The Postdoc Grind: Part 2
May 2014 (perspective of a postdoc)
Before starting my faculty job at the University of Rochester in Fall 2014, I am spending the 2013–2014 academic year at MIT as a postdoc in Rob Miller's research group. I accepted my Rochester job offer in 2013 but deferred my start date for a year so that I could do a postdoc to prepare. It's been the best career decision I've made so far in my life, and I'm incredibly grateful to Rob, his students, and our funders for this opportunity.
Since I'm nearing the end of my stay here, I wanted to reflect on the past year. Five months ago, I wrote up mid-point reflections in Preparing for Junior Faculty Life. That article emphasized day-to-day tactical training such as how to manage attention, tame emails, and make on-the-spot decisions. This one will focus on higher-level strategic themes.
I began my postdoc year with the following mission:
Learn as much as I can about being a professor, even at the expense of short-term raw productivity.
Having a clear mission statement greatly simplified decisions and prevented analysis paralysis. Whenever I had to choose between doing X or Y at work, I always chose the option that helped me learn more about being a professor, even at the expense of short-term raw productivity.
Specifically, when I was interviewing for faculty jobs last year, I discovered that the three new skills all junior faculty need to learn were research advising, teaching, and grant writing. Thus, I tried to develop those skills this year.
The clearest embodiment of this mission statement was in how I approached research over the past year.
If I had wanted to optimize for raw productivity, then I would've hunkered down and super-grinded on my own projects. I certainly had the funding, uninterrupted time, and advisor support to do so. Although this path would've been better for advancing my own research agenda, I wouldn't have learned anything about being a professor. In essence, I would've just been a more seasoned Ph.D. student, cranking out mostly first-author papers like I had done throughout grad school. More of the same.
Instead, I opted to advise as many students on their projects as possible without worrying about how it would benefit my own research agenda. I ended up spending most of the year working closely with 4 Ph.D. students and 2 undergraduates on their research, and informally advising a few more students. It was a deeply humbling experience, since I had never advised students on research before coming here.
I spent a lot of effort figuring out what worked and didn't work for each individual student. As a first-time research advisor, I made many amateur mistakes and often wasn't as effective as I had liked. But this is all crucial training for becoming a professor who will soon run his own lab. My future career success hinges on working effectively with students to produce research as a team. Thus, it's better that I stumble and learn from these advising mistakes now as a postdoc rather than in the coming years when I have my own students.
Here is the main lesson I've learned about research advising:
Every student has different strengths, weaknesses, aspirations, fears, desires, insecurities, loves, hates, wants, and needs. But EVERYONE* wants to work hard to produce something they are proud of.
The main challenge that I face in the coming years is how to align my core research priorities with the individual skills, preferences, and motivations of each of my future students. This seems like the best way to maximize both productivity and long-term happiness. It will probably still take me a while to become a good research advisor to my own students, but I'm so glad that I've already gotten a year of practice.
*I'm getting a biased sample since these are ultra-driven MIT students. Also, I wasn't their advisor, so they interacted with me differently than they would with their real advisor. Nonetheless, I still believe in the power of discovering and fostering each student's intrinsic motivation.
During the Spring 2014 semester, I co-taught the MIT User Interface Design and Implementation class (6.813 / 6.831) with Rob, my postdoc advisor. I had been a teaching assistant for several classes throughout grad school, but this was my first time as an instructor standing in front of a lecture hall filled with ... students browsing Facebook and YouTube on their laptops.
When Rob asked me to co-teach this class, I immediately agreed because it aligned perfectly with my mission statement. Teaching was not part of my official postdoc responsibilities, and it would surely take time away from my raw research productivity. But my mission this year was to learn to become a professor, and teaching is obviously a substantial component of that job.
Throughout the past semester, I've learned an incredible amount of practical knowledge about teaching and administering a large university class. Our class had almost 300 students, 4 instructors (including Rob and myself), and 9 teaching assistants, so there was a lot of behind-the-scenes logistical work to ensure that everything ran smoothly. I learned a ton from watching how Rob and the other instructors (who were all senior MIT professors) deftly handled all sorts of contingencies and mini-crises that arose throughout the semester.
Predictably, I made a bunch of amateur mistakes and got hung up on issues that wouldn't have fazed more experienced instructors. But it's better to make those mistakes now than next year when I must start teaching on my own without senior colleagues at my side. Along the way, I've picked up many tips and tricks that will hopefully make my future classes run more efficiently.
It's no secret that STEM professors at research-intensive universities spend a significant part of their time writing research grants to fund their labs. And it's also no secret that grant acceptance rates are hitting all-time lows, with success rates around 10% to 15% for many U.S. programs.
My own career survival depends on continually winning grants to fund my lab. Put starkly, no grants means no Ph.D. students means no publications means that I get fired in a few years. Simple as that! I've fully accepted that this is the life I signed up for when I left my comfortable engineering job at Google and returned to academia to pursue my research passions.
Since I recognized the vital importance of grants, I spent two months this year writing my first two research grant proposals. It was great to get feedback from Rob and other mentors. In the end, although I was proud of what I submitted, I probably made a bunch of first-timer mistakes that reduced my chances of winning. Again, what's important is that I make those mistakes now during my postdoc year rather than in the coming years at Rochester as financial pressures grow more imminent. Like any new skill, grant writing takes time to learn, so I'm glad that I got to start early.
Training for Poise
In sum, I'm very grateful for the chance to get hands-on experience with research advising, teaching, and grant writing in the past year, since those skills are crucial for jump-starting my career. I'm far better prepared now than if I had started my faculty job a year earlier in Fall 2013.
A higher-level skill I've been learning throughout this year is how to become more poised at work. I've grown more calm, confident, and steady in my decision-making. Events that used to get me totally frazzled and paralyzed for the entire day now faze me for only a few minutes before I decide how to react.
I admit that I've only begun figuring out how to navigate a research-intensive academic career, and that there are still lots of unforeseen surprises that will blindside me in the future. But my ongoing effort to grow more poised is a step in the right direction. I'm excited to see what happens in the coming years!