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Aug 2, 2012

The postdoctoral tightrope walk

(I wrote this piece for a column context a year and a half ago. It made it all the way to the final round of reviews but did not win anything, so I have decided to publish it here, unedited.)

Doing a PhD is often compared to running a marathon, perhaps rightly so. Both are lengthy efforts, and sometimes have an unexplainable aura to outsiders. For every runner who hit the invisible wall a few miles from the line, there is at least one PhD student who remained stuck at ABD (All But Dissertation) for an unhealthy length of time. Yet, even though there were occasions for deep digging and teeth gritting, the finish line has been crossed, and the PhD awarded. It was then time to get ready for something entirely different.

If a PhD is a marathon, a postdoctoral position is closer to tightrope walking, and requires a supplementary set of skills. Balance is essential.

One of the first challenges is to efficiently divide time between research and the additional tasks that are handed over. Postdoctoral researchers are for instance more directly involved in preparing proposals. If you are affiliated to a university, teaching duties and supervision of research students will also be more present than during postgraduate times. While these tasks are interesting, as well as useful in terms of career development, they can also be time consuming. Postdoctoral contracts are typically quite short, and research outcomes will obviously be an essential criteria when applying for the next position. Falling behind schedule is a clear risk, and planning well ahead is required.

Striking the right balance between old and new projects has also proved to be an important question. It is only natural that research interests evolve once the final touches have been put to the PhD project. After all, this took several years to complete, and the start of postdoc life may be time to let some fresh air in, and to get involved in some of the hot topics that have recently emerged in your field.

Turning to former supervisors and senior colleagues when I was considering these options, I received a very sound advice not to start again from scratch. Years of working on a specific project represent an expertise that should not be wasted. The key, here, was the increased emphasis on multidisciplinary research. It gave me a chance to make the most of the techniques I had learned and developed, while still enjoying the excitement of working in new areas. This is typically prevalent in my research area (computational modelling), but has also been occurring more and more frequently across all fields.

The biggest challenge, however, has to be the work-life balance. The problem is not new, of course. Being a PhD student obviously was a time-consuming, and on occasions self-absorbing, experience. The main difference is that, from the start, my then partner (and now wife) knew that my PhD would not last more than a few years. It did not make me less busy, but it certainly helped accepting times when I got the balance wrong. Would I be able to give a similar timeline now? I am currently two and a half years into my postdoctoral life, and my present funding runs for another 20 months, but I have no guarantee on what happens next.

We are in our third country (Japan following France and Ireland). Our objective was to settle somewhere, and to consider raising a family.  Unless the global economy rapidly recovers from the recent meltdown, permanent positions will likely remain sparse, and I may have to remain a postdoc a little longer. This will work only if I preserve a sanctuary for life outside research. There is no magic formula for this, but walking on a tightrope is not meant to be easy.