Friday, December 12, 2008

retrospe¢tive: p0stdoc, semester 1

i wrote this last week but haven't gotten around to posting it until now. lately the end of the semester has caused me to lose any ability to focus on anything. research is in the back seat, especially today.

my students have their final and i have grading to do: both are arduous tasks. maybe after this weekend, i will be able to think again.

when i was a graduate student i met many postdocs. while there, my research group was one among many, and until recently, at any given point that group would have 2-3 postdocs.

thinking about it, it was a minor aspiration of mine to become one. as a student, i simply could not imagine being tenured or tenure-track faculty. there would be too many strikes against me.

i'm irresponsible; i know it. i don't know how to do research. besides, how will i ever know enough (and know it well) in order to teach a graduate course? could i possibly be a mentor to others and not inadvertently ruin their lives?

on the other hand, i could imagine being a postdoc when i was ready for it. it seemed to be something within reach. it looked like the good life, or at least, a good enough life: traveling here and being invited there, collaborating with good people, writing papers.

to this day, i don't know if i was ready to become a postdoc this year .. but i know i was definitely, unambiguously ready to finish graduate school. maybe i wouldn't make it as a researcher, and maybe i'll crash and burn. but ye gods, i want to try.

it's almost the end of my first term as a postdoc. i've made my first-timer mistakes and i already have some regrets. i've not done very much research, i've not gotten back to my collaborators (yet), and i've written less than i would like.

a year ago, i think i would have viewed it as a failure. a year, however, will change you.

it changed me: it took me a whole thesis before i could understand that worthwhile goals take time -- enough time to cause a mental itch or two -- and that we can only work a day at a time.

i've told graduate students this for encouragement: there's no reason why things in life should ever work out for the best, but for some reason, they do. working hard doesn't guarantee success, but it is important to keep working: of all those little claims and sub-lemmas and thrown-out mistakes that we collect, over months and months of work, some of them will be useful. you won't know until later, but they will be.

the best part is that it's not a lie -- not to me, anyway.

as for why it's not a failure,

i'm learning new things. i never thought that i'd study things related to non1inear e1asti¢ity or think about st0chastic games, much less learn them from people who are happy to tell me about them.

i may not have written much, but i have a better feeling of what i want to write. it will take time to put it all down into latex and to revise it into something that won't disgust me and others. a spring semester won't be enough time, but then again, who in life ever has "enough time?"

lastly: i feel useful, albeit a slight fraud. i know people who really study the ana1y$is on metri¢ $pa¢es, and i don't think i'm one of them. on the other hand, apparently my opinion is in the minority. sometimes a fraud can be a good thing: if i'm supposed to know things about metric spaces, then it means that i should learn more about them and become better ..

.. and maybe, just maybe, i will.


Anonymous said...

These feelings are one of the reasons that 2 postdocs are now becoming the norm. If the current economy continues for a few years, that would indeed be your best option.

janus said...

i have been thinking about the economy and whether or not a 3-year postdoc can ride through the worst of it.

independently of this, i wonder if i would be ready to be faculty -- the faculty that i would want to be -- after one postdoc. maybe a second postdoc is a good idea.

Anonymous said...

I think of a second postdoc as a desperation step. Don't count on it too heavily.

janus said...

maybe it is a desperate measure, but if the economy continues the way it has, then in some years, i might find myself in desperate times. \: