Thursday, January 25, 2007

On being a post doc in an unusual setting

I am hired on a four-year postdoc contract with my salary tied directly to a research project. My PI could have decided to use me as his personal assistant to get as many publications out as possible, but clearly he is a very different kind of person who has given me plenty of space, responsibility and room for career development. Most recently with adding this higher-up administrative position to my responsibilities, making me stand out as some odd freak-of-nature in the postdoc world. I think I am going to talk more about the background of this in a separate post at some point, but aside from my boss being the particular kind of character that he is, I also think it has to do with the character of my workplace. I am affiliated with a government research institute and not a university and though we have a high research profile now and some top of their field research departments this is all relatively new and the way of thinking in the administration is often closer to the public agency kind of institution than an academic one. The build-up of successful research groups in some departments has been driven by individuals who have had the interest, the guts and the research pedigree to make this happen, and I sometimes get the feeling that some of the other departments don't really get neither what we are doing and why we are doing it.

My own department has changed over the past five years ago from a few successful individuals who did most of their research activities with external partners into a fully fledged research department with six permanent positions on professor/ associate professor level, three post docs and two PhD students. This year we will have another post doc and some Master's students. Many are also affiliated with and teach at either the local or other universities and we do all our research in collaboration with universities and other research institutions. But this is all new. The whole idea of having post docs in a stopover position is new to most people here. The usual way of thinking has been that people who were originally hired in some sort of temporary position would usually stick around and with time get permanently employed if they were not completely hopeless. I was the second post doc hired in this department and it was strongly indicated by everyone that this would most likely develop into a permanent position. But, because there is always a but you know, my employment was also part of a hiring wave across all the research-heavy departments and now the administration is obviously waking up to the new order of the day. What are they going to do with all those new people hired in temporary positions? Can they really find permanent positions for all of us like they used to with the odd short-term employee in the past? And ironically because the research departments are doing so well now, there are more grants, with more postdocs and more PhDs and the whole thing is just growing and growing.

Obviously this is not a stable situation, especially since all of us new hires, are here for the research perspectives and with ambitions of getting our own grants and own post docs and PhDs. From the administrative perspective it is clear that future post docs and PhDs can not expect to stay here after their contracts have run out. For us who are already here, the situation is a bit trickier. On one hand we will most likely stay and it will most likely do us good to serve the department and the institution well in order to make the higher ups see why they should create the positions for us (that was also part of the game plan in offering me this administrative gig). On the other hand we need to keep up with publishing, teaching, grants, international collaborations and everything else that might add to give us a shot at the rare faculty positions in our field. At the same time we are walking on a very fine line between admitting that we are keeping our outside options open and requesting time for activities related to that (e.g. teaching) while at the same time conveying interest and effort in building up a future here.

In many ways I like the university environment better. I miss the day to day contact with students and would like to be more involved in the education part, and in the beginning I was almost certain that I would try to switch to a university at some point. Now I don't know. I do want to keep my options open for faculty positions and do want to have some teaching and advising responsibilities, but I do also like the potential for development I see here. The financial resources are better, the support structure around research is better than I would expect at most universities and we have more time to do research (though I doubt this at the moment...). But I think this playing all games at the same time is very likely to get me down. I cannot put equal emphasis on a strong research record, a heavy administrative load, teaching, advising, service and being a good citizen in my department. This has been a source of major frustration but also for a lot of hope because I do feel I have the chance here to play on many strings and try my hand at responsibilities somewhat out of the ordinary for a post doc.

Submitted for the first carnival of postdocs hosted by Propter Doc at "What's up post doc?"

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