Thursday, January 11, 2007

post-doc life: starting new projects vs. finishing old ones

I guess I've officially been a post-doc for almost 4 months now, starting on the day of my defense. In that time, I've managed to do the final edits to my dissertation, take care of some publication production issues on a paper that formed my 2nd chapter, and get my 3rd chapter revised and submitted for publication (as of yesterday). I've also done a lot of data processing and archiving for some datasets that were collected during my PhD but never used. I guess I could say that I've gotten good at getting things wrapped up and finished.

But starting new things? Like the bulk of what my post-doc is supposed to be about? I'm not so good at that right now. Sure, I've made small pieces of headway on the major and minor projects I am supposed to be working on. I've managed to do enough to meet external deadlines and to have something (small) new to share whenever I am asked how things are going. But I have not succeeded in really shifting my focus to the new project. When I have a couple of unstructured hours or days, I find that I still prefer to work on "old" stuff rather than new stuff.

I've been trying to come up with some excuses reasons for this phenomenon.
  1. The pregnancy and associated wanting to get old stuff out before baby arrives and not seeing the point to getting really involved in new stuff before taking maternity leave.
  2. I haven't moved to a different research group, so my boss (aside from being a cool guy) also has a stake in me getting my PhD pubs out and letting them occupy a significant chunk of my time.
  3. I didn't have any new data that were exclusively "mine" for the major project until early December.
  4. There's much more of a sense of professional accomplishment at the wrapping-things-up-stage than at the beginning stages of a project.
  5. Getting publications taken care of looks good on the CV - which is important when on the job market.
These reflections caused me to think about my experiences in contrast to that of the majority of post-docs - those who leave their PhD institutions shortly after defending, move somewhere new, and start a completely different project. I feel like my situation has some definite CV advantages (like getting the pubs out in a more timely fashion) and some big disadvantages (now there will be a bigger time gap between my PhD pubs and my post-doc pubs). My situation also has some work-life balance advantages (getting to work on PhD pubs during work hours rather than on evenings and weekends).

Now, four months into my post-doc, I'm definitely ready to dig in and fully immerse myself in the literature and data of my new projects. But I wonder how much I'll really be able to accomplish by the end of my post-doc funding. I'm pretty sure I can get a lot of data analysis done, but I probably won't get much paper writing done by September (even aside from maternity leave). And unless another year of funding miraculously appears, this means next fall I'll be experiencing what so many of my peers experienced on their first post-doc go-around: starting a new job with a lot of unfinished business hanging over my head and no dedicated time to do it. And I'm guessing that cycle starts, it just follows you for the rest of your career. Shouldn't there be a better way?

P.S. The Princess Pup has made a full digestive recovery. Thanks for your well wishes.


RJ said...

now there will be a bigger time gap between my PhD pubs and my post-doc pubs

On the plus side, any gap can be explained by having a baby. Which is pretty time consuming in itslf :-)

That said, my frame of reference is NZ and the UK, where maternity leave is mandatory, job protection and anti-discrimination provisions in place. Such a CV gap would be to be expected here.

Good luck for your labour. Every time I check your blog I wonder if Mini has arrived:-)

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