From Postdoc to Principal Investigator

Note for research

I have been a researcher in temporary positions for about 15 years. Four years ago, I became Principal Investigator. The project was four years. My PhD-students had three years. It was my responsibility that we completed on time. So I was stressed. Most of the time.

My new research project included two PhD-students and a number of collaborators. The upsides were many. First of all, it is fun to work in team. With the PhDs I now had colleagues who shared my research interests and who cared about the project. We had weekly meetings to present and discuss our work, and we travelled to conferences together. With the project collaborators, both me and the PhDs had the opportunity to participate in the cutting-edge research within our own field and get valuable feedback. We had generous funding from the research council, which made it possible to invite guest lectures for our monthly philosophy of science forum. Work was definitely exciting.

But there were also some challenges. Time was one. After years of spending all day dabbling with my own research, it was a shock to suddenly be responsible for other people’s research as well. Supervision takes a lot of time and energy and it felt a bit like running a marathon. Since both PhDs started half a year in to the project, it meant we had three and a half year until the project ended, including my job. Without the PhDs completed, I would not be in a great position to apply for further research projects.

During my Postdoc years, I used to get to the office and wonder what to read or write today. Sometimes I didn’t have much inspiration and would go home by the end of the day feeling unfulfilled and disappointed with myself. This was no longer a problem. My new job was to do my research, organise all the project events, and to follow up and help developing, structuring and planning the research projects of my PhDs, and then to read, discuss and offer feedback on their drafts. This meant that my day was fragmented, sometimes with very little time for concentrated work.

Another challenge was personality. I am organised, impatient and I like to be in control. But when other people are involved, it is not only up to me what happens and when. No matter how much I planned and organised, I could not control the outcome. Sometimes I only made things worse. I wanted to be patient, calm and have all the time in the world, just like my supervisor was with me. But I soon had to admit that there was a huge gap between the supervisor I was and the supervisor I wanted to be. So I needed help.

My university has a monthly forum for PhD supervisors. It was useful to go there and get advice from experienced supervisors. They also organised a course in mindfulness, where I became aware of my need for reserving a few hours every day for my own research. So I put a note on my door, saying that I am not available before lunch. I also got support from the co-supervisors and my Head of Department. But perhaps the most important help I got was from my mentors. These are people who I know care about me and I trust their judgement. Between them, they got far more experience than me with research, supervision, careers, project funding and with people. I cannot begin to say how grateful I am for their support, advice and wisdom. If you have such people in your life, don’t let them go.


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