As I was obsessively peering at my computer screens immersed in analyzing data the other week with a tremendous sense of contentment, this question popped into my head. I have been contemplating it for a while now and thought I would share a few thoughts on the topic – despite the two being quite a long time apart for me in years… My post-doc was relatively long (turned into 6 years where I also worked as a scientist), whereas the sabbatical is relatively short (6 months). So what is similar and different about the two?
1. You arrive in another country with a couple of suitcases, a head full of dreams and ideas and not much else. Then (post-doc): You have a lot of worries and fears about the unknown. But, you are not concerned because the country in which you have chosen to post-doc has English as a main language. But it doesn’t take long for you to realize that it is very difficult to communicate because the sentence structure, vocabulary, idioms and jokes are completely culturally dependent. They are completely different to what you know. So you spend the next 3 years trying to make sense of it all. That is also about how long it takes for people to begin to laugh at your jokes.
Now (sabbatical): There is the unknown, but it is not really worth losing sleep over. You realize that you will sort things out to the best of your abilities. You have no delusions about the fact that your French skills are just minimal. That said, you can understand others, and they can understand you. People also laugh at your jokes, or perhaps they are laughing at you? When you are older, you are not particularly perturbed by that.
2. You know that you have a limited time to make the most of doing science relatively impeded. Then: You are beginning your career and need to make a mark in the field. You are hungry for project opportunities and will probably take on too many things. You battle with technology – such that is was back then… clunky & expensive laptops, no smartphones, chained to the lab computer doing analyses until all hours of the night. You realize that you are in a privileged position: you can do science while your lab heads have to do administration. Now: You are aware that there are only 24 hours in the day. That said, you have taken on projects that you can probably get closure on so that you can continue to remain competitive as a scientist. Why ‘probably’? Because your experience tells you that things always take longer to do than you expect, so it should be no surprise if some things may not get done in 6 months. The trick is to make sure you can set things up so that they can be completed even if you have left the lab, if need be. You continue to battle with technology, but the battle is different. For me now it is a French keyboard and a French Linux system on a PC [I used to use a PC but have had a MAC-based lab for many years because of the scientific equipment I have]. That said, my smartphone is an indispensible tool. You also relish that you have the luxury of not having to attend any faculty meetings and teaching any classes for the semester.
3. You will make professional and personal connections that will be worthwhile and also lifelong. Then: Your peer-group consists of other post-docs and grad students. You hang out with them and go out to bars at night where you complain about the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of the various principal investigators that you have to interact with. It is really nice to keep seeing these people at scientific meetings – they have many different nationalities and also now live in many different countries (not always their home country). At the same time senior scientists are mentors and great contacts for career moves – and you value these connections very much indeed. Now: Your ex-trainees live in many other countries. Your peer-group consists of other principal investigators. These are people who you might have known for many years already, or may be people who you have recently met at international scientific meetings. You look forward to spending time over dinner or in bars where you might complaining about the idiosyncrasies and eccentricities of the various trainees that you interact with. You might even write a book with one of these PIs!
You are now a mentor for many younger colleagues, who you help to make career advances. Some of these people might be part of a formal mentoring scheme e.g. Organization for Human Brain Mapping. People who you turn to for career advice are beginning to pass away…
5. You are juggling finances. Then: Half your monthly salary goes to paying rent. You have trouble getting a credit card and even then the credit limit is low – because you have moved to another country where you have no credit history. This is absurd because you have held credit cards for quite a few years. Your savings are minimal – made even less so by a brutal exchange rate between your country’s currency and the mighty greenback. [My bank balance shrunk to about 2/3 overnight because of this.] Money for travel and culinary pleasures is not abundant, but still you make the most of it without getting into debt. As a photographer, getting film developed also adds to expenses – digital photography does not exist yet. [You also have a lead film bag when you travel, so that airport X-ray machines do not expose your rolls of film during luggage screening.] Culinary pleasures are fleeting – your finances need to stretch far, but your waistline can handle it. You develop a good sense for opportunities involving free food. Now: You have a mortgage and during your sabbatical you are also having to pay rent on a nice apartment in a great residential area. Thankfully, now less than half of your salary goes to paying rent and the mortgage. Thanks to modern day banking you are able to use your existing credit cards etc. and there is money for travel and culinary pleasures and other things. Despite taking a financial hit in transitioning from the greenback to the Euro, things are still manageable. Digital photography ensures that you can shoot thousands of pictures with zero costs. You can actually indulge in culinary pleasures – although your waistline doesn’t stretch and then go back to where it was anymore…
Speaking of culinary pleasures, the other night I had an excellent dinner at an eccentric local restaurant called ‘Les Temps des Cerises‘ (https://www.letempsdescerisescoop.com/) with a friend/ex-post-doc who had lobbed into Paris for a couple of days. We both had the speciality of the house – a cassoulet that we washed down with a great Faugères red from the Languedoc region (https://www.languedoc-wines.com/fr/languedoc-decouverte/les-aoc-du-languedoc/aoc-faugeres).
So there are differences between the then and now – the post-doc and the sabbatical. But what is the bottom line? Make every day count – enjoy the time you have and put it to good use! Also, appreciate that science is a profession where people from different cultures and belief systems interact in debates over science, but do not give each other a hard time about their respective religion, race, or politics. Now why can’t the rest of the world function like that?