Hello, all. I’m back for another installment. It has been a very busy summer already, and as you may or may not have noticed, as we toil away trying to make progress on our projects and make sense of our choices, wise and foolish, life rattles on. Graduations, weddings, babies, birthdays--these are occasions when we take the party clothes out of the closet (or purchase new ones because nothing in our closet fits) and go play with others who may have known us in another life, but somewhere along the way, our paths diverged.
They went to the real working world or chose business, law, or medical school, and we chose another path. I recently attended the wedding of a college friend and was struck by how different everything felt. We had known each other for well over a decade, but the wheel of life seemed to roll forward abruptly, affording me the opportunity to look, through someone else's eyes, at what I had become. It's funny how someone else's life event can cause you to see your own life in stark relief.
"Let's compare" is a dangerous game. Advanced degree, no advanced degree. Good job, bad job. Loving companion, no loving companion, but freedom and solitude. Adorable child, screaming child, or empty nest. Condo, house, apartment. Snazzy car, piece of junk you're still driving from graduate school. No matter how you measure up, sometimes staring at what you want in the face--someone else's blessed event--can be the carrot (or is it a stick?) you need to get yourself moving toward the things you always planned on doing but put off because of graduate school. Grad school is over now.
As most of you know, I've been trying desperately to regain some momentum in my post grad-school life. I've had some small successes. Degree? Check. Snazzy car? Check. Job? Check. Job I like? Um … not quite. Momentum to change my life? Um … sort of. Incredible frustration? Check.
Recently I made a little discovery about myself. I know it may be a little late, but I just realized that I really do need positive reinforcement and feedback (also known as carrot) rather than simply trying to deal with or negate all of the negative stuff I received in graduate school (also known as a stick with nails on it).
Way back, long ago, when we were bright, precocious elementary school students, positive feedback was automatic. Do good work, get good grades, achieve, move forward, rinse, and repeat. Grades and evaluations reinforced our goodness or gave us a reason to push harder if that was the measuring stick that we lived our lives by.
These things all but disappear in graduate school, where positive reinforcement is fleeting and failure is frequent and frustrating. Rigorous performance appraisals are rare and unexpected; informal critiques are frequent, heavy on criticism and light on laurels. Our recent personal history teaches us that what we will most likely receive when we seek guidance is a swift kick in the pants or a blow from that stick with nails. No pats on the head, no "good job," no "thanks for trying," just "work harder."
Unfortunately, I'm not as good at willing myself back into "work-harder" mode. Things just aren't what they used to be. It's not that I've lost willpower, or character, or gumption. It's that I've lost patience with pointless things. I need backup.
And this month, I got some. Yes, a carrot! More than one, in fact, and from more than one source!
Carrot #1. I had my first performance review and it wasn't bad. In fact, it was rather good. It seems I'm back in a place--a government lab--where people will tell me honestly whether they're satisfied with the work I've done. No more guessing games! (I take that back. There will always be guessing games, but now there are fewer of them.) For this appraisal, I was asked to do my own evaluation of the following things: 1) what I have been able to accomplish since starting my postdoc (papers submitted, proposals written, conferences attended, talks given, students mentored, collaborations, and anything else relevant to my activity); 2) what I am planning to do in the coming year (research, papers, proposals, and so on--same list); 3) what I need to improve; and finally, 4) my career-development goals for the coming year.
And this little sheet of paper didn't just disappear into my adviser’s desk. We actually had a discussion about it! Shock! Awe!
As we progress in our careers, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about where we are and where we’re going. As easy as it is to float along, it's not a good time--it's never a good time--to be complacent. A rigorous performance review is a very fine thing (especially when it has a career-development component, and especially when it turns out well) but receiving one is a luxury that many academics--postdocs, grad students, and junior faculty--seldom receive. Sly, critical comments and subtle slights do not add up to a rigorous performance review.
If you don't have the luxury of receiving a proper performance review, AAAS (through Science Careers) and other organizations offer resources for doing your own. For instance, there's "Not Your Fathers Postdoc " and the FASEB resource  discussed in this article.
Carrot #2. I've always been one to keep the doors to the past open. You never know when something or someone might walk through and give you that spark of encouragement you need to pursue a new idea you were thinking about. (A visit from an old friend can also be irritating/depressing/annoying, but this is a happy column!)
While on the trip to this wedding I spoke of, I went to visit some former co-workers, people with whom I have kept in touch over the years. The time was right to discuss new opportunities, including one to write a few science pieces for a general audience on some hot topics that interested me. We were talking about how life has progressed. I mentioned that I was attempting to write some articles for a general audience and my friends thought this was a fabulous idea. They just started throwing out titles and more ideas, along with encouragement to proceed!
All in all, it's shaping up to be a very busy summer. Things are looking up. The baby steps continue. It's still early in my postdoc, and I'm still not officially on the job market--no job interviews yet. I'm still looking for people to set up some informational interviews with so I can decide where I want to apply. I continue to explore ideas and things that interest me, keeping my eyes and ears open. Yes, life does go on as we toil away in the lab. But our years of toil have created opportunities. They're out there waiting for us if we bother to discover them. Are you ready to engage?
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Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is a pseudonym, obviously.
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