School’s Out: A Postdoc’s Life
March, 2011 · By Justin Bengry
Wow, is it really the end of the (Canadian) semester? Well, almost. Classes end next week, my students’ final is a week later, I’m at a conference by the end of the month, a stop at home, and then Europe one more week after that. Whew…not a moment too soon!
Everyone here is feeling the strain, and straining for the relief that the end of term promises. The winter has been unseasonably cold and long in Saskatoon. Many of us are looking forward to research trips abroad. And of course, grading responsibilities and other duties tend to hit hardest at the end of the term.
Reflecting on the year behind me though, I’ve gained so much at the University of Saskatchewan. I’m surrounded by generously supportive colleagues who have never wavered in helping me adjust to the unfamiliar life of a junior scholar. I can’t speak highly enough of our Chair, support staff, History Department faculty and grad students, and my fellow postdocs, all of whom have welcomed me and answered innumerable questions and requests with poise and kindness. My postdoc supervisor, a kind and gentle elder scholar, has become a mentor and friend. And with their collective help I’ve gained professional experience, credibility, increased my publishing output, and laid the foundations for a potential future in academia. I owe them more than I can express, and this blog post is in part a thank-you.
But this year has also been a challenge, and I definitely feel I’ve needed the entire year to settle in to Saskatoon. When I arrived I looked forward to having the best of both worlds as a postdoc: I could interact with the faculty while still relating to the graduate students. In reality, it wasn’t so simple, and the postdoc doesn’t immediately fit in either group. That’s the part you have to learn on the ground. A postdoc is (at least at first) a solitary experience. It takes a painfully long time to build up relationships and connections in a new department when you’re neither student nor professor. I’ve felt completely welcomed in my department from the first day, but it really is only in the last month or two that I have really felt a part of the department.
Teaching plays a big role in building relationships and sustaining that feeling of being part of something. My own work and research is largely independent, but teaching is a collaborative exercise. I’ve welcomed the advice of current profs, discussed teaching strategies with grad students, and simply been in the department more as an instructor. Without teaching this term, I might be further along in my research and revisions, but I’d also be more dislocated and detached from any intellectual or other community at the university.
A postdoc, however, really is the most incredible opportunity, particularly these days as competition for professional positions in academia becomes ever more fierce. But future employment aside, a postdoc is also an amazing opportunity to evaluate your own goals and values. How does academia look from the inside when you’re no longer a student? How does it feel to be at the front of the class with no safety net or anyone to defer to?
The smartest things the organizers of my current postdoc did was to make it two years long. If it were ending now, I’d feel as if the rug were being pulled out from under me just as I was gaining balance. I’m incredibly fortunate, having built these connections and friendships, professional skills and intellectual output, still to have a second year to continue forward. So, here’s to A Postdoc’s Life, Year II!
(To be continued…)
This blog was originally published on History Compass Exchanges on
31 March 2011.