Hello from the Other Side of Grad School
A Reflection on being a new postdoc at Penn
Ariel Ketcherside, PhD.
“Any anxiety or depression?” asks my new physician.
“Nope!” I grin at her, stupidly.
She raises an eyebrow.
“I’m not a grad student anymore,” I explain. “Life is pretty great.”
She takes notes.
It’s true. I’ve been in Philly for about three months, and virtually every aspect of my life has changed. Call it blind optimism or academic acumen, I have thrown myself head first into this postdoc thing.
I hail from Texas and Arizona, land of tacos and expansive parking lots where you get to play the game of “What will melt in my car today?” We say “y’all” and our favorite fruit is the jalapeño. So I don’t quite understand the point of a cheesesteak and I was damn sure the apocalypse was upon us when the Eagles won the NFC championship. But cultural differences aside, I am thrilled and overwhelmed by the environment and opportunities for postdocs here. Here are a few of my reflections and tips for other newbies like me:
- The Biomedical Postdoc office has a resource for just about everything. Mary Anne Timmins is a saint and has your best interest at heart so, at the risk of inundating her schedule, go see her if you have any concerns.
- Join the Biomedical Postdoc Council (BPC). If you’re anything like me, in undergrad you had time for things called “extracurricular activities”, which were replaced in grad school with late nights in the lab. But now you’re somewhat of a human again, and especially if you’re new to the city, you’ll want a sense of community. Go make friends. Get involved.
- Penn excels at structure, which, when you’re not fighting a protocol that gets in the way of your science, is good for you. At your one-year anniversary, you’ll put together an Individual Development Plan with your advisor. I love plans almost as much as I love spreadsheets and whiteboards, and this plan will be your guiding beacon throughout your tenure as a postdoc. You’re a postdoc now, but you won’t be forever. Sadly, I have seen postdocs get complacent in their new-found comfort, while the years and funding slip away. Make the most of this golden era where you don’t have to TA and you finally maybe make what all your non-grad school friends made out of college. Make a plan, and a backup plan, and a timeline for those plans. Check in with yourself periodically to make sure you’re on track.
- Make sure you have a good mentor. My greatest joy in my new office is the level with which my mentors are engaged in my work, concerned about our data, involved in my analyses and ideas, as well as my professional development and wellbeing. This is not always the case, so if you don’t have someone who does these things for you and with you, go find someone. Collaborate. Go to journal clubs. Engage in discussions about your data with people who are not directly in your lab.
- In this ridiculous cold, the scarf actually works better when you wrap it around the outside of your jacket’s hood. It helps squish the hood in around your face, instead of bulking up under your hood and making you look like a top-heavy Randy from A Christmas Story (a Christmas classic to introduce you to American Christmas).
- If there’s something you’re unhappy with, like the lack of a postdoc discount for SEPTA passes or the gym, join the Advocacy Committee of BPC, where you can work on fixing it.
- If you have your own thoughts about life as a postdoc, science in the community, or anything else you think would be of interest to your colleagues, send it to your friendly Newsletter Editors in Chief and we’ll work on getting it published.
- Finally, the consensus among all those who have offered their opinion for best cheesesteak is Dalessandro’s. I can confirm that the line was long and the steak was good, but would have been better if the cheese were queso instead of “whiz”.
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