Our correspondent Sarah Wayland describes her experience of her postdoc position, reflecting on how it has involved some new approaches to her own research interests.
Three days a week I travel from my house in suburban Sydney Australia to the inner city hum of the University of Technology Sydney. Each way on the train takes an hour: initially I used to try and work each way but now I like to think of the commute as my designated daydreaming space. I drink a quiet cup of coffee, stare out the window, read over papers not yet analysed and plan the day, week, month ahead.
Lately, I have had to shift my focus from my own research niche to the broader research space. A space occupied by the senior academics who guide me. It’s not a new phenomenon – to move away from the PhD space, into one that provides financial security and the chance to stretch the research muscle further. For me, the move has prompted the investigation of ways to find space for our own research interests, even as we assist other academics with theirs.
One of the most popular posts on this site for 2016 was the one I wrote about reflecting on the PhD journey as an early career researcher. The feedback I received from my online community of academic friends was that the shift from student researcher to early career researcher was complex, exhilarating and exhausting. All at once. So now, as I settle into ECR life I use my daydreaming time to re-purpose my thoughts into tangible options. To explore the career I’m beginning to carve out; these are some of the ways I’m doing it:
Every available moment in the lead up to PhD submission was consumed with writing, doing, thinking or analysing my thesis. It meant I had little space or energy for anything else. Post-doc life is intentionally different, so I buffer in time so that my projects don’t lurch from one task to the next. I create time to cultivate new thoughts, to remain curious and to reflect on what I researched and how it will carry me forwards (See Kelly Exeter’s clever blog post about white space)
Make space for planning
Write out everything you want to do with your own research area and then cross out the things you might realistically never get to. I limited those fanciful thoughts of projects I thought I’d do, like smaller research lines of enquiry that piqued my interest or ideas of world domination. By narrowing them down to 1-2 tangible thoughts, that could be developed into a larger grant or potential study down the track, they became easier to manage.
Find ways to keep on applying your own research outcomes by sharing your findings. I find that if I slowly reconnect with the words I’ve written, I find new ways of sharing them. I also develop a track record that demonstrates the capacity to both do the work and talk about it. Professor Myfanwy Maple from the University of New England suggests that scheduling in time each day or each week to write your own work is essential. You need to progress your own research agenda and map out the next phase of your career.
Be savvy and use the postdoc experience to your advantage. Dr Manu Sanders wrote about transitionng through the phases of an academic career through the various phases of an academic career:
‘If you’re a postdoc working under a senior academic on a specific project, it can be helpful to plan some independent projects into your workload to build your own career momentum.’
I’ve found that using the research services department of my new university is key. As is exploring how my own research fits with my current institution, building my networks and fostering the connections already made is a great way to remain curious in my own research area.
For many researchers, PhD topics can feel like an extension of themselves. However, in the interests of career longevity, extending your research focus and remaining connected and competitive are worthwhile. It appears that academics that have remained in the university space have demonstrated research curiosity and kept a competitive edge. I’ll keep daydreaming about the possibility of ‘what next’ on my train trip each week but I’ll also make sure that I prioritise and action those daydreams in order to maintain my momentum.
How do you find space for your own work as a postdoctoral research fellow? Please do leave a comment below, or tweet at us!
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