With the beginning of this month my NSERC PDF will expire, ending my ability to claim that I am bringing 'my own postdoctoral funding' to the table. I figured that this occasion was as good a time as any to reflect on the time that's passed since I completed my Ph.D. in 2009. Anyone who knows me will also know that I'd been generally disappointed with my postdoctoral progress. After what I felt was a very productive and enjoyable Ph.D., I ended up in a position that was completely unsuited to my working style (planned and goal-oriented), and not-conducive to accomplishing my (many) objectives.
It's really the latter that stings the most, because I've had so many people tell me that the ideas that I put together in order to obtain my external funding were great (not to mention that NSERC chose to fund it). However, I never really had the opportunity to work towards those objectives. I became involved in a large collaborative project, which, while interesting in its own right, was rather 'out of my hands' in terms of specific goals and interests. Despite spending a lot of time on the project, I was a 'cog' in a much larger wheel - a very bad position to be in if you're out there trying to make a name for yourself in a competitive field.
I'm not lying when I say that having to write progress reports to NSERC explaining that I hadn't met my goals was a huge hit to my personal pride. At about this time last year, I was in a position where I seriously thought that my best course of action was to abandon all thoughts of pursuing a career in academia. Despite my best efforts, I'd spent 18 months analyzing data for other people, there were no prospects for first author publications on the horizon, and my own project was completely stalled (though I had finished the process of 'protocol development' and could show that the idea would actually work). Unlike my work ethic during my Ph.D., I felt very little motivation to spend long hours in the lab. If this is what post-Ph.D. science was, I didn't want to have anything to do with it - a rather morose thought for someone who'd become as obsessed with science culture as I had.
After a period of serious deliberation involving soul-searching and much solicitation of advice from former colleagues and and advisors, I decided to give postdoc-ing one more try. And so I ended up moving across the country to new institution, bent on working on a new research organism (I've now moved from fish, to flies, to yeast - the next logical step would be dinoflagellates, I guess(?)).
While it was a bit difficult to find my stride again, my sophomore postdoctoral experiences so far have been quite positive. Stanford is an incredible institution, where the caliber of the work is often inspiring1. My work seems to be progressing quite well: I'm writing my first research manuscript in a long while, and I'm thinking of all kinds of interesting avenues to pursue both while here and in the future. Working long hours hasn't been a problem (or a burden, really), which goes to show how much being interested in one's work matters.
In addition to the work, the San Francisco Bay Area is probably the best place that I've lived so far, and even though I've only been here ~7 months, I've already done many great 'extra-curricular' things. The weather is much milder and more conducive to the ice-water flowing through my veins than was Washington, D.C. I'd take the 'not too hot, never too cold' humdrum of Northern California over the awful, hot, humid, Capitol summers any day.
It has been difficult to let go of my disappointment with the past few years, but the seemingly complete 180° turn that my life has taken since moving out West has helped a lot. Though it's often tough to do, if I force myself to look at the positive, I did learn many techniques and protocols during my previous position that I've been able to apply gainfully to my current work. I probably wouldn't be as productive as I am now without that experience under my belt.
While things are looking 'very up', I'm nevertheless not surprised to read about friends abandoning the topsy-turvy, stressful lifestyle of academia for the relative security of industry or elsewhere. I was able to pack my bags and move out west on whim because I didn't have anything 'tying me down', but many people my age don't have that sort of luxury2. The postdoc lifestyle is neither a great place to raise a family, nor to secure one's sanity. But, it does have it's big advantages as well, of course, such as the ability to pursue one's own interests, the freedom to set one's work pace (as long as it's 'frantic' or above), etc.
With the benefit of a bit of hindsight, I'm glad that I chose to leave my previous position and keep at this science thing. I've got some ideas on the table, some plans for the future and a good thing going. It's a good feeling being able to say that.
1As well as a bit frightening, to be honest. There just aren't many (any, really) Canadian institutions with this kind of money or 'star power'. It's easy to forget that not every lab can produce the kind of work volume that you routinely see here.
2Well, I had the 'luxury' of moving out here, but that's not to say that it was luxurious. My institutional change happened over a matter of months and was very, very expensive. Given that I didn't have much time to plan for such a large move, it has left me rather penniless.