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The postdoc career journeys that date back to kindergarten

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Is science a calling? Julie Gould finds out.

Many postdoctoral researchers can trace their career journey back to childhood experiences. In Pearl Ryder’s case it was spending lots of time outdoors in the rural area where she grew up, combined with the experience of having a sibling who experienced poor health.

Ryder, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, and founder of the Future PI Slack group, says: “It made me realize how important health is, and that there’s so little that we understand about the world.”

But is science, like some other professions a calling? Yes, says Christopher Hayter, who specializes in entrepreneurship, technology policy, higher education and science at Arizona State University in Phoenix.“There are professions that are a little bit different from your day-to-day job, something people gravitate towards, something bigger than themselves,” he says.

“It is often referred to as a calling. I think we could say that about a lot of scientists. It’s how they define themselves: ‘I’m a scientist.’ ‘I’m going to cure cancer.’ ‘I’m going to discover the next planet.’ When students transition from doctoral students to postdoc they are really doubling down on that identity.”

Michael Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, adds: “Being a scientist is overcoming a series of hurdles, and you need to see yourself as a scientist to get that internal motivation to keep going. You have to publish so much, get so many grants, teach so many courses. Having that identity and that motivation is really key to moving forward.”

Gould’s guests discuss how to maintain that motivation despite the setbacks, and how a scientist’s professional identity and career path is underpinned by the networks, mentors and transferable skills acquired during a postdoc.


This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland (UQ).

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day. Find out more about this content.


Is science a calling? Julie Gould finds out.

Sponsor message 0:00

This six part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change, right across the world, every day.

Julie Gould 0:19

Hello, this is Working Scientist, a Nature Careers podcast. I'm Julie Gould.

Here we are, we made it, the final episode of this six part series all about the postdoc.

And I am going full circle. I am actually going back to the beginning with the question: What is a postdoc?

I am returning to this because after all the conversations I have had over the last couple of months, I wasn't satisfied with the definitions that I got in episode one.

I think there's so much more to being a postdoc than how Barbara Natalizio, from the National Postdoctoral Association in the USA described it as....

Barbara Natalizio

" individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing."

Julie Gould....

Now, the metaphors that were shared by Jessica Esquivel, by Keith McCauley, by Shirley Tilghman, and all the others, they were all great.

But I think they all missed something. And at the time, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. But I think I figured it out now.

So, to really describe where this episode is going, I need to take you all back to the beginning, even further back than episode one of this series. We need to hear about why postdocs wanted to be a postdoc. And to find that out, I needed to find out why they wanted to be a scientist in the first place.

Here's Pearl Ryder, a postdoc from the Broad Institute in the US who we've heard from over the series

Pearl Ryder 2:02

It goes back to my childhood. So I had growing up a sister who was about 19 months older than I was, and she was pretty severely sick actually.

And at the time, we had very little understanding about why she was so sick. And it really shaped my family's life and showed me as a very young child, a couple of things.

One was just how important health is, but also how little we understand what health is.

And I think it was like recognising that there's so little that we understand about the world, and yet it has such a big impact on our lives, so it really motivated me to want to continue working in that type of vein.

So there's a lot of curiosity about that, or around why my sister Polly was so sick.

But then on the other hand, I also grew up in a really rural and beautiful area and spent a lot of time outdoors.

And so getting to spend time exploring my environment and the beauty of living things.

The fact that then you get to do that for a living has just been the most incredible, like, opportunity to get to do/

So those are the things that motivated me towards science and, like, the really big picture.

Julie Gould 3:22

Like Pearl, Mostafa Shawrav, who is an industry based scientist in Austria, can also trace his scientific self back to his childhood.

Mostafa Shawrav 3:31

When I decided to become a scientist, it actually goes back to, like, my childhood memories. It was filled with basically reading books of scientists, and that always kind of intrigued me.

I kept dreaming about becoming a scientist myself, because I'm by nature a very curious person. The life stories of scientists at the same time, how they change the world, created the passion in me for science and research.

Julie Gould 4:00

And Michael Moore, a postdoc from the University of California Davis, has also known since a very young age that he wanted to be a scientist.

Michael Moore 4:08

I always wanted to be a biologist since I was very young. But I have memories of my dad. He's a professor also, a lot of the summers we'd take camping trips to national parks and just walk through these national parks.

And I just want to spend the rest of my life with this stuff, you know, exploring the natural world, and essentially growing up in a university lab setting, whether it was my dad taught elementary education majors, and he brought his kids into his class to help his students learn how to teach elementary students when we were very young.

So I've been in a biology lab in one form or another, you know, since I was four or five years old, so it's always kind of been "This is what I want to do." Even though my dad knew I was interested, he never pushed me down that path, which I so appreciated.

So before I even had a concept of what research was or what research is, I knew I wanted to do something with science, whether it was teaching or interacting.

Julie Gould 5:15

I see a pattern forming here. And I've got my own bit to add. Although I'm not a researcher at a university, I too wanted to be a scientist at a young age. I was always curious as a child, always asking how things worked, taking toys and things apart, only to find a way to put them back together again, often with little success, which my parents weren't overly keen on.

My school teachers inspired me too. I could see that they loved science, and why.

And eventually, I gravitated towards physics, no pun intended, or maybe it was just a little bit.

Christopher Hayter 5:49

There are sorts of professions out there that seemed to be a little bit different than your day to day job.

And you might think of someone, a religious...a pastor, or a person of faith, they do this for a living that is often referred to as a calling, you know, a pilot might think of that, you know, this is my life's work. Or a soldier. They just have something different.

There's just something that they gravitate towards, something bigger than themselves.

And I think we could say that about scientists, you know, for a lot of scientists, it's a calling, they don't necessarily care about the money. I mean, they want to pay bills, but that's not why they're becoming a scientist. It's really a calling and, see, that part of a calling is deeper than just a job.

It's how they define themselves. Well, who are you? "Well, I'm a scientist, and this is why you know, I do what I do, I'm going to cure cancer, I'm going to discover the next planet."

Julie Gould 6:47

That was Christopher Hayter, an associate professor at Arizona State University. What he's talking about is all part of something he calls identity play.

So you start off just pretending, maybe when you're a kid, you're out and about with a parent, you're exploring the world looking at nature, asking questions, and you end up enjoying it so much, that it turns into something that you do all the time, for a living. It becomes part of who you are. It becomes part of your identity,

Chistopher Hayter 7:17

At some point, there's a sort of a transition from the play, to the work, where it becomes really like something that you're so invested in that you're going to take the initiative to really work on that and build it, to build that identity.

So and then if it becomes part of you, if you sort of complete this work, then you combine that with your other identities or not? So just like you have a child or, you know, you have a husband? You have to somehow reconcile that with your other identities.

Julie Gould 7:55

Chris has spent the last few years really thinking about this concept of identity as a scientist, and how academia and particularly the postdoc period are shaping this.

Christopher Hayter 8:05

You know, how do you identify with a certain career, and we're focusing primarily on professional identity, even though you can have a identity as a sister and a brother, a parent, you know, a football lover, but for the most part, we're focusing on professional identity.

And, and I think that's really the lens through which we can think about what happens during the postdoc journey, which really begins right, it really begins, maybe as early as high school or, you know, the secondary schooling here in the US, usually is reinforced as an undergraduate, and then maybe that's the first sort of place where they get exposed to science or scientific ideas.

And then when that decision is made, to really invest in, in graduate school and a doctoral programme, then you really begin, sort of, this socialisation into this sort of scientific discipline.

And so in a lot of ways, when students transition from doctoral students changes into a postdoc, there are in a manner of speaking, they're doubling down, but they're really doubling down on that identity.

It's almost like, you know, the equivalent of going to Los Angeles to become an actor, or going to New York to be on Broadway. Right, the odds are really much against you.

Julie Gould 9:31

In Japan, the odds for getting that professor position aren't that bad.

As Ruyki Hyodo, the postdoc from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Association told us in episode two of this series.

Ryuki told us that once you're on the academic career path in Japan, there's no turning back.

Getting that industry job is impossible due to the social hierarchy that exists.

So I wondered if Ruyki knew from the beginning just like Michael, just like Pearl, just like Mostafa, that he wanted to be a scientist. Turns out, he didn't, not until he got his postdoc position.

Ruyki Hyodo 10:08

I enjoyed my student time actually, it was fun for me. But I still didn't think I'm a researcher at the time, I was just enjoying doing research.

But the thing is getting changed when I was almost finishing my PhD.

After I finished PhD, of course, I have to be postdoc, to stay in science side. But that means you have to be individual. So just after I get PhD, my feeling was kind of mixed actually every day.

So I feel very, very worried about my future. But at the same time, I'm relaxed. It's a bit, you know, strange, maybe it's strange, but I have a two feelings. So doing research is very, very fun still now. But the same time, I have now a lot of responsibility to my life, And I think that's the moment I finally realised that I'm a researcher. I became one with a researcher.

Julie Gould 11:15

Across the series, I've explored and talked about some of the challenges of reaching that almost impossible-to-get tenure track professor position, particularly right now, with the Covid-19 pandemic.

There are many metaphorical hurdles to jump, mountains to climb, hoops to jump through, and obviously, glass ceilings to hit etc, etc.

But to overcome these, Michael Moore says that the concept of identity as a scientist can help keep you on the right track, it can help keep you motivated,

Michael Moore 11:46

You really need to see yourself as a scientist, to get that internal motivation to keep going whenever you face that next hurdle, right?

Because really being a scientist is a series of overcoming a series of hurdles, right?

It's, you have to publish so much, if you get so much grants, you have to teach so many courses, you have to do so much service all of these hurdles.

And you need that internal motivation to keep going when, you know, when things get rough when things get tough. So having that identity and that motivation is really key to moving forward.

Julie Gould 12:19

Michael has had his own fair share of hurdles to jump over throughout his academic career. As we heard in episode three of this series, when he told us about the faculty position that was rescinded as a result of the current pandemic. It did make him think about his identity as a scientist, and about what he wants to do about it.

Michael Moore 12:39

At that time, then, I had to start considering I have this this set of abilities that I've been refining, working on for so, so many years. Are there other things that I'm supposed to be doing the Justice tenure track research position?

Is this really what I'm supposed to be doing? And, you know, to be honest, there are plenty of other positions that still let you do research and write grants. It's just, it is so hardwired into you when you are a PhD student that the ultimate goal is a tenure track professor right, for good or for better for worse. So, you know, I questioned that identity, whether that was "this is what I really want."

And I guess so I guess, I don't know. But at the same time, I published four papers this summer. I've written a couple of grants, one of them which is funded. So it would be different if I didn't have direct evidence that I could do it right in front of me, right. So if I were in another situation, maybe I didn't have any publications, and I got that news, it might have been more detrimental.

Julie Gould 14:07

So even if you see yourself as a scientist, it's not always enough when things get really, really challenging. It's the people that you surround yourself with, that will help you through the dark times.

Michael Moore 14:18

When I faced hurdles in my undergraduate career it was my dad. You know, my dad was in the same university I was in and he ultimately was my advisor. So he, you know, it's like, "oh, no, you can do it." I was like, Oh, well, if he thinks I can. Certainly I can.

Because, you know, he's a university professor. And then, you know, when I hit hurdles, in my postdoc, I had other people outside of the immediate conflict, and said, no, that person is crazy. Of course, you can do this. We want to do this. So I have intentionally surrounded myself with people who will speak truth to what they know I can do. Even when I don't think I can do it. And for me over and over again, that has been the sustaining power that moves me forward.

Julie Gould 15:11

I think what Michael has done is a great thing. There's no point in surrounding yourself with unsupportive people. But it did make me think a little bit more about the university system as a whole. And how really, universities are actually experts in making sure that people stay on this academic career track, perpetuating this idea of becoming a tenure track professor. They are experts in the socialisation into a scientific discipline and the scientific career says Chris Hayter, from Arizona State University,

Christopher Hayter 15:42

Maybe unintentionally or intentionally, that's really from an organisational standpoint, something that the university does, for better for worse, well, that all our incentives, all our sort of mechanisms are to define this goal of what a scientist means, and then propagate that and reinforce that through the value chain of a person's educational experience.

As people go, quote, unquote, up the ladder of science, it becomes more and more narrow as far as what that means. You might have a general baccalaureate degree or an undergraduate degree, but you know, the more you go to a doctoral programme and then to a postdoc programme, it's really how do you become an expert? In other words, how do you differentiate yourself, within this calling?

Julie Gould 16:37

This might be part of the underlying problem of why people are afraid of leaving academia, and why it's seen as such a failure, that the academic system feeds this concept of identity as a scientist.

And as being a scientist becomes more and more part of your identity, it's very difficult to let it go. And this is one of the reasons why it's so difficult for many postdocs to leave academia, even though many of them know that they will eventually have to due to the lack of positions available.

Christopher Hayter 17:07

And so that's the challenge with a postdoc is, you know, they've gone from identity play, maybe at some point, maybe during their undergraduate degree or during high school, they said, I want to be a scientist. They spent all these years sort of building up and working on this identity.

And then when it comes to actually being able to reconcile that with another identity there all of a sudden said, Wait, you can't be a scientist now. That job that you've been told, that is your, the pinnacle of being a scientist, you have to find something else.

And by the way, this came from lots PIs tell their PhDs tell their postdocs, whatever it is, it's not the real science. You know, it's it's not the it's not the true version of how we define what is what it means to be a scientist.

So you have all of a sudden this stop in their sort of identity development. And it has I mean, studies show not, there hasn't been studies have done a postdoc, but studies show that that has huge emotional and physical consequences. When you sort of exit quote, unquote, exit an identity.

Juile Gould 18:18

When I was doing a master's in physics, I explored all possible avenues of going into research, in the hope that maybe one day I would find a form of research that would fit. I tried working in an academic lab, I tried an industry lab, I worked abroad. And to find a PhD project that I was willing to dedicate several years of my life to, I visited 10s of labs. But I couldn't find the right fit. Nothing, nothing moulded with me. But I was okay with that. Because I know that if one day I want to do a PhD, if I find the right subject, I can do it. I will always be curious. I will always be a scientist.

But I just don't do the research bit right now.

And there's no bitterness here. But I know that there are walks of life where the bitterness can persist. And Christopher Hayter told me about research that had been done on soldiers who had lost a limb in the war, and how it means that they couldn't be soldiers anymore.

They lost a part of them physically and emotionally. And it meant that they had very suddenly exited an identity.

Christ Hayter 19:29

So what do they do? How did they make that transition? It's physically incredibly damaging, but it's also their identity that will no longer be a Marine, right? They'll no longer be able to pursue their calling.

The study I'm referring to is really how soldiers very, very painfully, if at all, because it's not always, you know, successful that people can make this transition

But in this, in this study some successfully transition to the identity as an entrepreneur. And they were able to honour that previous identity by using things like craftiness and being entrepreneurial and thinking sort of creatively in the entrepreneurial environment.

Julie Gould 20:20

What Chris is saying is that these soldiers took their transferable skills, and applied them in another setting.

It meant that they didn't have to completely lose a part of their identity, it's still with them, they are still who they always were. Does this sound familiar?

Scientists have so many transferable skills, and the postdoc is the place to find those, to hone those, to prepare those and to take those on to wherever you go next.

So if you leave the academic career path, it doesn't mean that it is the end of you being a scientist. Being a scientist is part of who you are. And that is fantastic.

And that will stay with you forever.

Now, one thing that helps if you ever feel like you've lost that love for your science, or for your scientific self, is to go out and do the things that make you feel most connected to that part of you, that is a scientist.

For Pearl Ryder. It's sharing science, sharing the excitement of science,

Pearl Ryder 21:28

My biggest moments of feeling most connected to being a scientist, it's where I'm like, out, getting to teach, and I've brought my students out into the field, like, we're going into the woods across the street from our university, and students are collecting leaves and looking at them, and they're seeing their environment in a new light, that those are the moments where I feel the strongest, that strongest sense of being a biologist and how wonderful it is to get to share that with other people.

In a lot of ways, it's kind of as little involved with the "what you should do" academic track as possible.

The "what you should do" academic track, if anything makes me feel less like a scientist, and more like someone who's trying to like stoke my own ego and prove to the world that I have something to contribute.

Whereas being a scientist is more to me, it's more about that ideal of exploring the world and how beautiful that can be.

Julie Gould 22:37

I couldn't have put it better myself.

Thank you so much to all the contributors who have featured in this series, and those who unfortunately, I couldn't fit into the episodes.

This has been a really great series all about the postdoc.

And you can find all six of the episodes on the website where you can find all of their other careers content as well.

And if you can, please like review and subscribe to this podcast wherever you get your podcasts. It really helps spread the word.

So for me, it's happy holidays everyone and I look forward to speaking to you again in 2021. Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 23:23

This six part Working Scientist Podcast Series is sponsored by the University of Queensland. UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

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