Friday, 21 April 2017

Independence and maturity

I didn't get the job.

It wasn't quite the Dream Job, but it had many attributes of it. I thought I did well in the interview. In fact, based on feedback, I'm pretty sure I did do well in the interview. But someone else did better, or had funding, or was a better fit. I'm a postdoc for another year.

I was disappointed not to get the job, but not crushed. Even getting a drink to drown my sorrows felt perfunctory, unnecessary. I was OK. And I realised, that, more and more, when it comes to my career, that equanimity about where I've been, where I am, and where I'm going has come to dominate.

When I finished my PhD, then spent a year unemployed, and then started my postdoc, I was all Sturm und Drang about my career. I oscillated between being terrified I'd never make it, angry I hadn't published more, frustrated at people's failure to recognise my amazing capabilities, irritated at advice that seemed cruel, glib and out of touch. And while I still think there are problems for graduate students and postdocs, that internalization of the problems is gone. The clear, tangible work I have done over the past three and a half years in the wonderful lab I've had the good fortune to do my postdoc in has eliminated much of the bad feelings from the end of my PhD. What has replaced them is a certain degree of confidence I didn't have before, one that is rooted in a certain equanimity about my career and my future. I'm good at what I do, and I've had a blast doing it. I hope I'll get to do it for longer, but if I don't... Well it was a good innings.

Associated with this disappearance of the violent emotions with which I started this postdoc has been a quiet maturation of other skills. We recently had a change of staff in the lab which means I am now the second most senior person here. And, somewhat to my surprise, I found I've stepped up to the plate of managing people with more confidence and willingness then I thought I would. I don't have to remind myself to check in with the new trainees and discuss plans for data collection, I'm just ... doing it.

With my PI, we've reached a stage that is intellectually exciting. She's no longer primarily in the business of training me, we're now collaborators, bouncing ideas off each other about new analyses and projects. The projects are in some ways more collaborative, and yet in others I am more independent then ever: if we decide a certain paper is mine, then she trusts me to carry the project. I'm currently in charge of helping our graduate student write his first paper for publication. It's been a great learning experience, in part because I've discovered how much I now know about the arcana of publication and manuscript preparation.Of course, the independence isn't there in my own grants yet (but maybe, NIH gods permitting, by years end?), but I can feel a shift in how I approach my work, and in how other people in the lab and the university respond to me.  The trick here, one that she and I both acknowledge, is to recognize this dangerously fun dynamic is a sign I should plan to leave, not that I should stay.

Perhaps the word that best describes my mindset about what I do and why I do it now is maturity (yes, you can laugh. I'm 33, i have a lot more maturing to do I'm sure). Part of that is also the recognition that unlike my 20s, I cannot make my career the entire center of my being quite like I did in graduate school (even as I take on more responsibility). I have a husband who is making his own major career decisions. I have a mother who will not be young forever. I will not be young forever.

There will always be choices, there will always be jobs I do not get. But wherever I go from here, there are almost no regrets to be had about what I've done on the way here, either professionally, or personally. And that knowledge is I think the source of my current mindset. And it is a good place to be.

And with that, I am signing off for two weeks. My husband and I are taking our long delayed honeymoon to Spain. Some things should not be put off forever.