B.R.S.M. The Battlefield Earth of organic chemistry blogs

24Oct/120

Chem Coach Carnival: I’m A Postdoc and I Love It

Hi all, we* interrupt our* scheduled** programming to bring you an exciting** Chemistry Carnival entry! See Arr Oh recently had the brilliant idea of a Chem Coach Carnival, where people in different chemical careers describe their working lives to give others an idea of what it's like to be in their shoes. Here's my entry, which unfortunately seems to have turned out a bit too long:

What do you do?
As you might have guessed, I'm currently a 'postdoc' or post-doctoral research associate at a UK university. If you're not familiar with the academic hierarchy you can see where this fits in the academic food chain here, thanks to Karl Collins.

What does a typical day involve?
I'm one of three postdocs in a research group of around twenty people engaged in diverse projects across the spectrum of organic chemistry. When I was at school The RSC ran a campaign to tell people that 'not all chemists wear white coats', but I'm proud to do so for 90% of a normal day. At the moment I'm mostly working on a short-ish biomimetic alkaloid synthesis but in addition to my own project(s), I also get to field questions from PhD and MSci students, show people how to do stuff in the lab, write papers, work on my own crazy ideas, manage an MSci student and worry about what I'm doing with my life. I also do some teaching in the form of undergraduate tutorials, which is great fun. My job is essentially to solve an increasingly varied and intricate series of puzzles, and it's good.

How did you get where you are?
It sometimes feels like I've spent my whole life in full time education as I started university straight after school and my PhD a few months after I finished my undergrad. As it happens, I'm currently still at the same institution from which I obtained my PhD a few months back. Staying in one place like this is usually inadvisable, but it's not a bad university, there's a good climbing wall nearby, and my current position is really just a short term filler until I move to the US next year for a 'real' postdoc. Goodness knows what I'll do after that. Fortunately, thanks to the shorter British PhD, I've only just turned 26.

How does chemistry inform what you do?
I really can't know enough chemistry as it pervades everything I do at work. The deeper my knowledge, the better I'll be at my current job, and the greater the chance I'll have of getting another.

Pros and Cons?
It seems that this job combines most of the good bits of being an academic and a PhD student; on the one hand I get almost total freedom to do what I like, I still spend most of my time in the lab, I get to teach and I get to be familiar with all the stuff that other people in the group work on but I don't have to write grant proposals or a thesis, take exams, or attend many meetings. It's pretty much how I think being a chemist should be. The main problems with the job are that it doesn't pay that well; although money is rarely a problem for me, I couldn't start a family or buy a house; the hours are pretty long, and are only going to get worse when I cross the Atlantic; and it isn't a long term career, as doing more than a couple of one or two year postdocs is widely considered a bad idea. It can also be stressful and frustrating.

A funny story?
Reading through what I've just written I guess I come across as pretty keen on chemistry, but it hasn't been a lifelong interest of mine. I wanted to study physics at university but sucked at math so I ended up studying materials science. That turned out to be a little too last-but-one century for me; the amount of time we spent learning about steel and concrete really put me off. After a year I switched to chemistry, but was a mediocre undergrad as I spent most of my time running the university mountaineering club and planned to get a job in the outdoor industry when I graduated. It wasn't until my final year masters project that things changed for me. Although I usually did much better in inorganic chemistry, I chose to join an organic research group that looked interesting on paper, but to my surprise it turned out to consist only of one mostly retired emeritus professor and a young - but extremely talented - postdoc. To hear those two talk about chemistry was amazing; it was like listening to a conversation in another language, and as they swapped stories about this academic or that, discussed the latest Nicolaou paper or just stood around cracking jokes I realised that the world of organic chemistry was much more interesting than I'd ever realised. I loved the history, the in-jokes and the community. I wasn't a great masters student, but I doubt anyone else in my year learned as much as I did during their project. Four years later I'm still a chemist. And I'm not ready to stop learning yet.

 

*Majestic plural.

** This is not true.

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