Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Black Hole of Early Postdocdom

If I were ever directly asked in an interview what my biggest weakness is, what I would say out loud is my risk of over-commitment which can lead to burn-out if I am not mindful. But that is not my actual biggest weakness as a professional.

My biggest weakness is fear of appearing less than independent. Which often leads me to a lack of asking for help, even when I know this might speed things along. Which leads to stunted progress and lack of momentum.

I have spent the first month of my post doc in a Sisyphus-style loop of working as independently as possible, then running into a major road-block which forces me to overcome my fear of being burdensome to ask for a small bit of advice from a colleague/mentor. From there, I begin pushing my rock uphill again.

In the lab that I was incredibly fortunate to join, there are teams of scientists whose independent research is connected by a common theme (i.e., a disease, a biological systems function). When I interviewed to join the lab, I met my likely future teammates and was thrilled to be able to work alongside and get to know them. However, the week before I started my PI advised a complete project switch [allegedly] based on facilitating my career goals. Now, I don't really have a team. I am isolated both conceptually and geographically from everyone except the lab manager (who is fabulous, but not the person from whom I need to absorb training).

My "team" consists of two tangential and very senior [read: checked out or physically not around] lab members, who I have to force to meet together once a month, and who I occasionally see individually during the week. I am pursuing experiments on my own using techniques that I have never used, in an environment where I have not been shown the rules of conduct (e.g., which centrifuges are so old they have particularities, or that we have a core of microscopes instead of our own). This forces me to ask any one of the 52 members of the lab where things are, how to arrange time on apparatus, and how to generally function in this world.

Everyone is very kind and helpful with small or vague bits of information, but without teammates I am not being trained, nor ingesting information about my new field beyond the literature. I am trouble-shooting in re-inventing the wheel when I should instead be trouble-shooting new questions and pursuing experiments that at least have the illusion of forward momentum.

I have always been in smaller labs prior to my post doc, but this massive operation with 12 postdocs among many others is a whole new world for me. Etiquette is different. Expectations are different. Independence is different. I have met with my new PI once since I started 6 weeks ago, and still being in the early stage of needing to appear competent was too scared to bring up any questions of real substance.


The black hole of Early Postdocdom is eclipsed only by the ominous cloud that is HMO health insurance, and the anxiety over missing my first treatment in 7 years due to inherent absurdities of the "system".