“I’m all done, mommy”—I hear so many times in a day. My children are very good at voicing their opinions on when something has run its course, is now over and demands mommy’s immediate attention. Like when they finish their dinner, and dirty plates need to be cleared from the table, or when they went potty and would like to have their little bottoms wiped, or when they finished drinking their milk, and they know not to leave the glass on the counter for the fear of the jerk-cat knocking the glass down to the floor, in order to just “see what happens” [more on cats being jerks].
I guess I have mastered the grasp of knowing when things are “all done” as well. Like “well, I’ve had enough of reading this horribly-written paper,” or “whoa, these cells are so over-confluent, they need to be bleached and disposed of,” or “this seminar speaker has effectively single-handedly put everyone in the audience to sleep, I think I might just be all done here [not that I can leave the seminar or anything].“ What I am not good at knowing is when am I all done with my postdoc. I have been a postdoc for six full years now…
And let me back up here. So, first of all, what’s a postdoc? Because not everybody is familiar with the term, the definition can be found here. What this means, is I went to graduate school, got my PhD (yes, I am a Doctor, but not the kind that helps people… well, not directly anyway), and now I do pretty much what I was doing in graduate school, but in a different laboratory, in a more effective and [hopefully more] productive way. According to Alberts, et. al. there are approximately >40,000 of us in the US (1), and according to the National Postdoctoral Association, that number is double. So like a good number of young scientists are postdocs. Canonically, in the past, once you got your PhD, did a (fairly short-term) postdoc, you would go on to running your own laboratory. In fact last week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with the Senior Associate Dean for Research, Chair and Professor at the university where I am currently a postdoc, and she said that when she was looking for a professor position twenty-some years ago, it never even crossed her mind that she would be doing anything else. She was focused and determined to run her own lab in RO1 academia. Except, things are different now. The rapid growth of biomedical research appears to be unsustainable, and the hypercompetitive funding situation is creating an atmosphere of near-despair. Obtaining funding to do the best work and answer important scientific questions is very difficult. There is some talk about reform (eloquently described by Dr. Alberts (1), and will be addressed in my future posts), but for now, what does this mean for me personally?
Like I mentioned earlier, I have been a postdoc for six years (where oh where did the time go?). The question that has been on my mind lately is– how does one know when their postdoctoral training period is over? For some, it is a completely financially-driven decision. Your lab does not have renewed funding, and you are forced to find another position [more on the grim biomedical research funding situation]. However, when funding depletion is not an imminent threat (although it is kind of always in imminent threat…), how does one know when the training period is done?
The boundaries for postdoctoral training are much less clearly defined than those of medical residency training, or any other training positions with which I am vaguely familiar. “Have I made a significant contribution to science yet?”—I ask myself, without having a good answer on hand. I am close to publishing a manuscript or two. Maybe I’ll know where I stand once my results are published. What makes things more challenging is knowing full well that I am not going to be pursuing a career as a PI. In retrospect, I did get into the field of being a perpetual graduate student/postdoc to some day pursue a future career in RO1 academia and run my own lab. Some time during the last ten years, however, the original plan got modified. And now I ask questions of the following nature: “Why am I doing this training? What I am getting trained for if I don’t know at this point what it is that I am going to do in the future?”
Part of the reason I am still a postdoc is because I really love what I do. I enjoy going to work every day, and performing my experiments. My heart races just a tad more when I am about to look at the data from a recent experiment. I have become attached and emotionally invested in my projects over the last couple of years. Taking pleasure in my work and not having a clear career trajectory in mind makes it difficult to say: “I’m all done.” Also, I am legitimately nervous about what the future holds. I have a very specific skill set that may not be applicable to other jobs. Sure, I was trained how to “think outside the box,” and learned how to strategically plan to solve complex problems, but how do I know whether and how, and where I am going to fit in in the “real world?”
What I do know is that I am also really ready to progress into adulthood. I would like to know where I belong. Sooner or later I am hoping to find out what my niche is. Nervous or not, I would like to know who and what it is am I going to be when I grow up.
(1) Alberts, B., et. al. (2014) PNAS 111 (16) 5773-5777 http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.1404402111