Sunday, May 20, 2007

What does a postdoc do - part II: The research

I was hired as a postdoc on a four-year research project beginning in December 2005. My contract runs the full lenght of the project and will end in December 2009. I packed my belongings, moved abroad and started my new position within the week after my dissertation defense and arrived with four papers from my dissertation in press and two yet to be submitted. I also brought one half-finished manuscript from my Master's research five years previously, which had been in and out of the dissertation several times due to disagreements between advisers.

The new project had barely started. What I do relies heavily on fieldwork, which is done in summer, so the first six months were mainly about getting acquainted with the new topic, planning the field season and trying to get my old manuscripts published. The new topic was closely related to my dissertation topic, though seen from a slightly different angle. I performed literature searches, went to field site country to meet with potential collaborators and got to know my new surroundings. I also wrote a reasonable full first draft of the old manuscript from my Master's and sent it off to my former advisor and fretted about how one of the dissertation manuscripts should be revised. My research group decided to participate in a collaborative proposal for a big grant. As one of the things we wanted to do was originally my idea, I wrote that part of the application and was involved in the fitting-it-all-together process. I don't remember how long time I spent on this, but as a group we were probably engaged in the grant writing activity more or less full time for a month. As summer was coming closer I spent almost all available time prepping for the field season. It is maybe not at the core of our work descriptions but for field scientists logistics takes an awful lot of time. It is paperwork and planning and booking and packing, shopping for personal gear and field equipment, figuring out a train table in a foreign land with a different alphabet, vaccinations and health checkups, learning how to use equipment, packing lists and did I mention shopping. At the same time I was offered a six months stint as a visiting professor in another place and made arrangements to continue my postdoc research alongside with the teaching while I was away.

While summer is the quiet time for many academics with time for in-depth thinking, reading and writing, summer is the busiest time of the year for someone in my field. Summer is the time for week-long field expeditions, for student field trips and for conferences. In the summer 2006 I spent 5 weeks in the field for my postdoc project, came home for four days, left for six months away beginning with twenty days of student field excursions and then preparations for the semester. Five weeks in the field ought to generate a lot of data, but often it feels like nothing has been achieved yet when we arrive back home. Much of the interpretation actually happens in the field along with data collection, but like everybody else we need time to dive into the literature and to connect the dots before getting to the writing phase. Most of all we wait for one specific kind of lab analysis to tell us whether the results are useful or not, and it is not unusual to wait for a year for those results.

Before I started the visiting positions I had ambitious ideas of all the work I would get done when I was not teaching. In reality I could barely keep up with necessities such as eating and sleeping. Teaching three courses - one of them an intensive undergrad course - and all of them for the first time was just not compatible with research activity. During the fall I went to one conference (at which I spent more time in my hotel room studying material for an upcoming graduate seminar), wrote one proposal for a field excursion (which I later had to cancel), wrote one proposal for a small independent grant (which I got), did some revise and resubmit work on the big grant proposal from spring and had a few meetings about some background material for the postdoc project. I didn't touch the manuscripts besides when moving the paper piles around in the office to make room for more class-related articles.

This spring, I'm one and a half year into the postdoc and I still haven't submitted any of the manuscripts I brought with me in a half-finished state when I arrived. I haven't written a word on any new paper related to the postdoc project (I finally finished the field report from last year less than a month ago). The postdoc project is still officially my main research activity and I do spend time on it, but mainly in terms of being responsible for the background material (involves drawing the strings to keep some other people working on this), organizing data from last year and planning logistics for this years field season. We got the big collaborative grant and while I am a co-PI on one of the modules I haven't really done any science in the project yet. It has a heavy outreach component which I have been quite involved in (attending meetings and developing ideas), but other than that others are keeping it flowing. I got the small independent grant and have been working on logistics and field preparations for that one for months. It is not a lot of hours per week, but it's always there in the back of my head and takes attention away from other activities. I am still working on the manuscript from my Master's. My former advisor finally got her act together and sent me comments in February and we have been working on it together on and off when time is available.

I don't dare to say when those darn manuscripts will be done, but hopefully I won't round the two-year mark without submitting at least some of them. This years field season begins in less than a week and I still need to participate in packing the shared field equipment, go through the results from last year, go to the dentist, pack my own stuff and spend time with Fiance, so it's not likely to happen right now.

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