Sunday, November 05, 2006

What does a post-doc do?

I think a lot of people (including graduate students) have a very poor idea of what a post-doc actually does with their days. And opinions seem to differ, as evidenced by the discussion over at youngfemalescientist as of late. So in my vast experience in a month and a half as a post-doc, I thought I'd try to discuss what I do with my post-doc days.

As a post-doc I don't have the one focused project that I had as a graduate student. Sure, there's one project that providing most of my funding, but that doesn't occupy a proportional part of my time now - nor will it over the long-run. Instead, I have something like 4 projects, all with competing timetables. Not all of these projects are particularly related to each other - they are at different scales, use different methodologies, and are at different stages (from design to publication).

As a post-doc, I don't just do my own research. I am trying to get my undergrad to finish his thesis, which is taking more and more of my time as he gets down to his final weeks, and produces frequent draft fragments. I am also helping a MS student in our group with some modeling in order to reduce her workload as she tries to meet a grant deadline. After this immediate deadline, I imagine I'll stay somewhat involved with her research as it has significant topical overlap (though not methodological overlap) with my funded project. I also contribute ideas, critiques, and/or labor to projects that S and Boss are working on, usually with short time-frames.

As a post-doc, I am expected to develop new project ideas and contribute to grant proposals. Unlike the biomedical fields, it is rare in -ology to have six digit multiple year grants which can fund an entire post-doc or PhD, so the process of grant-writing is much more ubiquitous. Especially if I want to keep my job past this year. To wit, Successful Woman called me up on Friday and asked me to contribute to a small grant proposal due in mid-month. So I spent a couple of hours learning some background information this afternoon.

As a post-doc, I am going to spend a fairly significant chunk of time looking for a permanent job or my next post-doc. It may not be part of my job description, but it is indelibly tied to the transitory nature of post-docs. I have funding for one year. That means that if I want to be using my PhD this time next year, I need to find a job. Maybe I shouldn't be doing this "on the clock," but the "clock" is just as elusive as a post-doc as it is during graduate school.

As a post-doc, I am going to devote some time to getting my dissertation chapters publishable/published. Fortunately in my case this is one of my "assigned" projects, because my advisor/boss as co-author has something at stake too. This one also goes with the previous one, as pubs become even more crucial to getting jobs, even at SLACs.

Other things I do as a post-doc: review papers for journals (and not just under my advisor's name), attend relevant seminars and meetings, stay marginally current in my field(s) by skimming table of contents and abstracts of journals, and deal with the hassles of university administration in order to get paid and get benefits.

Yep, that's what I do. No wonder I am having trouble summarizing it in one to two sentences for my CV. And I don't think my in-laws will understand it any better than they did when I was a graduate student.

6 comments:

Ms.PhD said...

This all sounds so familiar.

Congrats on the invite to contribute to Successful Woman's grant. That's a good sign.

feel free to not post this comment because I'm asking a question here-

I have to ask: do you get anywhere near the number of "you're too negative" rants that I get? Because your job sounds awfully similar to mine- lots of work, not a lot of credit or security. But maybe I'm projecting when I think that you're just about as positive and negative as I am- though apparently my negativity seems to be what most people notice about my writing, since it's what most people apparently feel compelled to comment about on my blog.

saxifraga said...

Your days sounds a lot like mine. In the beginning I thought I would get really productive at some point (since that's what post docs are supposed to be, I thought), but no, all these little things you mention keep eating my time. But I do love the job. It sounds like you have a lot of freedom in your job description. So do I and I think that's the reason I don't have the feeling of being exploited others talk about.

Anyway, I delurked to comment on this. I have read your blog for a long time, but better late than never.

Anonymous said...

i can tell you what the postdoc in our lab does, notes down when i come in and when i leave, how long i talk on the phone ON THE WEEKEND and with whom, how much time i spend on email and then makes judgment on it and passes it on to our PI who is not around. I, as a first year grad student do what you describe you do, I have an undergrad i am mentoring, I have 3 different projects to deal with, plus, unlike the postdoc, I have classes to go to and homework to do. I dont know what the point of this is other than to say that I was surprised to read that other postdocs seem more down to earth, and dont think of themselves as some kind of a lab gatekeeper like ours. Anyway I look forward to reading your blog.

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