Reflections on a post-doc “gap” year

It’s been over a year since I defended my dissertation. About halfway through this year, after I had rattled off my eclectic work schedule and paltry list of formal postdoc applications, a friend and former lab mate suggested that this would simply be my “post-doc gap year”.

graduation.jpg

The name stuck, despite my updated impression that it’s a misnomer. This year has been anything but an unfilled space. It is, surely, a break in continuity—of academic enrollment; but, certainly not academic achievement or productivity. My two biggest first-authored scientific publications came out this year, for example. I participated in plenty of academic research, worked on manuscripts, analyzed data, and even taught an undergraduate course. So what was so un-academic about my post-doc “gap” year?

 Colleagues conducting very serious research at the La Brea Tar Pits. May 2017.

Colleagues conducting very serious research at the La Brea Tar Pits. May 2017.

Simply that I didn’t have an academic position. I was not a Postdoc, or Assistant Professor, or any other academic title that would serve the academic continuity between grad school and whatever academic achievement happens next. In the process, I found that much of academia has no problem asking other academics to work for free. True, most people in academia have an academic job that pays them to follow whatever pursuits will further their discipline and academic career, so the asking is commonplace. But when you’re one foot in and one foot out of academia, without a paid position, then you’re essentially free labor for whatever you commit yourself to.

 Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. July 2017.

Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Park. July 2017.

I could have easily occupied myself with all of these academic commitments as a full-time job, had I any independent source of wealth to support me. Alas, I do not. So, I found myself saying “no” to a lot of requests, and even stepping down from a leadership role on some projects. Fortunately, this freed up time to pursue other interests that supported me financially, professionally, and personally. Unfortunately, it meant that I had to step away from work that I had invested considerable effort into already. Fortunately, my graduate school experience taught me to beware of the Concorde Fallacy.

 Ash looks like snow in the creek bed near our house after the wildfire. December 2017.

Ash looks like snow in the creek bed near our house after the wildfire. December 2017.

In addition to juggling ongoing research projects, I took on some paying jobs that were fun, exciting, and very rewarding. Over the summer I worked for the National Park Service, doing backcountry ecological restoration work in the high Sierra Nevada. Living in the wilderness for two months helped clear my head, recover my body from too much time in front of the computer, and inspired me get my blog going. Returning home in the fall, I got a consulting job, conducting ecological restoration planning on federal lands. Over the winter, the largest wildfire in modern California history turned my life into a snow globe—as if someone picked it up and shook it, leaving everything to fall into a new place. And so it was with my priorities, both professional and personal. It became abundantly clear that life was too short and unpredictable to wait for the right opportunities to come along, and I embraced some interests that I had put on the back burner.

 Taking my students to see California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. May 2017.

Taking my students to see California Condors at Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. May 2017.

This spring, I started a position in the University of California Reserve System that is a perfect fit for my skills and has the bonus of being tied to a beautiful, ecologically important place. I am also teaching my Endangered Species Management course at UC Santa Barbara. This is the fourth time I’ve taught the course, and I love refining and improving it every year, while working with the individual needs of each year’s cohort of students.

 Often, my desk is where I make it. Here, at UCSB's Sedgwick Reserve. April 2018.

Often, my desk is where I make it. Here, at UCSB's Sedgwick Reserve. April 2018.

Two of my former lab mates and I—both of them current postdocs—formed a weekly video chat check-in, where we give reports on our goals and support and encourage each other’s work. Since all three of us have graduated from the same lab in the last few years, it is a great way for us to stay accountable to ourselves and to each other in order to tackle our ambitious productivity goals.

More than anything, the past year has been filled with an extraordinary sense of freedom—of not having the Herculean task of finishing my dissertation hanging over me every single day. Before graduation, I measured a day’s success in how much I accomplished toward achieving that goal. Now, I am delighted to find each day has different priorities and tasks, most of which inspire and motivate me. This is the life I persisted through my PhD program to have.

During my first month of graduate school, I asked a postdoc in my lab if she thought all of the effort of finishing a PhD was worth it. She said, “More than anything else, it takes persistence—there will be times when you will want to give up. But if you don’t, again and again, eventually you will finish. And once you do, it feels incredible—unlike anything you’ve experienced.”

I couldn’t agree more.