Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Living in Limbo: The life of a post-doc

Currently, I am a postdoc. I am one of the fortunate ones with a faculty position at exciting U waiting for me (starting Fall 2006). Being a post-doc is one of the most interesting job situations out there. On the one hand, I receive much more respect and freedom than I did while pursuing my Ph.D. On the other hand, I am paid 1/3 to 1/2 of what I could make in industry. In my field (engineering), people pretty much only do a post-doc if they are planning on heading into academics, but in several other fields this is not true. In biology, for example, it is not uncommon to do several back-to-back multi-year postdocs lasting 2-3 years each! It is really demeaning to spend 4-7 years getting a Ph.D. and then another 4-7 years as a postdoc not making that much more than many students with a BS.

The actual nature of the postdoc depends on the advisor. I have very good advisors who give me freedom to explore scientific goals within the general scope of our project. They do not ask me to work crazy hours, but expect a standard commitment from me. This is a little different from grad school, where working fewer hours seems to just delay your graduation. [Of course faculty members with funding and publishing concerns may not see it this way!]. The upshot is that you may not get to take off a day because you just don't feel like it, or come in a little late, or leave a little early...it is much more 9 to 5.

This has resulted in a bit of a squeeze for my family. In grad school, I was the one responsible for most of the doctor's appts, school meetings, etc. for the kids. Now that I have two weeks vacation and two weeks sick leave, it is much more difficult for me to do these things. My daughter's school starts at 8:45, and I have to be at work by 8:30 (to leave before my kids are in bed). I don't think the teachers there would know me if I wore a shirt saying Hi, I'm ---'s Mom. I do regret my loss of interaction with my kids lives. It is a tradeoff that is always being made, the benefits and consequences always being measured, and I never know if I have made the right decision.

Because a postdoc is not meant to be a permanent position, it is not clear that unhappiness now will equal unhappiness in a faculty position. It is one of things where we will just have to wait and see. But while I'm waiting, how much are my children missing out on. What if it really is the wrong decision and I have wasted a few years of my and THEIR lives pursuing a butterfly, a lark. I guess we can only hope that the carrot at the end of the stick is worth the race to get it.


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