Monday, May 07, 2007

postdoctoral success/failure

I'm rereading Sharon Traweek's ethnography (1988) of high energy physicists, Beamtimes and Lifetimes. Here's a great paragraph about how someone sees their postdoc experience in retrospect (p. 90):

Another postdoc knows that he has not "made it," and he is angry. Reexamining his postdoctorate, he believes that he now understands why he failed. In the first year, he thinks, the senior experimentalists are scanning the postdocs to see who is "charismatic". They watch how the postdocs handle conversations; the preferred style is confident, aggressive, and even abrasive if one suspects that another's ideas are wrong; he feels he could have adopted this style if he had understood its importance. The next step would have been to seek out "an action sector"-- and exciting volatile, and fashionable area. At that point in his career, "charm" became fashionable. He feels he ought to have taught himself and taught others about "charm". He should have anticipated where the problems lay and cultivated connections accordingly. The next step would have been to gain responsibility for some large, important project-- so important that others would have sought him out to talk. Ideally, he should have proposed an experiment of his own. Instead, out of loyalty and commitment, he stuck with his assigned task. Now he feels this cost him his career in high energy physics. He believes that he would have had difficulty being granted these responsibilities, however; he sees himself as being outside the "old boys' club," because in the labs where he did graduate work his undergraduate school was not considered to be "on the map." This postdoc has come to these conclusions retroactively; he is comparing his career over the past several years with those who have made it. He has since left high energy physics.

I like how "charm" could be read in the non-technical sense and it still almost works in the paragraph!

This whole chapter, "Male tales told during a life in physics" is pretty good. I suppose one does need to remember the warning that anthropologists often talk to those at the margins of a society/culture, so while those people can often have the clearest perspective and speak the most freely, they also may have a certain bitterness and interest in painting the community in a bad light.


Anonymous said...

I can see how the agressive type could be sometimes perceived as "strong", I am not sure if that is entirely true.

Most agressive people I know are not listened to half of the time, and they are even ignored at times.

I think the key point is to have larger responsibilities, not to be confused with more meetings.

What I see with postdocs around me(the ones struggling finding a job) is that they stay away from active interesting research, and instead attend every possible meeting and even try to become "meeting moderators"(A job not particularly esteemed as it takes away from "real research")

Most people see these postdocs as not particularly useful research wise, but rather as good resources of spell-checking.

They become topics of conversation by the higher ups: "what is so and so doing?, no analysis?" [silence].."I see"--[Change of conversation.]

Yet, when people praise about someone,
it is usually the guy or grl who have many topics and present original work on a constant basis.


Boaz said...

Thanks for the comment Astrid.
I guess the question here is whether there is some kind of a chicken-and-egg/catch 22 kind of thing going on. In order to do useful work, one needs to be granted responsibility for a project, but in order to be granted responsibility, one needs to be seen as doing useful work. That's what the post-doc is complaining about that Traweek interviews. He feels that he isn't seen as being from a school that's "on the map" and so isn't given any interesting responsibilities. Of course, it may be that its just an excuse for not having seized those opportunities that were given. We like to think that in science everything is out in the open, and all data/methods/computer code etc. are equally available to everyone, but my sense is that that's not always the case.