Monday, August 27, 2012

On the Road, vol. 2

Three six-week slots ago I was writing from Berlin in the midst of a long-ish research trip. I feel like I've been moving constantly ever since. When I left for Europe I'd just accepted a new job in another corner of the world, and that month on the road was partly spent getting used to the idea of a big transition.

Returning to Chicago in early May, I had 0% of the move organized. I hadn't even told a lot of people about it! By the middle of July I was entirely packed down (well, kinda...), my deconstructed apartment was on a truck somewhere in the Midwest, hurtling its way to the Pacific in the form of a boat docked off the coast of L.A. I was saying a lot of farewells.

Right now, I'm juggling a new role and the inevitable, mundane logistics of repatriation with the process of finishing my dissertation write-up. It's quite a balancing act, but it's also the kind of spatial and life transition that — varying the specifics — young researchers have to do almost routinely. Shaun (who very kindly helped me out six weeks ago, mid-move) has had his own intense post-PhD experience, and James will be finishing soon.

Realistically, I won't be able to be a ubiquitous presence on the blog in the months to come. But I'm fundamentally committed to the idea that it represents, so that rather than bowing out for a period I'd rather attempt to maintain a lighter presence here by posting snippets that might illuminate the transition from graduate school to professional life — which is a fundamental, even foundational aspect of academic life. Over the last months lots of people have empathized by telling me about their own post-PhD transition, whether it was undertaken 3 years or 3 decades ago. So I thought I'd use my own experience as a point of departure for a conversation and some fact-sharing about the joys and sorrows of academic and extra-academic nomadism.

In actual fact, I suspect that the juggling act of the coming months will be good for my work and writing in calling for a whole new level of discipline, and so intellectual and argumentative succinctness. But we'll see. Use the comments tool to ask me questions and I'll attempt to respond. And please, share the details about your own crazy move. 

Chicago, Illinois. June 2012.
Wellington, New Zealand. August 2012.

1 comment:

  1. The comment box is too small for me to tell my whole story. I feel like I could write an entire five season television drama.

    Speaking in generalities, one of the hardest bits about this phase is the uncertainty of what comes next. If you want to stay in research, you need a job. However, you're competing for postdoctoral positions with people who already have doctorates and who may have even had one or two or three postdoctoral jobs already. That's tough. So, while trying to make sure you've done enough research to have a complete thesis and finish writing it you're also having to apply for jobs (I wrote >50 applications), most of which you know you have almost no chance of getting. It becomes a war of attrition. All the jobs initially get offered to candidates with much more experience, then the jobs that weren't accepted get re-offerred, and sometime months later the people hoping for their first postdoc job finally start to get offers (often just because their supervisor calls in a favour, or a friend puts in a good word, or that person you met at a conference has money leftover that they will lose if they don't spend).

    I'm re-entering the looking for a job phase right now, but I feel much less dispirited about it. I have a PhD already. I have three more years of research experience. I know more people in my field (and they know me). I have a body of work to refer to in applications. The worst part I felt back 09/10 was that, looking at me on paper, *I* wouldn't have offered me a job, not when I could instead find someone more experienced. It's hard to write applications when you feel like that. This time round I would definitely offer me a job.

    I still have to wait and see whether the rest of the community feels the same of course...

    Anyway, it was that feeling of patheticness when applying for jobs that I didn't think I had any chance of getting that (at least until the very end of my thesis write-up) was the most difficult part of that period. Every application I sent felt like a complete waste of time, but had to be done... just in case. My eventual job here in Helsinki came through a favour called in by my supervisor. So, in one sense, all those applications *were* a pointless waste of time - not one of them was successful. However, what they did do was show my supervisor that I really wanted to stay in research and that it was worth calling in that favour (I guess).

    Other fields might not have such an over-competitive job market, but theoretical physics is a nightmare. The postdoc-->permanent job process is even worse (but lets not think about that just yet!)