Who’s teaching?

Postdoctoral positions are weird.

Okay. Maybe not all of them, but some of them are. My position is one of these that has no particular project attached to it. When I started, there was little guidance other than that I was expected to set up a research line and was expected to cosupervise a PhD project when I hadn’t even finished my own, officially speaking. I asked my new boss early on about the expectations. There weren’t any that stood out in particular. It was sort of like “we’ll see how this goes, and steer or change when needed”. It may sound great to have that sort of freedom. It is great to have that kind of freedom. But it’s also extremely confusing and difficult to perform well if there’s no plan and little guidance.

I had no fucking clue what I was doing three years ago, and I often still wonder what the hell I’m doing.

During undergraduate years, and the years of my PhD – and I think most PhD projects – there’s at least something that resembles a plan, and at least in theory, some guidance. Lots of teaching going on…

In my case, the transition to being a postdoc was like being thrown off a cliff. Without a parachute. And somehow it must have been a bloody high cliff, as I’m still falling.

Establishing a research line is the easy part. All you need is an idea for a direction. The difficult part is execution. I thought I would be working on my research line like fifty percent of the time. Ha ha. In reality, maybe it’s more like five percent. If I’m optimistic. Teaching. Supervision. Admin. Meetings. Meetings. Meetings. They suck up a lot of time. I had never expected that.

I was pretty new to all of the above, aside from doing the research. Therefore, I figured that the research line was easy peasy, and expected that that would be my main job. I never realized that my job would be the struggle of doing all other aspects to the best of my abilities. Don’t get me wrong. I think I do a reasonable job at most of them, but the struggle to achieve that is real and often very unclear.

Like I said: no clue what I’m doing. I go by intuition mostly. Everyone in my department is so busy that I find very little active mentorship from anyone in particular. I sort of pick my mentoring moments, by avoiding what I see that doesn’t work for others, and copying things that others around me do that are to my liking.

It’s like passive self-mentoring.

So far so good.

Another aspect I struggle with, as I’ve heard repeatedly, is communication. I don’t really understand this type of feedback. I’m an open book. I will talk about anything. Otherwise I’ll rant about it here. I couldn’t lie if you held a gun to my head. I hadn’t expected communication would ever be an issue people would call me out for. Yet I keep hearing it; I write too many emails, talk too little, or talk too much. People don’t want to hear what you have to say. They just want a clear yes or no. But mostly a yes. Most people don’t really want communication, and they certainly don’t want to educate you on it all that much. They just want you to solve their problems.

I’d like to work on this though. I’d love to improve my communication skills. But it’s hard to find the means to do so. Where do you learn to communicate? No one teaches this to ecologists. Let me know if you have good resources for me to check out.

Navigating this postdoc has been the craziest thing. What’s the weirdest of all is that it’s also completely unclear where it’s heading. It’s not a fixed position… So I might be navigating towards a permanent position, but might as well be navigating towards an involuntary way out. And no one really communicates about this to me either.

Published by Robin Heinen

Father of two | Husband | Entomologist and Ecologist | Postdoctoral Researcher @ TUM | Traveler | Coffee Addict

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