“So, what’s next?”
As I hurtle towards #phd2012, I’m getting that question a lot these days; from family members, casual acquaintances, cab drivers and dental hygienists. Those who know me really well– colleagues, close friends, my spouse– know the answer, or at least some vague approximation. From everyone else, it’s a question that gives me more pause than “What do you research?” I’ve got a pretty good collection of answers to the research question, which vary depending on who’s asking and how much time I have. But the “what’s next?” answer is harder, because it involves discussing that netherword of academia that doesn’t have a particularly good analog outside the Ivory Tower:
I’m going to be a postdoctoral researcher.
My family (who are not academics) are especially confused as to why I’m not getting a “real job” after eleven years in college and three degrees. My current (and somewhat unsatisfactory) analogy is that a postdoc position is like a holding pattern for an aircraft, while you’re waiting for clearance to land from air traffic control. Taken literally, this analogy is perhaps apt but a little scary– the aircraft only has so much fuel (i.e., grant money), so at a certain point you either have to refuel, land, or crash. The thing is, you don’t know which runway you’ll get clearance for, or how long you’ll have to be in the air.
The postdoc explanation inevitably sounds more bleak than I mean it to. I try to maintain a balance between being realistic and being positive, which means that I do everything I can to increase my odds, and then trust that I’ve done my best. I’m faced with the uncertainty of where I’ll be living and what I’ll be doing six months from now, and that’s sobering. I’m getting used to the idea that I’m going to be spending the next decade proving myself until tenure brings some semblance of security. At this stage, I’m still more excited than nervous about that.
I submitted my first postdoc application on January first– an auspicious start to the new year, one hopes. Today, Saturday, I’m in my windowless office working on a second application, instead of enjoying Madison’s unseasonably warm weather and sunshine. I force my brain to go through the acrobatics required to jump from one project idea to another, and back to my dissertation, several times in one day. I find a strange consolation in the fact that every postdoc application I work on becomes my favorite– that even now, in what should be the most stressful period of my academic career to date, I find myself excited by new questions.
In fact, it’s the questions that keep me up at night; or, rather, the thought of how any particular postdoc will change my career trajectory. I’m an ecologist and biogeographer with a dissertation on how plants responded to climate change and the extinction of the ice age megafauna. This means that there’s a rather broad list of possible positions I could apply for, though my ideal postdoc position would be a combination of modern and paleo-ecology, implementing fieldwork and modeling, and could involve plants, animals or both. A postdoc can be an opportunity to take your research in a new direction and pick up complementary skills (I’m interested in species distribution modeling and ancient DNA, for example, which are pretty different fields!), but I’m also aware that researchers are unlikely to want to train someone from the ground up (so the ability to pick up skills independently is a plus). The advice I’ve gotten is that 1) you have to strike a balance between skills you can bring to a lab and skills you can pick up, 2) interesting questions can ultimately be more important than study systems, and 3) know what you don’t want to do (I, for one, don’t want to count any more pollen grains for a postdoc!).
I’ve got a few more postdoctoral application deadlines coming up in the next few weeks, and they include a mix of funded and independent projects. I’m most interested in big-picture questions with relevance to global change concerns: How do communities respond to multiple threats, like climate change and extinction? Can we see legacies of past change in the ecosystems of the present? How and why do novel ecosystems emerge? How important are ecological keystones? How does our concept of what is “natural” influence ecosystem management? How does knowing about past ecosystem change help us to understand how plants and animals respond to the future, and what might limit the ability of organisms to adapt to change?
In the most broad terms, most of the positions I’m applying for involve– at least at some level– understanding (and predicting) how organisms respond to climate change. When it comes to the details, they’re each quite different, and involve working in a wide range of geographic locations (and elevations!) and study organisms. Sometimes, I feel like a kid in a toy store with choice fatigue…and then I remember that the toy that will pick me, ultimately. I can only ask my spouse, “so, would you rather live in X or Y?” so many times when the question is still academic at this point. Which usually means it’s time to get back to work, because no one will take me as a postdoc if I haven’t finished my dissertation.