Starting a new adventure! … from the same office

Napping on Wadi Rum (Jordan)

A few months ago, I completed my doctoral studies, which I was lucky enough to carry on at ETH Zurich, Switzerland. Now what’s next?

Well, I love teaching, supervising students, and it seems I’m also not too bad at research; a career in academia seems quite appealing. But here is the thing: everywhere you go, you hear about how tough it is to “make it”, to eventually get one of these few stable positions in university offering great working conditions and passionate students. In my field (computer science), you commonly advised that the best course of action (understand: “what you do to maximize you chances of landing a professorship”) is to go do a 2-3 years post-doc in the US, pull out 2-3 strong papers, then apply for a professorship. Right. But that’s not quite how I see things.

For me, research is a job of passion. I like it because it’s a job where I can explore new things, uncover and tackle challenging problems with a team a likely-minded people, and (hopefully) produce knowledge and tools that will be useful for others and society. That’s what I want. That’s meaningful for me. As I see it, being able to do this is the definition of a successful career. Note that the goal is /not/ to get a professorship, that is merely a mean to the end; and the distinction is important. Getting a professorship would allow me to do all this, but (i) there may be over ways and (ii) I do not want to sacrifice what I believe in along the way to get there, because that’s not the goal. My goal is to do meaningful research, things I honestly believe in so that I stay passionate about it and can’t wait to get out of bed every morning.

With these ideas in mind, I started thinking about what I would look for in a post-doc position. Here is my list:

  • If possible: work on topics different from my doctorate (at least slightly)
  • If possible: work in a different scientific community
  • If possible: get involved in lecturing
  • If possible: get some experience in group leadership
  • If possible: discover a new country/culture
  • Must: work with new people
  • Must: work in a group lead by someone sharing my views on research

And last but surely not least, I must get a job compatible with my personal life. That’s super important to me. I believe my doctorate was a happy and (reasonably) successful experience because I balanced it out with a lot of personal time; leaving work early, do sports during the week, going in the mountains on weekends, spend a lot of time with my wife. That’s what works for me. Whatever I do must be compatible with that.

Then came the opportunity: before I really start looking for a job, a neighboring professor from my institute offers me a post-doc in his group. We got to know each other during the last project of my doctorate, where we went seeking his advice to reach out to his research community; and it clicked. It was quite clear that we share similar views on things and how to do meaningful research. But there is this catch: taking this job means I would carry on working in the same university, thereby forfeiting the holly criterion on mobility in the prospect of an academic career. I do understand why mobility matters. During my studies, I spent some time in Sweden, a year in the US, and came from France to Switzerland for my doctorate: these experiences have all been useful and helped me grow as a researcher.

Then I thought again about my goal and my list of wishes for a postdoc. That’s like a multi-objective optimization problem; you have to trade off the different criteria. I could look for a job somewhere else and “tick the box” of mobility. Or I can stay at ETH and get a job that fits all my personal criteria but the discover-a-new-culture one. Plus, every move takes a toll on your personal life: it’s not easy to uproot you whole family every couple of years. Does it make sense to do something just because that’s what today’s science system expects? I don’t think so. I chose to be true to my beliefs: I want to be what feels right, I want to do meaningful research with great people. I found just people next door, so why keep looking somewhere else?

In the end, it boils down to this: I do not want to do things to fit some standards or common practices I don’t agree with (that’s the same story with my pledge to Open Science). I want to live my life doing what feels right, we shall see where this will take me. The path may not lead to a professorship, so be it; at least I will have enjoyed the ride. Right now, starting this post-doc at ETH definitely feels right.

Bring it on, I’m ready!

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