On the post-“Doctor” transition

I am officially a Doctor. To be fair, I have adopted the favorite modifier, “not that kind of Doctor.” It’s a wonderful feeling being over the veritable mountain that is the dissertation and oral defense stage of graduate school. I’ve been trying to put my thumb on why exactly things seem so different.

That there are no more classes to attend isn’t necessarily relevant, because I was not required to take courses for many years. It isn’t necessarily that I feel more skilled or qualified, because the past two or so years have primarily been data generation and analysis – the bench skills were learned much earlier on. Possibly the biggest, most immediate change is not having to prove that I have what it takes to be a scientist. I’ve done that, and I have the piece of paper to back it up.

Truthfully, I was given a lot of respect as a graduate student, for which I am grateful. My opinions and suggestions were treated as if they mattered and were well substantiated. As I understand from the online community of graduate students, as well as personal friends, this is not a universal experience. This helped to instill a lot of self-confidence, but there was no way of ignoring the fact that I was a student, from both a technical and social stance.

Now, as a postdoc, things are so very, very different. The work is not easier, let me make that clear straight away. I joined a lab that is in a very different field from that in which I “grew up” as a scientist. Also, instead of a large, bottom-heavy lab with many students all working towards undergraduate or graduate degrees and a few sparsely placed postdocs, my new group is small, focused and entirely composed of researchers with either a PhD or an MD. The workload is intense and fast-paced and, while the learning curve is steep, there is an expectation that it is aggressively tackled.

But here’s the thing, I am a Doctor. When I am introduced to new collaborators, they treat me as an expert and an equal. With that respect comes a responsibility; the responsibility to drive research. This is the real goal of graduate school, not just the post-nominals (for those looking to stay at the bench, at least). Science isn’t easy, and I shouldn’t expect it to suddenly be so, now that I am “out” of school. This is the part of a research career where things get real. I am not focused on writing a dissertation, maintaining good grades in class or satisfying a committee that will decide whether or not I “pass” some road block (until tenure, but let’s put that off for a few…) on the way to completing a checklist of curricula.

The challenge is now mine to own and not to complete. This is a freeing feeling, because the research will always be there. There is no need to find a way to wrap everything up in a nice little bow so that I can produce a dissertation. The road is long, arduous and, at times, frustrating. But at the end of the day, it’s the reward.

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who’ll decide where to go.” – Dr. Seuss (Also not that kind of Doctor)

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