Educated Woman, Postdoc Edition, Chapter 5: Why Is Life So Messy?

Hello all, back again in postdoc land. Another month has passed, and I’ve started executing some–but admittedly not all–of those baby steps I wrote about last month. Partly as a result, life is slightly improved. Do I still dislike my project? Yes–but I’m not the only one who knows it now. Is my professional life still a mess and my forward momentum slow? Yes–but there’s hope that it might get a little cleaner and faster. Let’s explore.

As long as our protestations remain vague, action doesn’t need to be taken right away–really, what would you do to “fix” an annoying co-worker? But sometimes it’s a good idea to bring in a supervisor–do you want an abusive co-worker spazzing out on you, with no warning, daily?

If the person you vent to is a good sounding board, he or she will push things back into your court, asking “What are you doing to improve your situation?” or “Is there something about your situation or your response you can change?” or “How can you voice your concern in the most strategic/appropriate way?” What can you do, they ask, to make things better? This can be helpful, but it reinforces an old–and not always good–lesson we learned in grad school: It’s your problem, so deal with it yourself.

This month, I moved from venting to voicing–voicing specifics, that is, to my adviser. Why did it take me so long to have this chat? The first reason is my usual fear of conflict. Second, I haven’t been here that long, so I wanted to wait until I could be sure my discomfort wasn’t just growing pains. Third, I didn’t want to say anything until I had a pretty good idea how my adviser would react to the conversation. I guess I was afraid he would say “Get over it, it’s not my problem,” or “Get out, we don’t need you anyway,” instead of the hoped-for “What can I do to help remedy the situation?”

I think it makes sense for people who aren’t satisfied to air their grievances, but it’s important to do it constructively and strategically. It took me a while to figure out how to present my issues to my adviser without sounding like a whiny kid. The key, I decided, was to have something specific to suggest instead of just complaining. I didn’t want to just dump my problems in my adviser’s lap. I wanted to demonstrate at least a little bit of self-reliance.

This is a habit that graduate school ingrains in us, and sometimes it’s a good habit. We learn to search for our own answers instead of relying on other people. It’s a good quality when you’re working at the frontiers of knowledge–when nobody else knows the answer either–but not when there are other people out there who can help. It keeps us wallowing in our misery until we can’t stand it anymore instead of taking steps that could fix the situation, like talking to my adviser.

So finally I had that big conversation–actually it was a series of small conversations–and it seems to have made things a little better. We talked about some of my other interests and how I might be able to pursue them while continuing in my current job, and about how the project I’m working on isn’t what I had hoped it would be.

I’m still not crazy about my situation, but having an adviser who will listen and be supportive–emotionally and practically supportive–instead of passing judgment or deeming me incompetent has helped me open up and begin to find solutions. It’s a great contrast to my graduate-school adviser, who, although he was a fine person, was young and still learning what to do, and what not to do, in managing his students. We were the guinea pigs. My old adviser wasn’t patient with indecision or things he was unfamiliar with, and he could be very critical if you came to talk to him before all your ducks were in a row–at a time of life when most of us have trouble just knowing where all our ducks are, or even that we have any ducks. My postdoc adviser is more confident, which, in turn, boosts my own confidence. He treats me with respect, and I have faith in him.

Fortunately, research-wise things have moved a little faster than I thought they would. I joined a project that was already up and running. I have been able to contribute through the veil of my disdain, and it looks as if I might get a few publications before I run away–this, in stark contrast to my graduate school experience of slogging through incompetence (mine and my adviser’s) and learning the research ropes and hoping that something would work (it did, eventually). Now I’m working on a larger project with more people, and we’re all working together to march the research forward. I’m learning that the go-it-alone approach I relied on in graduate school isn’t the only way–or the best way–to do things. Sometimes it’s good to rely on other people.

All in all, I’m relatively okay. Exploring new options is good for the psyche, and keeping the old paycheck coming is good for the bills that need to be paid. Do I perceive something in the mist that resembles a way forward? Maybe.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700076

Harvard grad student unionization up in the air

Yours Transferredly: New Territories Beyond the Great Unknown