Capricious Gods

It was the week before Christmas when I had to deal with an academic bombshell. Well, I’m exaggerating a bit (as I’ll explain), but it had many of the hallmarks of a bombshell: unsuspecting normality, followed by a metaphorical BOOM! and then a flood of emotions and reactions came roaring in for the aftermath.

All sorts of random shit can happen to an unlucky grad student. Projects fail, successful projects get scooped (sometimes maliciously, sometimes not). Your professional relationships can go tits-up. In this instance, my advisor emailed the group to let us know that they’d accepted a new position in [University of State-at-geographically -the -opposite-end -of -the-country], migrating the lab in Summer ’17. And if we had any questions feel free to come chat.

The BOOM! could have been more unexpected, I admit. I thought they might be on the market – past history and present behaviour (there are only so many reasons a successful faculty member disappears for odd days at a time during the Fall semester without giving specifics). I guess I was expecting an offer – if it were to come – to appear in Spring. But maybe that’s more for assistant professors, not senior poaches.

It took barely 3 minutes for me to compute and triage all the implications. And to be frank, make a decision. This sort of thing happens all the time – professors hop institutions and the stepping stones deal with either those that move or those that stay. As a grad student, you always have a free choice in the matter. Admittedly, sometimes you have to choose of your own free will to leave with a Masters or start over again in a new lab at your current university…but it’s still a choice. My own personal choice equation went something like this:

[Prestige of (prospective) – (current) university] + [Extra time/hassle to get PhD in prospective university] – [Extra time/hassle to get PhD if I stay behind at current university] + [General desirability of (current location) / (prospective location)] =>

==> Stay at current university.

Christmas was decidedly lacking in chill. Although I wasn’t in lab, I was still struggling to get a hold on my new trajectory. I’d been assuming that I would defend my PhD in Summer 2018. Now it could be as early as Summer 2017 (though most likely Fall ’17). If I wanted to aim for a postdoc this academic year I was already behind. There wasn’t an issue of whether I could defend early. I’d hit the bare minimum to defend (in terms of 1st author publications) and my publication pipeline was already in a healthy state. However, I’d need to wrap up several projects in a shorter space of time, and squeeze in another completely new project (which is using well-established chemistry, but still has to be built from scratch) that I’d publish and convert into my final PhD thesis chapter.

Yeah, sure it’s do-able. Whether I can do it without wrecking myself is a separate issue.

A lot of the finer details have not been clarified. Will I have to be fostered in another lab for a semester? Can I really get all these papers out in time? I made lists, sent out long emails, created skeleton Word Document drafts and began to fill them in. I felt the stress lift off me as soon as I created a special Microsoft OneNote file that pulled all my tasks into one e-document (that wasn’t as monstrous as I feared).

The biggest source of stress was “coming out” as staying behind and defending early – both professionally and to my family. I worried that I’d be bombarded with “what are you thinking?!” questions. Such questions if there are being asked, aren’t being asked to my face. As I said, it’s not an outlandish choice (I suspect most grad students in their 4th/5th year would prefer to stay put rather than move so late in the game).

The topic of how I’m going to push my research agenda forward is another, imminent post. It does feel that I’m on the right side of the research gods. I got an unexpected positive result from a reaction I thought was hopeless, which could lead to another paper separate from the ones my advisor predicted for me. My latest paper has been conditionally accepted into a high-ranking journal, subject to some minor edits. I remain guarded about that paper until final confirmation comes through.

2017 will be an interesting, though hopefully productive year.

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