State of the post-doc

It’s exactly a year since I packed up my life and jumped on a plane to South Africa. Since this anniversary has coincided with an outbreak of various discussions about the whys and wherefores of scientific career development, this seems an appropriate time to consider how things have been progressing. Have things turned out the way that I hoped they would? Am I ticking all the right boxes to allow me a grip on the next rung of the academic career ladder? Is Drugmonkey going to abuse me for being just another whiny junior academic?

To a certain extent, my move to Johannesburg was a jump into the unknown: I’d never been to Africa, and my communication with my new employers had consisted of one fairly lengthy phone conversation and a few e-mail exchanges. But although I was nervous, I had some idea of what I was doing. It had become clear that I needed to move on if I was to continue my development as a professional scientist, and maintain a decent research output; the project I was coming out to work on was within my area of expertise, but different enough from the subject of my PHD that I would learn valuable new skills; and the preliminary work that I’d been shown indicated that there was a reasonable prospect of getting some interesting science done.
I’ve come to the conclusion that if you want to maximise your chances of getting on the tenure track, there’s two main strands you have to attend to. The first is pedigree – establishing a solid and consistent research output, most tangibly expressed by your publication record. Do your papers make significant contibutions to the field? Has your output, and its quality, been maintained across different labs and projects, or might you just be riding on the coat-tails of a supervisor or collaborator? As it stands, my publication record is reasonable – I’ve got a few first-authored publications out of my PhD, and they’re starting to pick up some citations. My big New Zealand tectonics paper is finally going to hit the journals within the next month or two, and it should hopefully be joined by a couple of other products of my time in Southampton by the end of the year. At that stage I should also be in a position to write at least a couple of interesting publications about my South African research. It is of course up to others to judge to overall quality of my research, but I should at least be able to point to a steadily growing body of work for them to look at.
The second strand is a bit more tricky: it’s about establishing your potential, your capability to move up from working within someone else’s research programme to devising – and funding – your own. By definition, if you’re a post-doc then you’re not a principal investigator on a project, but you still have to try to exhibit signs of intellectual growth in the years after your PhD, by pursuing new avenues of research as the opportunities present themselves, and being more involved when new projects are started up rather than jumping on board later as a hired gun. I think that I’m also starting to make some progress in this area. I’m working on initiating a small side project, based on using a new piece of equipment available here in Johannesburg to follow on an important question that I wasn’t able to answer during my PhD. I also have an idea to extend my work here, which would involve collaborating with another group in the US (although I’m still fretting about how exactly to approach them) and could generate some quite interesting results. Although neither of these things is in prestigious multi-year research grant territory – my ideas in that area are still rather nebulous and need a lot more thinking through – I’m at least starting to turn vague inspiration into something a bit more practical. Also, thanks to the South African NRF recently awarding me a post-doctoral fellowship, which will help to fund my remaining time here, I have actual evidence that I have at least some talent for attracting research funding. This bit of good fortune is not only useful for the confidence that it will hopefully inspire in future employers; because I wrote the application myself, it gives me some confidence too.
Whilst I have no faith in my ability to be objective about my overall prospects, I think that I’m at least broadly heading in the right direction at the moment. My move has helped me in maintaining this course, and my general expertise has also benefited immensely from seeing some of the geological wonders that southern Africa has to offer. However, given how competitive things are in academia, I can’t afford to rest on my laurels or coast; I need to work hard to maximise my time here, and grab any opportunity to increase my visibility within my research community (which is a weakness not helped especially by being so far from Europe and the US). It hasn’t always been easy being so far from family and friends, in a country which can be a little volatile and intimidating at times (especially when you’re trying to negotiate Jo’burg traffic), but I still think that I made the right choice in coming here. It’s up to me to make sure that I still feel that way when I leave. That’s my assessment, anyway – feel free to contradict and/or advise me otherwise…

Categories: academic life

Comments (1)

  1. Propter Doc says:

    I think there is a third strand: Pride. That’s what makes you pitch at a certain level of institution, aim for a certain level of research expectation, or teaching environment. Pedigree and potential are important, but amount to nothing if your pride makes you pitch too high. Of course, one might argue that practical needs make you pitch at one level – resources, likelyhood of funding and students, and that would be perfectly valid. In the current academic climate (especially in the US/UK), you need to know what level you can get, and what you want to aim for. Aim high of course, but not so high you get burned.