One year as a doctor

Hey all,

I’m emerging from my now-typical silence to mark a special occasion. If you have wondered why the blog hasn’t been getting all sorts of new content to accompany my newfound free time, it’s largely because the topics I would have otherwise been writing about here are now appearing with some amount of frequency over at Nature Chemistry. I’m still interested in keeping this blog going, but I think I might change up the format a bit so that it is a little more philosophically separate from my day job. Keep your eyes peeled, I suppose!

So the special occasion – as I mentioned on Twitter the other day, today is the one-year anniversary of my PhD defence1.


Based on people’s suggestions regarding how I should celebrate the occasion, it’s clear that people had similar feelings toward their doctoral work as I did, someone going as far to include this very visceral suggestion:

I had plans to include big sweeping piles of advice for graduate students that detailed the intense year I’ve had and use that to try and motivate people.

Then I realised that I have no place to be doing that. Coincidentally, that has been the single most important bit of introspection I’ve had this entire time.

I should say that, since my defence, I’ve started and finished a postdoc with all of the various tasks that come with that (fellowships, etc), I moved to New York City, and now I’m in London as a professional editor. I think if you had told me after my defence that I would be living in London at this point, I would have asked what you were smoking. To be fair, they’re shipping me back to the States soon (apparently my insistence that I’m “reconnecting with my pre-colonial roots” has begun to wear on people). As an aside: the UK is pretty cool, but I’m not chomping at the bit to move over here permanently, by any means. That’s a separate blog post, though.

I’ve tried to extract as much meaning from my career moves as possible so that I can translate my experience into something useful for the students in my life. I’m certainly willing to give fine-grained advice, and I’m happy to answer questions, but the biggest thing I’ve learned in the past year is that most people, academics included, are just people figuring things out as they go along. More importantly, that’s totally fine.

Like everyone told me the entire time I was in graduate school, things do get better. Once you’re done, the rose-coloured glasses come on and everything feels peachy, they said. While I’m generally more positive about my graduate experience than I was when I was in the middle of it, I also haven’t quite come to the point where I’m going to say that I miss graduate school or that it wasn’t among some of the worst years of my life.

What I can say with some amount of confidence, though, is that part of the stress that I felt as a graduate student and a postdoc came from a really poor understanding not only of the “machine” of academia, but from a total misreading of my superiors’ motives. Since taking on my new role at Nature Chemistry, I’ve actually become reasonably close with my postdoc adviser, and he’s been my biggest champion since I left the lab. Since getting to know him a little better as an “equal” (lol, I haven’t earned that by any means yet), I’ve realised that I misinterpreted the basis for a number of the decisions that he made for the lab, and that gap in information between the two of us was, in hindsight, probably the real source of stress for me. I’m not sure that I would have made any one decision differently at the time, but I am glad to have finally reached some amount of clarity on the matter. I guarantee I’d make a much better postdoc this year than I was last year2.

If I were going to give any advice to a younger version of myself, it would be this: don’t worry so much, and talk to your boss over coffee a little more. Showing a little vulnerability and getting to know the people you work for goes a long way toward understanding why they do what they do and how they got where they are. Also, things have a way of working out – and spending every reaction worrying about how it advances your career just leads to needless stress.

I’m sure this advice won’t work for everyone, and I don’t think it’s meant to. The realisation I’ve had is that there isn’t one way to figure out this weird world of professional science. Instead, there are a million different ways that all have a bunch of highly motivated (and often highly stressed) people trying to navigate them. I don’t regret being hyper-prepared for every next step (things did work out alright for me in the end, I suppose), but I do wish I had just gone with the flow more often. My PhD adviser once said something to me along the lines of “Just let the science take you where it wants you to go,” and I don’t think she meant it the way that I’m choosing to interpret it, but there is some beauty in that sentiment, I think. We’re all just figuring it out3, so let your science do the talking.

Until next time, folks.


[1] Apparently Chrome’s autocorrect is region-sensitive. I’ll roll with the British spellings, I suppose. When in Rome…

[2] (Don’t worry, Stu – I’m not leaving!!!)

[3] Some more gracefully than others… Count me among the “clumsy”

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