Thursday, February 19, 2009

What DO I want?

So yesterday I met with my PI to have a chat about my postdoc applications. I had already prepared cover letters for the half dozen or so places I wanted to apply, customizing each based on the reason I was interested in their work and how I saw myself fitting in, based on my previous experience. I had my updated CV ready, and the list of the groups...

Now, it should be said that PI is actually a pretty nice guy (deep deep down inside), but in (I'm guessing typical) PI fashion, he expects a lot from his people, and wants them to go on to bigger and better places... I, on the other hand, was trying to find a more supportive environment (in terms of many factors like male:female ratio of colleagues and mentors (tipped heavily in the male direction in my current environment), geographical and cultural environment, and potential family-friendliness (just in case things ever actually work out on husband and my side project)) and a new topic/field/model organism. In other words, NOT the kind of places he would pick for himself... so I suppose it shouldn't have surprised me that he told me he was disappointed in my choices, that I was aiming "too low", that he saw me as someone who had be quite ambitious while here in his lab and that he thought I would be disappointed by the environment of smaller, perhaps less ambitious places.

Now, I know that it's MY postdoc and I can apply where ever I want to, and don't have to apply anywhere I'm not interested in, but his point was, if you don't go try it (at least apply/interview) then I'll never know... he's challenged me to re-write my list, dropping those labs I'm least convinced of myself and replacing them with "big shot" postdoc factory style labs in places that least-well fit my criteria.

I guess I understand why in a way, I mean, who wants to live with all the what-ifs and could-I-have-made-it type questions. But honestly, I'm not so sure I WANT to "make it". I'm so exhausted from this place and my time here that most days I just want to crawl up in a little ball in the closet and ask the world to leave me in peace. I just don't think I have the energy to go sell myself to the sort of super star places he wants me to go.

Before I talked to him, I was quite sure I had figured out what I wanted out of a postdoc, and now, I'm all confused again. It seems like a big decision... something you really only get to choose once (or maybe twice, but gosh I hope no more times than that!). And I can't help but think that his advice is also in *his* best interest, since so often PIs are judged based on the kind of pedigree their lab gives rise to. I've spent a great deal of my time here pretending I'm someone I'm not, and I don't like that person very much. I was really hoping for a chance to start again and be more true to myself. Not to say that such an endeavor means I can't be ambitious, just not in a ultra-competitive arrogant way that is all too strongly encouraged in this place.

So, what DO I want? Where should I apply? What should I do? ugh. I better figure this out soon.


  1. If there's something I've learned in the last 4 years, it's go with your gut. Do what YOU want - and not what others want for you. That is the only way to be happy with your life.

    Remember, YOU'RE the one living your live - no one else. No one else knows what can make you happy or feel successful.

    I think all advisors want their students to go on and be top of their field because it makes them look good. Not everyone WANTS to take that career path, and that's completely okay! Don't let the elitist attitude of "if you're not shooting for the top, then you're a half-rate scientist" affect you --- that's total garbage.

    Stick with your gut - if you want to throw in an extra application to top-U with Dr. BigWig for good measure, then go ahead. But you know what you want -- don't start applying for jobs that you know you'll hate just to please your PI.

    PS: I feel your pain, as I don't even know if I'll do the post-doc route and I am constantly bombarded with "but why are you getting a PhD?" or "but you should continue on". It's frustrating. It's also difficult to stick to my plan, but that's the only way I will be happy. Good luck!

  2. Yeah, MrsCH, I know, I just wish I didn't feel so unsure about this decision... I have never met the majority of people on my old Apply Here list, so I'm really only guessing that those are the places I want to go... and some of the big shots I have met, when they came to give a seminar or at a meeting, and actually thought they were nice people to talk with, super smart, etc (but I'm just not sure I want to compete for every little scrap of a project/time with the advisor/etc). But maybe their labs don't run like that after all? I guess that's my boss's point... maybe all these pre-conceived notions about what the labs may or may not be right can only be tested out by going there and talking to the people.

    P.S. I hate hate hate the but you SHOULD sentiments. yuck. but, I don't want to be a drip either....

  3. Jenn, I totally know what you are feeling. I'll feel like I've finally got my future goals sorted out, then something will happen and I get totally confused again. This has happened probably 3-4 times in the last 6 months.

    Part of the problem, I think, is this modern attitude that we can all do "whatever we want." And so then it because a really *pressing* question of, "what do we want to do? It is *vitally* important for future happiness to pick the *optimal* thing!!"

    Then there are so many options, so many pros and cons, that we become paralyzed by the number of choices we have and the number of opinions we garner. That's how I perceive it, at least.

    Good luck. MCH says it right, decide what you want and do that. But sympathize with the difficulty of deciding what you want (and being able to stick with it).

  4. Great point, PD - in this world of 1000 ice cream flavors, it's getting harder and harder to decide what we really want. I often get confused with what I want and what I should want --- they somehow get all tied up in each other and it's hard to separate them!

    Just do the best you can - remember, if you don't like something, you can always leave and try something else. That's a great thing about post-docs...they're short! :D

  5. Mrs. CH makes an excellent point - there's no rule that you must stay in a post-doc for years on end or try for a faculty spot at the same institution. For me, I truly didn't know what I wanted when I finished grad school. I wasn't ready to leave academic research, though I guessed I wouldn't stay permanently. So I picked a lab that was easy and supportive and while I'm disappointed in my lack of productivity while there, I did get a chance to figure myself out a bit more.

    But I'm a big advocate of interviewing. It gives you a chance to meet people, present work and hear some interesting questions and interpretations. Being known in your field isn't a bad thing, even if you're looking for a more balanced career. Please try not to feel like you're letting anyone down by doing what you think is right though - I do that all the time and it's an exhausting feeling.

  6. My advisor gave some eerily similar 'encouragement' by telling me he would be disappointed in me if I pursued my #1 choice for a postdoc.
    I agree with MCH- you ultimately have to go somewhere you feel will be best. At this stage though- it doesn't hurt to cast a wide net. Look into (and contact) any place that might be an option. Eventually the list will get narrowed down as you interact with the PIs, labs and talk through possible projects and funding. When it comes time to decide, you will have fewer options and stronger feelings from your gut to guide you.
    Best of luck!

  7. Thanks for all the great advice... Sometimes I really wish I had less opportunities so that the choice would be less daunting. I think I'll take the weekend to think about it and send the emails on Monday...

  8. I sometimes feel like one of my mentors tries to push me in directions that really aren't me. It's really hard to tell him that he has nice ideas, but they really aren't what I want for myself. Good luck with your search.