection mechanisms that make me closed off and aloof because I want to avoid getting judged or hurt, and I will instead act as I am, warts and all, and people can take it or leave it.

I have also entered a weird cultural phase, in that I have decided I would indulge my longtime curiosity for things that are considered somewhat lowbrow. Think monster truck rallies and demolition derbies. Think country music. I still love everything else that I’ve always loved, highbrow or not (e.g., a variety of genres of popular music and much classical music; literary as well as speculative fiction; poetry; all visual art), but I will stop being a self-policing douche. I will no longer censor myself out of interesting experiences.

I’m 45 and healthy. That means I have another 20-25 years, maybe more, of good, active living. I am not ready to give up, to just coast through this sedentary, monotonous suburban life until I drop dead. So I’m getting out and moving, really moving. Might enter a race in the spring. We’ll see.

There are people around me who insist that life is basically over, that there are no more big milestones ahead and the only interesting things will be happening to our kids. Sometimes, I think these people are correct. But when I let myself believe this, I feel really low, I wonder what’s the point of  living if there’s nothing to look forward to. So I refuse to believe that there’s nothing on the horizon. There are new experiences and new people and new connections. I hope there will be new career opportunities and new places to live. I am not dead yet.

I know that I occasionally write posts like this one. What is different now?

I have always felt I don’t have the right to perturb my husband and kids, who are happy where we are. This is what everyone expects, isn’t it? Mom, putting family first, always. Woman, putting the needs of others first, always. All the women I know do this; they often do it at the expense of their own ambitions and their own happiness.

But do we really owe our entire lives to our families? Until we die? Why does it not get to be our turn, again, at some point, to put ourselves first?

What precipitated this latest midlife examination is Eldest having gone to college. He’s moved out and doing great. He’s doing so great that he doesn’t really need us at all. We text with him, but he’s well adjusted, independent, and largely doing his own thing. On the one hand, I know this means we did a good job as parents and should be proud of ourselves and of him. On the other hand, so much time, money, and energy gets invested in the kids, and then they leave. If, after they leave, you have no life of your own, you will be in deep shit; I still have two at home, so not an empty nester, but I really did feel Eldest’s departure. Kids cannot be your whole life, at least not forever. And the sooner you realize — not intellectually, but deep down, emotionally — that kids are a big part of your life for a while, but that they are not and cannot be the sole purpose of your life,  that they are their own people with their own paths, that they will go away and look forward and not back, just as you did — the better off you’re likely to be.

When the youngest starts college I will be 56. Perhaps still not too old to start a new third of life. But perhaps it’s best to start planting the seeds of meaningful connections with the world outside of family sooner rather than later.

Kindred Spirits

A couple of weeks ago, I took an older colleague to lunch. He’s in a different area so we’d never interacted too much, but to the extent we had, I’d always thought he was pretty cool. Anyway, he’s 70, retiring, and moving cross-country to take up a research-only position elsewhere. I’d missed his farewell party, which is why I took him to lunch.

The colleague is healthy, active, still believes his best work is ahead, and is quite excited about the next step — his zest for work and life is truly inspiring! But a big reason that made me wish I could’ve hung out with him more is that, as it turns out, we have similar personalities, professional values, and modus operandi. It’s been a long time since I’d felt so understood. Most of the time, I feel like a fish out of water among my colleagues, among my scheduled-to-the-gills, calendar-and-list-wielding, networking/schmoozing/grant-savant peers.

As I talked with this older colleague (who btw is very accomplished in his math-heavy field), he articulated the key elements of how he likes to work and they are exactly what I strive for. And it’s amazing that he — likely by being an old white guy — doesn’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with working how he works or prioritizing the things he prioritizes, even though they are not the norm. In contrast, I — likely in no small part because I’m not an old white guy — keep existing in a state of mild anxiety over not fitting here, over not doing things the way they are supposed to be done, over being weird along far too many axes.

A key aspect of the professional MO that came up is leaving room for spontaneity: having enough time that isn’t blocked off by recurrent meetings that you have the flexibility in when you see grad students; being free to go grab lunch or coffee (alas, with whom, when everyone else is so busy and ruled by the calendar? I tried going to lunches and coffees with colleagues in the first year or two on the tenure track, then just gave up);  being able to devote large blocks of time to projects that grab you, when they grab you.

As I wrote before, schedules and lists and detailed plans give me hives (see here and here). While it seems that schedules, lists, and detailed plans relax most people by giving them a sense of control, the likes of me (who are apparently fairly rare) find it demotivating and stifling (producing a very real impetus to flee).

We ended up having a very lively two-hour lunch and I left feeling quite cheerful.  There’s nothing quite like feeling understood and making a genuine human connection to lift one’s spirits.

Yep, Daily Blogging in November Is Back!


I’ve neglected the blog over the past few months, so what better way to re-engage with academic readers than through daily blogging in November! As in years past, this is my unofficial contribution to NaBloPoMo, a companion to NaNoWriMo.

I’d like to invite you to suggest topics that you’d like to read about. I know the last few times I did not get to all the topics that were requested. If I never got to yours, I’m sorry! Please request it again, and I pinkie-swear I will do my best to get to it it this time.


I am feeling very grumpy about work.

Several of my group members graduated or finished their postdocs and left for jobs — some of them the best people I’ve ever worked with — and the remainder are virtually untrained folks who, I fear, won’t be nearly as good (definitely true now, and perhaps true forever). The situation really bums me out. I have money, but if the people I have aren’t able to pull off what I need them to, the money will be wasted with nothing to show for and I won’t be able to get more. The situation is really stressing me out.

I teach a graduate-level course and my students are typically at the top of the class. This year, not so much. I’m used to my students being among the best in the department. This crop is…not.

I could hire one or two more, but I am being conservative with money, because I am going on sabbatical, and need to cover some academic-year salary, as well as the summer. I have spent years throwing all my summer salary into students; I want to, for once, not have to stress over personal finances.

The department wants to nominate me for another award. I got a professorship (with discretionary money) last year and another university-level award (with discretionary money) three years ago. I feel it’s early for this new one, which is crazy competitive and for which I have another decade of eligibility… And for which I don’t think I am good enough to nominate right now.

I am battling again the questions of why I do the work, who cares, that this is all bullshit, that nobody really respects or values my contributions. I feel like I am running on fumes of deceit and any minute now someone is really, truly going to look at my record and realize all I have done is worthless crap; that I am worthless crap.

So I am temporarily burying my head in the town of BlueBalls BlueBell, Alabama, as I binge (for the second time in a row) on the supercute show “Hart of Dixie” on Netflix.

What’s up with you, academic blogosphere? How’s October treating you?