Adventures of a Postdoc

September 4, 2007

How is the gym like research?

Ponder this:  Who gets the most attention at a gym – a fit, attractive woman or an obese woman?  While some might be tempted to say the former, I’d wager that it’s actually the latter.  Why?  There are a lot of average/attractive people at the gym, and many of them blend together.  But it’s rare to see an obese person, and chances are, they’ll get noticed and remembered by more people.

The past 3 trips to the gym, I couldn’t help but notice 3 different obese people.  I’m sure I’m not the only person to notice them, either.  One was walking around the track at a very slow pace yet was clearly out of breath.  Another was riding a bicycle, struggling to keep the pedals moving continuously.

The people I respect the most at the gym are not the attractive females with the perfect tans, or the muscle-heads who look around between sets to see who’s admiring them.  It’s the obese people.  It takes more courage for them to go to the gym and be the subject of stares and private chuckles than most people have, including myself.  Yet each time they go, they do so knowing they’ll stand out, and that they’ll have to work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the results.

What does this have to do with research?  I chose a path in research that makes me feel like an obese person at the gym.  I worked 6 years to obtain my PhD in Neuroscience, focusing on animal physiology and behavior, yet instead of sticking with the same field for my post-doc, I chose to do something that was related to my dissertation yet in a field unfamilar to me.  I didn’t want to be like most post-docs I knew, who were an inch wide but a mile deep (i.e. they knew a lot about a specific topic).  I wanted to expand my knowledge and experiences so that I could be a mile wide as well.

So, I’ve essentially been that obese person for the past year, playing catch up regarding the knowledge and background that everyone already has, knowing that I would work 20 times harder just to obtain a fraction of the knowledge and results.  I’m sure I stuck out at meetings when it was clear I didn’t know things that grad students had already learned.

I could have stayed in my field and made my life easier, but I chose a different path.  Is it tough?  Absolutely.  Would I do it again?  Probably.  Most importantly, do I respect myself more for it?  Most definitely.

If you’re like me, and are considering a different field for your post-doc to broaden your experiences, ask yourself if you can handle being the obese person at the gym.  You’ll have to work harder than everyone else, you’ll feel inferior and feel like the world is looking down on you, and at times you’ll ask yourself why you did it.  But in the end, you’ll be rewarded with a broader knowledge, new experiences, and you’ll respect yourself more for taking the challenge.

The next time I see an overweight person at the gym looking self-conscious, I’m going to shoot them a smile and let them know that there are people who respect them the most.  I wish someone had done that for me when I started my post-doc.

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May 28, 2007

The chaos of not being a student

One thing I’ve realized since finishing graduate school is that there’s a comfort to being a student that I never realized, at least until I wasn’t one anymore.  For the first time in 15 years, I can’t check the box that says I’m a student and with it comes a few realizations.

Being a student (whether undergrad or grad) is very comfortable.  Yes, you have classes, organizations, exams, dating, etc to worry about.  But, you have a few years of your life planned out for you.  The same can not be said for when you’re not a student.

In addition to my research, I have to worry about what happens next – looking for jobs, where to live, when to start a family, and so on.  Your life is no longer a clear “chapter” of your life, which has an end that seems too far away to worry about.  Your life now has many more, smaller chapters without a discrete start/end, often overlapping, that require constant thought and action.

I write this as I’m looking for jobs – there is a sense of chaos in looking for specific jobs, writing cover letters, revising resumes, and preparing for interviews, all while keeping an eye on my contract that determines when I must find another job.  While it’s just a natural progression in life, it’s something that I took for granted while I was a student.  The end seemed so far away and everything was nicely planned out.

Maybe our lives would be simpler if we lived in 4-year time blocks, with advisors that guided us through those years.

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