Katie Wheat recently graduated with a PhD in Psychology from University of York and now works as a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Cognitive Neuroscience at Maastricht University. She is currently using brain imaging and magnetic brain stimulation methods to explore aspects of how the brain recognises written words.
Since submitting my thesis in January 2012 and starting my first postdoc in February, there has been a long period of adjustment. I think there are many reasons for this, and I am interested in connecting with other researchers to see if they have had (or are having) similar experiences. Some days I think I know what it is to be a postdoc and other days I am transported back to day one of my PhD. I have found limited advice surrounding the transition from student to independent researcher, and some days I wonder if I will ever stop feeling like a student.
It doesn’t help that the line between PhD student and postdoc is naturally fuzzy: (in my case) step 1 – submit thesis, step 2 – defend thesis, step 3 – submit final copy, step 4 – receive confirmation of award, step 5 – graduate. I started my postdoc before my graduation (the day I actually became a doctor), so for a while I felt like a bit of an imposter, and that they might still take away my PhD and kick me out of my job (see these great posts by Athene Donald and Scicurious for more on ‘imposter syndrome’). This feeling has eased a little now I have formally graduated, but I am still pondering the slow and gradual transition to independent researcher.
Another contributing factor is that I moved departments and countries to take up my postdoc (as I’m sure many people do). I don’t regret this decision at all and I am enjoying the new learning opportunities that I am being exposed to, however, beginning my postdoc didn’t feel much like a promotion when I was going back to asking the simplest of questions. After spending four years in the same department (during my Masters and PhD), the move to a new place did undermine my confidence to start with. It doesn’t help that many of my colleagues speak to each other in Dutch or German (which I don’t speak), so it can be hard to get to know people and to join in with small talk. A few months on and I am starting to feel a bit more at home in my new department, but I do still sometimes feel like the PhD students around me are racing ahead.
When I originally posted this article, I had quite lot of feedback surrounding the idea that being a scientist, a researcher, and an academic is a continual learning process, and that we should all expect these new learning opportunities and embrace them. I do agree with this – as I think anyone who wants to pursue a career in academia probably would – and in response I would say that new opportunities for learning on their own do not pose a problem; more of a challenge to be embraced. Therefore, it is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has made the transition from PhD student feel so difficult for me. I think each small change and challenge becomes so much more overwhelming when they are combined.
The role of a postdoctoral researcher also comes with a new level of independence and responsibility compared to that of a PhD student, and while a certain level of independence can be liberating, it can also be quite daunting. The change from very close supervision to very absent supervision contributes to this feeling a lot. Furthermore, as a PhD student it felt like there was a constant safety-net in place, both via my direct supervisor and via the support network of my department. Although each PhD is unique, it felt to me like everyone around me passed roughly the same milestones, and went through similar experiences. Naturally, career paths and experiences become more diverse with each rung of the academic ladder, so that as a postdoc there is much more freedom and much less expectation that a certain path must be followed. This can be a very positive thing, but I do find it difficult not knowing where I will go next (or how I should get there), which takes me back to the feeling of uncertainty that I had towards the end of my PhD journey.
Finally, I have also found another source of information and reassurance since I first wrote about this topic (to complement the many great resources that I spoke of last time, such as Biggerbrains, The Postdocs Forum, and of course, The Research Whisperer). Although it previously seemed like there was a lack of solidarity between postdocs (compared to PhD students), I was gladly proved wrong. I had wondered if there was an internal or external expectation that we should have figured it all out by now or a feeling of competition between postdocs that stopped them coming together to support each other. It seems that I just needed to reach out and find them. While searching for an existing group, I came across a few other people tweeting about needing a ‘#PhDchat for postdocs’. It seemed like there was some interest in a group for people who have moved beyond the PhD stage, but still need the kind of support provided by #PhDchat. So, we have now created a weekly chat on Twitter where postdocs and other early career researchers (or anyone interested in academic career issues) can come together to share advice and resources. At the time of writing, this chat is still very new, but it seems to have the potential to grow and at the very least it seems like I am not the only one who has been looking out for this kind of community and support. So, if you have also been feeling somewhat uncertain in your new ‘postdoc shoes’ or during any phase of your academic career, I would encourage you to join us at #ECRchat and share your experiences.
Some of the points I have raised are specific to my circumstances, but did you experience any similar (or different) problems during the transition from PhD student to postdoc? Do you think there is more we can do as a community to support each other along the academic career path? If you would like to share your own experiences or advice, please do so via the comments below.