From The PDA President

Fall 2016 | Doris Sande

About 15 years ago I moved from Kenya to the United States. I moved to Raleigh in 2010, after completing a Masters and PhD degrees in Agricultural Economics from the University of Georgia. Before starting my current postdoc position in Agricultural and Resource Economics in 2015, I completed a 3-year postdoctoral position on Centennial Campus with the Southern IPM Center as an evaluation specialist. My current research involves work on precision agriculture in cotton; pollinators and crop insurance.

Postdoctoral research is well known to be a difficult job, not just because postdocs can feel confined to their own lab or office, but also because the very nature of the work makes the job too efficient at eating into a postdoc’s free time and exhausting their personal life. This is something I have experienced first-hand, like many others.

Over the course of my career, for too long I woke up tired, only to rush out of the house to work a long day, and then eventually drag myself home to sleep. I repeated this cycle day after day, week after week. Weekends became more about recovery from the week than enjoying myself, and any form of exercise was frequently abandoned because I knew I had to set aside my energy stores for work. Exhausted, I eventually realized I needed to make some serious changes. Since reviewing how I manage my time, I have made the decision to reshuffle my work style and improve my life-work balance.

There is still more reorganizing to be done, but I’m making progress and so far I am happy with what I have achieved. My work days now have an early start of 6am – counter-intuitive, perhaps, but in fact this extra time has allowed me to fit in some much-needed “me” time. Rather than hurrying straight to work, I now allow myself 30 to 45 minutes for prayers, an essential part of my day, followed by a 30 minute run or brisk walk. By 8:30am I’m at work and treating myself to a hot cup of Kenyan tea and I make sure I eat breakfast – usually a mandazi (a type of Kenyan donut) or a bagel or sandwich.

My research demands a lot of computer work, which forces to be at my desk for most of my day. A recent change I have prescribed myself is time out to walk outside at lunch break, a valuable break that does not involve thinking about work. By the time I return to my desk I feel more refreshed, meaning my afternoons are productive and efficient, rather than being a prolonged battle against tiredness. I make a point of ensuring my work day ends at 5.30pm, at which time I leave and consciously stop my work from following me home – something my husband, who is a plant pathology researcher, encouraged me to do. This can be tricky, mainly because research is an unending pursuit, and the amount of data you generate is directly proportional to the number of working hours. Combined with a mixture of pressure and guilt, this makes research very effective at shackling postdocs to their desks or lab benches. However, I strongly believe that breaking free of this bind and taking some time to reset will not cause your work to suffer. Instead, as well as each work day being more constructive, productivity will remain higher for longer and mental health will improve. I believe there should be life beyond work.

By freeing my weekday evenings and restricting my work to normal working hours, my weekends have also flourished. Rather than trying to recover from tiredness, I am able to prepare our meals at home and keep up with household chores. I also have time for activities with my family. My husband and I have a 20-year old daughter, who is a junior, and a 16- year old son in junior high school, and we value all our time spent together as a family. I curve out time for personal hobbies including gardening (it’s going really well – I’m growing tomatoes, black eyed peas, pumpkins, collard greens, and even a pineapple), and I also now participate actively within my Christian community. I find these activities extremely therapeutic, which makes them an essential component of my work-life balance. I believe each day is given to us only once and it is blessed, what we do with it is a choice, so I always try to make the best of and enjoy every second.

In both my postdoc positions, I have found it to be quite lonely, and more so if you happen to be the only postdoc in the department. Working in this situation has made me understand all too well how easy it is to feel somewhat isolated, and as it turns out, I’m not the only postdoc at NC State who feels this way. We are a relatively small community here, and after talking to some other postdocs, feeling out of place seems to be common to postdocs across several departments. As the new President of the Postdoctoral Association (PDA), I would like to reassure any postdocs who have experienced this loneliness and isolation that there is a postdoc community on campus, and although it’s small, it definitely exists, and I urge you to get involved. PDA meetings are held every month and are a perfect opportunity for you to meet others postdocs like you and get involved with the bigger picture. The time has come to combat this postdoc segregation by improving our communication at NC State, to help all postdocs realize that they belong here and play a significant role at this University. We are our voice, so let us join together to make our PDA heard.

Although postdoctoral positions are a chance for us to receive training and mentoring, much of what we learn is self-guided, including learning the work-life balance. This is because the process through academia is neither linear nor clearly defined. One of the ways I intend to provide support to NC State postdocs as the PDA President is to invite guest speakers to discuss different career paths and training, as well as ways of navigating through postdoctoral life and an academic career. I especially hope to make contact with Assistant Professors who already display exemplified productivity in their fields, because not only have they already successfully survived their time as a postdoc, they are also still weaving their way through their own set of obstacles.

Finally, I also plan to work with NC State to enhance and tailor the introductory orientation meetings for new postdocs. While the orientation meetings are useful, I feel additional information about the existing postdoctoral community as well as who the PDA and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA) are is needed. This is the one crucial avenue for new postdocs to know about the PDA. I hope to improve the attendance at postdoctoral meetings and together we can improve the postdoc experience at NC State. So if you can spare a little time to join us, even if it is for a one-off occasion, I would love to meet you.