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Thursday, August 23, 2007

Regrets

This round of the postdoc carnival is dedicated to regrets. I'm a new assistant professor following a 3 year postdoc and I definitely have a few regrets.

I was very successful in grad school, coming from a top lab with many publications - I had my pick of several postdocs. The decision about which to select wasn't easy and I'm not even sure if I can remember why I decided against several of them. I finally decided on PostDocLab because my 2nd choice would require me to learn all new software and hardware and I didn't want to waste my time. As it turns out, they changed hardware during my first year, so it wouldn't have been an issue at all. PostDocLab was also close to my parents and I had just found out that I was pregnant. I guess the point is that it was the safe choice - presumably easy transition, close to home, famous guy, how could I go wrong? My first regret is the lab I picked. It's not that it was awful or anything; we just never clicked and were not productive as a result. How could I have known? Well, it would have been nice if people in his lab were honest. They completely misled me about his management style and availability. Maybe they just don't know any better. Maybe I asked the wrong questions.

Our plan was to work on projects in the same field but using a different technique and incorporating more information about one aspect. Let's say my field is Popcorn. In grad school I studied techniques of making popcorn in an WhirleyPop and which WhirleyPop creates the best popcorn. In my postdoc, we planned to study techniques of making popcorn in an air popper taking into account the chemical structure of popcorn and how that interacts with the air popper. The problem is that the air popper cannot be dissected and to really understand how it works (given that I just can't take it apart and look) is sort of a black magic. PostDocAdvisor is the inventor of the air popper, so it shouldn't have been a problem I thought. Except it was. One hour per week when he was in town was not enough time to understand the air popper no matter how hard I tried. And besides I already know how to make popcorn in the Whirley Pop and every time I tried and failed to make popcorn in the air popper, I thought "but I can already do this in the Whirley Pop and the Whirley Pop makes far superior popcorn in my opinion, so why bother" I didn't really give the air popper a fair chance but that is partially because the goal of simply learning to use the air popper is not a meaningful goal as a postdoc. Unless the air popper can do things the Whirley Pop can't do and I'm not convinced that is the case. I should have persisted and learned about the chemical structure of popcorn because that is useful regardless of the mechanism for making popcorn. But I didn't. I decided to continue studying the Whirley Pop because I knew I could pump out a few publications easily. I essentially just informed PostDocAdvisor of my uses of the Whirley Pop but didn't really collaborate with him in any meaningful way. My second regret was not formulating a solid research agenda for my postdoc.

At the core of both regrets are that I did not push myself hard enough and/or outside of my comfort zone. Part of this is just my cautious nature. The other part is being too worried about # of publications rather than acquiring new knowledge. Now, I'm trying very hard be open and receptive to new areas of research, even if it means I have less knowledge than a first year grad student. I'll let you know how it works out.

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Comments:
thanks for the post. it rings several cautionary bells in my head. everyone seems to be talking about the importance of a very well structured research agenda during the post-doc years.
 
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