Interviewing my replacement
No, I haven't quit.
But while my lab is, in my opinion, plenty big enough already, my advisor is always interviewing more postdocs.
Sometimes they are very good, but don't end up coming.
Sometimes they are mediocre or not so great, but do end up coming. Sometimes they get better after they arrive, sometimes not so much.
Sometimes they are awful, and don't get an offer.
And sometimes we get people who are clearly very smart, very accomplished, very nice, and yet they come here, to our lab.
Sometimes they love it when they arrive.
And sometimes they have that look on their faces of "What the hell was I thinking?"
A couple of our star postdocs have that look lately, and I am kind of laughing at them because I can see them cultivating the denial. You know, that little speech you give yourself that goes like this:
I just moved here from far away... I don't want to move again... I have a fellowship... I made my spouse move here with me... It's a nice place to live.... the lab is not so bad... And all that crap going on with the senior postdocs trying to leave??? That's their own fault, it won't happen to me... I will learn from their mistakes... Besides, I am way smarter than they are...
But it is especially weird for the senior postdocs, watching these new people come in and interview. It makes me feel old. It really hit me hard this year, the generation gap. I feel like I shouldn't be working with people this much younger than me unless they're working FOR me. Maybe that's a really bad attitude, but on some level I feel like I've been left back several grades in school.
And I resent it, since, like most postdocs, I have a set expiration date whether I want one or not. So in a way, no matter what happens, I know I am interviewing people who will be here after I leave.
And I do realize that some of them might end up being my competitors if Advisor puts them on whatever is left of my project, whether or not I manage to get a job somewhere I can continuing working on it. Advisor has a long history of competing with former postdocs after they leave.
And I'm watching CNN and they're talking about tens of thousands of people being laid off from various companies like Citigroup, and I'm thinking, This is not good. My parents, children of people who grew up in the Great Depression, are already saying this is going to be another time like that. My mom was telling me about how my grandfather took all kinds of odd jobs, worked in a cardboard box factory for a while because he couldn't get a job doing what he was trained to do.
Yeah. That's encouraging.
So against this background, I have to pretend like everything is normal and peachy-keen and meet with these postdoc candidates and try not to growl at them too much.
We usually meet with them at least briefly. I always ask the same questions in the same order:
1. What do you want to do after your postdoc?
b) I don't know
2. What do you want to do here?
a) listing a few specific techniques
b) spouting some vague buzzwords
3. Why did you pick this lab?
a) something about Advisor (met at a meeting, connection through their graduate advisor)
b) something about location
c) something about their spouse getting a job here
4. Do you have a project in mind?
b) names something a senior postdoc started and took with them
c) Advisor mentioned something about....(buzzwords associated with a specific project)
d) names something they worked on as a graduate student that they want to continue working on
(Note that I have yet to meet one who proposes something totally new that is neither a continuation of their thesis work nor something already going on in our lab or a former postdoc's lab)
After the visit, we are asked what we think about a candidate, but negative evaluations have to be pretty serious and widely held by several people in the group to change Advisor's mind. Which is to say, it doesn't matter if we think the person is mediocre and potentially sexist but it's hard to tell for sure ... several of us would have to say in no uncertain terms THIS ONE SUCKS/SEEMS LIKE A TOTAL JERK/WE CAN DO BETTER.
So obviously I'm questioning whether I can really be objective about new postdocs at this point. Probably not. But that's okay, because I think Advisor knows that, and my opinion on this subject won't be taken into account from here on out, anyway.
Meanwhile, I can see some of the youngest postdocs in my department looking at me, and thinking:
I'm not any smarter than YFS is, and she clearly works hard enough so... Holy shit, I better hope that doesn't happen to me.
We were talking about the rollercoaster feeling, how when things are going well we don't want to face the possibility of having to give up our projects, which we love and are totally invested in, to go... work at a company.
My friends who aren't so in love with their projects, or don't know what to do next, don't seem to care as much.
They think it would be fine to leave whenever, and they don't really worry about publishing papers because they hate to write. They're fine with the day-to-day. They're okay with the labs they're in, and aren't ready for a big change. So for now they'll stay where they are.
I love these people, but I wouldn't want such apathetic postdocs working for me if I were the PI. I would not want people who are so uninvested in their projects in my lab. Maybe it's futile to think about, because it might never happen that I'm ever a PI.
But I say to myself that if I were the PI, I hope I would notice this kind of thing and try to get each postdoc working on a project they really liked. To help them find that thing that gets them excited. To me, that's the whole point of science. Science is hard enough without working on something you find boring or pointless!
But when the experiments are going really badly or the administration is being bitchy, we all think
"Anything would be better than this! Cardboard box factory, here I come!"
I guess we're all going to feel these various stages of rollercoaster or apathy until something about postdoctoral positions changes drastically. Or at least until our expiration dates.