6 months on the other side: life as a postdoc

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In January 2021, I joined the Zuse Institute as a postdoctoral researcher. After six months, most of which were in home office or remote, I wanted to put down a couple of simple observations.

Position of postdocs and PhDs in labs

The completion of a PhD is tied to carrying out a full well-scoped research project with a high degree of autonomy. The well-scoped aspect depends on the country and domain one works in. Stopping the work on a project requires defining another one and does not go lightly. The doctoral experience is about making your work revolve around a research project for which the PhD candidate has a high degree of ownership. Collaborations are mostly about bringing other people around this project, and the research one conducts is also their status to some extend.

A postdoc can conduct a single or multiple research projects which can be evolved, paused, or regrouped without changing one’s status. A project can also be continued while the person’s status changes (for example switching to another position). In my case, research as a postdoc is massively parallelized compared to what my PhD was (probably too much so). This implies accepting not to be the main actor on every aspect of each of these projects. It also meant playing wider on research domains and accepting not to enjoy the same level of depth, thus often asking “why does this work” or “where is this coming from” instead of silently taking notes and then spending a solid day looking up references.

In some sense, a PhD can look like a planet with its surrounding moons and transient asteroids. Its motion is explained in a larger system but it is in itself the center of some activity. In contrast, day-to-day work as a postdoc is akin to making your way in an N-body dynamics problem. There is still some individual focus around larger spheres, but there can be multiple centers driving motion.

These observations are very situational: not all postdocs have to or choose to wrestle with multiple research projects upfront. Some funding requires more or less one’s full time and attention, without the expectation to complete other projects or paper simultaneously.

A quick perspective on a postdoc career

I’ll wrap up this post on a more personal note. Pursuing a career as a postdoc is not an obvious choice, nor is it a neutral one.

I applied for doctoral programs for the experience of the PhD in itself, not as a gate to something else like an academic career. I started without strong priors on whether I wanted to pursue a career in academia, public research, an industrial job or getting back to an entrepreneurial environment. As time went on, I realized I did enjoy not only the activity of a researcher but also the environment, or at least a part of it significant enough. This does not mean the environment is great in all aspects, it means the set of tradeoffs it implies were ones that correspond well to my expectations. This is why I would consider it as not a neutral choice.

Some people get away with starting a PhD in places they know or have links with. This was my case as I had lived and had connections in both cities where my PhD was planned. However, it’s often not a path one can follow that easily for a postdoc (at least in STEM) as researchers are expected to move to other labs and institutions.

Personal relations were hard to maintain during the beginning of the pandemic but were at least equally hard to maintain regardless of one’s location. Being people’s remote relation when things are opening up is a more complex position to keep these bonds and staying on the other side of locked borders weighed more on some of my relationships than I could have anticipated. In this sense is a career path which can structurally pull you away from things and people that matter not an obvious choice.

Mathieu Besançon
Mathieu Besançon
Researcher in mathematical optimization

Mathematical optimization, scientific programming and related.