Monday, January 18, 2010

Now is not the time to look to the future; now is the time to finish up past obligations

Back in March of 2009 I sent my first letter of inquiry asking for additional information a post-doc position. After exchanging a number of e-mails on the topic and participating in an on-line interview I eventually got the job. This position commenced in July of 2009. Given that four-month lead time needed to make the arrangements for this contract, I have been thinking that come August or September I will need to start looking into options of what to do next, since my contract here ends in December. I certainly didn’t expect to see positions advertised now for a January 2011 start.

Indeed, I have not yet seen a position for a specific, already defined, job to start then. However, on Friday I saw an announcement cross the geotectonics e-mail list speaking of a Fellowship opportunity designed to bring early-career researchers, from all branches of science, into the UK for two year contracts to undertake projects of their own designing. Looking closely at the advertisement I determined that I meet all of the required qualification for application. Much to my surprise, the stated start date for the Fellowship for the successful applicants is January, 2011, or exactly when I will be free to sign another employment contract. However, the deadline for the proposal is 1 February 2010, less than two weeks from the day I saw the announcement.

I did flirt briefly with the idea of trying to come up with an application for the Fellowship. I know that two weeks isn’t really an adequate amount of time to develop a comprehensive research plan and write it up in such a way that a non-geologist will agree that the project is important and deserves to be funded. However, were I to give up things like sleeping, progress on my current research, household chores, cooking, and social life, it might be possible to craft such a packet in that amount of time. I even went so far as to send a letter of enquiry to a UK based researcher whose work I’ve admired to ask if he might have interest in being a sponsor for an application for the Fellowship (a requirement of the Fellowship is that the project be in collaboration with a UK based scientist, and the application packet is done as a joint effort between the two). I did indicate in my letter that I would understand if he’s already got too much on his plate to take on such an application with such a short deadline, but that I was willing to proceed if he were interested.

As it turns out, he already has an application packet well in progress with another post-doc, and they’ve made good progress crafting an exciting proposal with a good chance for approval. This news makes me happy on a couple of points. 1) I very much want to see the geosciences doing well and receiving funding from a variety of sources, and a good packet submitted from them, with the amount of lead time they’ve had to work on it (since they’ve known about the Fellowship opportunity for months) has a strong chance for success, and if successful, will go far towards improving the standing of the geosciences in the broader scientific community. 2) Having made a brief effort to see if chasing that Fellowship was a path I should take, I may now rest comfortably knowing that the timing was not right for me to do so at this time.

Given where I am in my career, right now is not a time to be looking forward and dropping my current and previous commitments while I try to look for future opportunities. Right now I am happily in a stable position, with an income that is sufficient for me to be able to focus on both my current research responsibilities (including completing abstracts for upcoming conferences, getting the next set of experiments up and running, doing analysis on previous experiments, and comparing my results with the work of other researchers) and finishing up the “last tasks” associated with my PhD research (publishing papers and conference talks from that work).

One of the tasks I’ve been avoiding from the later category is a summary paper, sharing the important results of my research. This one has been difficult for me to approach, because I’ve always been the sort of person who is very comfortable with what others call “too much information”. My instinct in writing up my PhD thesis was to record *everything* I’d done, summarizing both the lines of enquiry which were successful, and those which lead to dead-ends. The theory being that should anyone else later look at these samples (given that some of the samples I studied had been obtained back in the 1960’s and had been taken back out of storage for this project, it is not impossible that someone else might wish to study these samples) they would know what I’d done, and would only repeat the “mistakes” knowingly, if they wished to confirm for themselves that it really won’t work, not because they thought I’d left an avenue of investigation unexplored.

My advisor recommended that I relegate the summary of what didn’t work to the thesis appendices, if I really wished to include them at all. As the deadline for boarding the plane to start my post-doc drew near whilst my thesis was as yet uncompleted, I finally started to decide that some dead end paths didn’t need to be included—not only was there was no time to get them in there they added no value to the overall thesis. But it was difficult to leave any of it out; I’m too used to complete, full, disclosure. I take very much to heart the cliché to tell “the truth, the full truth, and nothing but the truth”. When it comes to facts, I am very, very much a pack-rat; keep them all, they might be useful, someday.

This trait does not lend itself well to writing a concise summary sharing only the highlights of one’s research. Yet, it must be done. (Well, “must”, if I wish to stay in the academic world, where number of one’s publications is used as a measure of competence and likelihood of future progress.) Therefore, I sit here before you all, and state that since I am not preparing an application for funding for a future research project with a 1 February deadline I shall, instead, endeavour to spend this time compiling a concise, eloquent, summary of my prior research. I have resolved that by 1 February I will send a draft of such a manuscript to my thesis advisor for comment. You are my witness, and all have the right to check in and hold me accountable for this self-made commitment to my current and previous duties.

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