I have to say that unlike many people who write about graduate and postdoctoral life, I really enjoyed being a graduate student and postdoc. I consider these to have been highly productive and formative years and I always look back on them fondly. It may be that I happened to have two very good mentors, who ran small to medium sized labs and who were willing to give me almost complete independence to pursue my projects. However they were also very accessible that if I got stuck or needed to discuss data or a next step they were always available to talk and their doors were always open. Since each person in the lab was working on a different project, there was no internal competition and there was a lot of collaboration. People got along and were willing to teach each other how to perform different types of experiments and set up collaborations amongst themselves. Unlike labs where John is the specialist in anatomy, Ringo is the molecular biologist, George is the electrophysiologist and Paul is the computer whiz, and everyone contributes their specialty to the common project, in the labs I worked at everyone had their own project and learned to perform all or most of the techniques necessary. Sort of like the difference between the A-team and MacGyver. While these types of labs might not be ideal for someone who is not self-driven, for the most part I think most of my colleagues would feel the same way about their experiences there, and I try and model my mentoring style in my lab after both of my previous mentors.
So while environment played a huge part of it, what I liked the most of both graduate school and postdoc was the feeling of starting something new. You get to pick an interesting problem, and you have to do whatever it takes to solve it. In front of you is a completely open field, you can go anywhere, and you have the resources provided for you to do this. You have to figure out which experiments you need to do, which techniques you have to use and if none are available, which ones you have to develop. You know that anywhere you go it will be someplace new, that you are discovering things that have never been known, that the data you generate represents new knowledge that for a little while you and maybe a couple of other people are the only ones who have seen it. And this is a really cool feeling. By the time you are done, you are the world expert on that little subfield, but more importantly you have learned how to ask the questions, solve the problems, seek help when necessary and interpret your results. Now you can do anything. And then, as you finish your PhD and are starting to get tired of your project, as a postdoc you get to start over with something new! Another open field, a new pasture! But this time you are wiser and smarter.
This feeling of elation was not quite as fulfilled when I started my own lab. Finally you are at a point where you are completely independent and a new adventure begins. But unlike being a postdoc or a graduate student in a well-funded, established lab with ample resources, starting your own lab is like becoming captain of a creaky old ship, partially sunk, with an inexperienced and somewhat dysfunctional crew and no compass. Ahoy! So while in principle you can sail in any direction you want most of your time is spent in keeping the ship afloat and the crew from killing each other. Trying to get competent people, writing grants to fund your research, finding your place in the field and in your institution, teaching, filing animal protocols and fighting with the grants office leave you numb and tired and with little energy and excitement to do the actual science. So you creak along, following the default course you set off in as you finished your postdoctoral training, watching all your exciting new ideas and directions get shot down by grant reviewers or being scooped by competitors. And then get very, very depressed. But then things pick up, papers come out, they start to improve in quality, your crew resolves its issues, the bilge pumps get repaired, you get new sails, you get funded, students stop complaining about your lectures and off you go. And now, you have the resources and the crew to to take your lab wherever you want. You are like a cow (going back to that analogy – the ship one was getting a bit cliché) in a fresh pasture. New grasses and weeds to munch on, lots of space to spread your manure around! Moo!
And that is sort of the point I am reaching right now in my career. The lab seems to be running OK and I’m getting excited about some new projects and directions we are taking. Next week I will be going to an epilepsy meeting in which I was invited to speak. While my research had always skirted around issues that may be relevant for understanding epilepsy, I was never really in the epilepsy field. So I was quite excited when I got invited to present in this meeting. I am looking forward to learning a lot more about this field, and meeting new people and hopefully coming up with new ideas for projects and collaborations we can embark on. And this feeling of an open pasture is coming back, my four-chambered stomach churning, the cud chewing accelerating. Let’s just hope I get tenure…