Matthew Aiello-Lammens Ecologist at Work

Completing my PhD (whilst working as a Post Doc) (archive)

Just over a week ago I defended my PhD. Almost 10 months ago I started my Post Doc. This shuffling of the order in which one "should" progress is not uncommon. I know at least a few other people who started their post doc, then went back to their PhD institution to defend. About four weeks ago, as I was finishing up my dissertation to send it off to my committee, I would say that I wasn't sure it was a good idea to take a post doc before you finish. The past 10 months have certainly been challenging. Going into it, I figured that I could probably work between 60 and 80 hours a week. After all, there are so many hours in the day. Start my post doc work at 7 AM, finish up around 4 PM, that still leaves me 6 to 7 hours of work time before I need to go to sleep. I quickly realized that was pretty naive. Perhaps some can work that hard for extended periods of time, but likely not many (as this post at Dynamic Ecology suggests http://bit.ly/1kD6KzG). This meant that it took me longer to complete my dissertation than I initially anticipated. But now, looking through the rose tinted glasses that come with a successful defense, it's easy to think, "oh yes, this was definitely a good idea". So, I thought I might list a few pros and cons, based on my experience.

Pros:
* My post doc is in a lab I had been following for some time, focusing on research that is incredibly interesting to me, with excellent colleagues - hard to beat that.
* I work close enough to home, in a flexible enough environment, to partially solve the two body problem. (My wife has a faculty position at a medical school on Long Island. We don't want to live separately and I would never ask her to leave her position so I can take a three year temporary position.)
* I am going to get to go to the Cape Floristic Region of South Africa! How cool is that?
* Working on my post doc gave me a wider view of the field of plant ecology, which helped me frame my PhD work as I was finishing up. In general, there was a great deal of reciprocal transfer of knowledge (in my own head) between my post doc project and my PhD work.

Cons:
* No free time, or almost none. I turned down a lot of invitations from family and friends over the past ten months, and always felt guilty when I didn't.
* As I said above, the time to completion for my PhD was extended. This was perhaps the greatest challenge.
* Hours wise, I'm pretty confident that I was fulfilling my post doc obligations, but I wasn't as efficient or as productive as I wanted to be. In part I think this was because my intellectual energy was split,
* I did not publish my chapters as I completed them, leaving me with three unpublished dissertation chapters (but perhaps it will be nice to have manuscripts almost ready to submit over the next year.)

Where to now? I'm excited to devote most of my energy to my post doc work (I have to reserve some to wrap up side projects that I let languish), and I'm optimistic about what I can accomplish in the next year and a half. I wouldn't be in this position if I had waited until I was finished to take a post doc. With that said, I have every intention on giving my future students a realistic portrayal of what this decision can feel like. And given the number of finishing PhD students who start their post docs early, I assume they too will do what they think is best for them at that time, just like I did.
Congrats on a successful defense, Dr. Aiello-Lammens!