This is my third week of working as a postdoc, and I see some clear differences in the work culture and work hours. The difference might somewhat be attributed to working with an associate professor versus an assistant professor, but I am not so clear on that. However, the work hours here resemble more of a 9 to 5 job. Make it 8 to 6 actually. Today, the hours got slightly reversed. When I left at 7 in the morning, I saw the sun rise on my drive to the lab. By the time I was done, it was past 7:30 pm, and the sun had set. However, today was an outlier, I hope.
During PhD, there was no compulsion to show up at work during fixed hours. Don’t get me wrong, this did not mean that I was not working. It only meant that I had the liberty to work from anywhere, and not necessarily the lab. It makes sense, since two of the three years in graduate school was spent taking classes, and the third year was my final year when students are busy writing a dissertation and do not want to be interrupted. There were 1-2 weekly meetings at specific hours when everyone in the lab would meet. If you happened to be out of town, collecting data or on vacation, you could call in. With 3-4 graduate students, people were always in and out. I am not saying that I didn’t show up at work, what I am saying is there were no fixed timings. Some days I would be there by 9, and other days, I would show up after noon. Then again, some days I left by noon, and other days I worked until midnight. All I had to do was tell my adviser that I am going home to work on something, and he can call me or email me if he needed anything. As long as he knew where and how he could find us, he did not care. For me, it was a false sense of freedom while I was still on a leash.
During my third year especially, I remember working from home three out of five days, or showing up at work for a few hours, and then coming home and working more. As a result, I would have the flexibility to work until late night, and wake up late in the morning. Then I would sit in my sunny, east facing kitchen cum dining space with huge French windows, sipping coffee. I would cook a hearty breakfast and wash it down with more coffee, amid working and staring out of the window and watching students take the bus. After lunch, I would even take a nap. When the roommate came home in the evening, we would chat up, drink tea, eat onion fritters, and watch a movie on Netflix, still working. So I was working all day, but the way I wanted to. It’s not that I was hiking up the mountains. I was still communicating with the adviser whenever I was needed.
Graduate students are low stake employees. They hardly get paid anything (I like the way I now call them “they” and not “we”), they take a few years to train, and the level of accountability is lower. I cannot generalize and speak for all research groups, but I have known enough research groups to be able to make a broad statement. A postdoc on the other hand is an employee. We get paid (marginally) more, and it is a full time job. The level of accountability is way higher. A postdoc is only a step away from being faculty most of the time. So you can easily forget the morning brunches and the afternoon naps.
How does a typical day of mine looks like now? Well, I am at work by 9 am, which is when there are no 8:30 am meetings, or 8 am class evaluations. So a 9 am day is a good day for me. I am not the only postdoc, there are more. Hence there is always an implicit comparison on how much work we do. It looks very odd if a postdoc leaves for home at 5 pm, and the other one is still working, and so is the professor. My entire day is filled with meetings. I meet with the professor every day, sometimes twice or thrice a day. There are group meetings, and then there are one-on-one meetings. Then I attend a lot of workshops and seminars, typically 3-4 every week. This is because it is not enough to sit cocooned in your lab working, you need to be out there familiarizing yourself with other research groups and networking with them.
Earlier, my Fridays did not start until 12 noon, when there would be a group meeting. Now, my meetings with the adviser Friday morning is at 8:30 am. Every week at the group meetings, I give an update on what I have been up to, and critique a research paper from the field. If I was taking classes, I would also have to give a talk on how what I have learned in class is applicable to my research, so that other members of the group who are not taking those classes can learn too. And these talks are around the table formal discussions, with powerpoint slides, and not informal chats. Very soon, I will also be supervising undergrads who work to gain some research experience.
By the time I come home, it is usually past 6 in the evening. I barely have the energy to cook myself something, take a shower, head to the gym (sometimes), and collapse on the bed reading a book. I cant stay up late nights anymore because I have to be up the next morning, and the similar cycle would resume. I am genuinely enjoying it, learning a lot, and keeping busy in life. It gives me a sense of worth. However, I no longer have the flexibility to show up late, or not show up at all. I now get twelve vacation days annually, and everything is on pen and paper, formally documented. And on that note, it’s midnight here, and I must go to sleep. I am evaluating an 8 am lecture tomorrow morning.