The Three-Postdoc Postdoc

This new year, I will be starting a new job. Sort of.

This will be my third postdoc in as many years. Because my first mentor left the institution one year after I started (coinciding with the birth of my son), and because under the circumstances I made too many concessions when choosing my next mentor, I now have two red flags on my CV. I am about to become a Post-Post-Postdoc.

There are many reasons that I have ultimately chosen to bruise my resume with another eyebrow-raising transition. They all fall under the umbrella of misaligned goals and expectations between myself and my mentor. Some highlights are:

  • She (a mother herself) expects me to work as if I am not a parent,
  • Has refused every scientific or infrastructural suggestion I have made to facilitate progress,
  • Has asked me to quit my fellowship training program to commit more hours to lab work,
  • Has stated that the extensive medical attention my son has required in his first year is irrelevant, and
  • Has encouraged trying to change my husband’s work hours (as if we are not already both burning the candle at both ends) to facilitate my working longer.

Role models who have blazed the trail for women research scientists have made these sacrifices (and more) to get to lead their owns labs at research intensive institutions. My present mentor included. Though I have always wanted to be one of these women, I am not willing to make these sacrifices. And as I turn 34, I have accepted that this is a choice and a desire, not a failure.

My commitment to teaching and making science accessible to the next generation outweighs my interest in leading scientific research, and my career goals have transformed over my first two postdocs to reflect this. I am now focused on leading a small research program and a teaching intensive institution. It is for these reasons that I pursue yet another postdoc instead of diving into the job market. In order to be eligible for entrance into the professoriate, I need to have publications in the new field I plan to research, and I could stand a bit more teaching and management training from my fellowship.

Academia has trained generations of scientists that following a 1-PhD to 1-Postdoc training track in progressively higher-power prestigious labs will assuredly lead to high impact publications and success in a tenured research scientist position. I always wanted to brut force my way through this so that as a research scientist I could run a lab that broke with this outdated dogma, and provided a supportive environment where both science and young scientists could flourish.

But it turns out that I am not willing to endure the particular flavor of misery in my current prestigious high-power lab for the next 6 years in order to approach the slim chance of achieving this. And what’s more, there are already women who have done and are doing this. And they deserve the support of talented, motivated postdocs as they build their labs. So, my next lab mentor is a young investigator invested in mentorship, teaching, effectiveness, collaboration and productivity. And I have laid all my cards on the table, as has she. She is supportive of my continued fellowship training (which is both dear to my heart and clutch to my academic future), and of my publication goals over the next 2-3 years.

I aim to upset the dogma, and look at my Post-Post-Postdoc experience not as a series of red flags, but as a unique experience that challenges and diversifies my strengths. And in a new environment that supports my professional goals as well as personal life, I think I have a pretty good shot at success.

Perhaps I can be a role model after all.

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