More than one night
I often have many things on my mind — and I usually do my best work — at odd late-night hours. Snuggled on the couch with familiar music or a movie in the background, I can focus on detailed tasks and big questions.
Work defines me, brings me joy, fulfills me and is often my refuge from the rest of the world. So it’s no surprise that when I found work that I enjoyed and could pursue freely, I jumped on it.
I was volunteering at the Future of Research, a nonprofit, on a project researching postdoc salaries, which grew into an interest in studying the postdoc position as a whole. I happily could pursue this topic no matter the time of day (or night). I frequently found myself reading, just for fun, National Academies’ reports on postdocs and other publications on the state of the research enterprise.
Realizing that this was more than a fleeting interest, I decided to ask our executive director, Gary McDowell, if I could contribute to a book chapter he was writing on postdoc reforms. When I asked him on a Friday afternoon, he replied, “I don’t want to commit you.”
We would need to work intensely on the chapter to submit it before the deadline. Gary is a nice person and likely already felt bad that I was working as a volunteer — somewhat ironic, since we were advocating for better postdoc pay.
But I could see the potential for this book chapter to increase transparency around the postdoc position. So, instead of having the intended effect, Gary’s statement made me realize how committed I was already becoming to postdoc advocacy. I didn’t care what time it was; I just knew I had to work on this book chapter. If someone like me, who had been through postdoc training, didn’t advocate for postdocs, who would do it?
I remember sitting the following Thursday night at the desk in my office, covered by a blanket as I often am when writing. It was probably raining. I was tired; it had been a long day, and I could barely keep my eyes open at times. I drank lots of coffee.
We used the postdoc salary work as a case study, and as I wrote about it, I realized how much this work meant to me. I remember thinking how valuable volunteer work can be. I felt validated; the book chapter symbolized the larger potential to create change by volunteering, by just showing up and committing to a cause.
The more I wrote, the more fun it became. I never felt any writer’s block, and I just continued writing without realizing what time it was. I enjoyed the tremendous teamwork and commitment we both had to this crazy deadline.
We divided up the work pretty much 50-50, and while Gary would say I had the harder task (a detailed section about our data), I watched in amazement as he framed the beginning of the chapter in a larger context and detailed recommendations from several National Academies’ reports. And there was something symbolic about two former postdocs writing this chapter late at night on why postdocs should be treated better.
While writing, I was relaxed; I knew that I had found what I was looking for, and I was soaking it in. At the same time, I felt random bursts of excitement because I couldn’t believe I’d been given the opportunity to work on this topic.
I realized how well we worked together. We were collaborating on a pretty significant write-up in addition to a previous publication. Gary was very good with the vision and the big picture, while I filled in the details and pointed out holes in the argument. It was a pretty good combination of talents, and it was fun.
As I felt myself almost falling asleep, I wondered how Gary just couldn’t and wouldn’t stop this advocacy work, no matter what time of night. That motivated me to keep going, and I kept writing. I gained new appreciation for the work’s importance as well as for Gary’s ability to inspire enthusiasm. His dedication was contagious; I couldn’t stop working on it either. At that moment, it was clear that I had developed a passion for this topic.
At around 3 a.m. on Friday, we were still going, and neither of us planned to sleep until it was done. I quickly wrote a conclusion. To date, it’s still one of the best things I’ve ever written, because by then I could see both the broad vision of the chapter and the details, and I knew exactly what I wanted people to take away from it. I was surprised that Gary trusted me to write this section and made only a few small edits. I remember thinking what a great privilege it was to work with someone who gave me intellectual freedom and trusted my judgement.
We proofread the entire document and made more edits. At about 4:30 a.m., Gary told me he was going to take care of the references and I should go to sleep. I said, “No, I will not sleep until this is done.”
We finished about 5 a.m., and Gary submitted the chapter.
I went to bed utterly exhausted but elated. This night elicited a lot of emotions. I felt appreciated and valued for the work and realized that I had to be more involved with Future of Research, because it had become a large part of who I was as a person.
So in a sense, I committed for more than one night. I committed to something life-changing in terms of discovering my professional direction. That late night working on the chapter solidified my passion for postdoc advocacy, and I was satisfied to have completed something so large.
I wondered later whether it’s unusual to be so engrossed in work. Why did writing a book chapter until 5 a.m. seem normal and make me so happy? When I knew I’d found my passion and was working toward a larger goal, that kept me motivated, even when I could barely stay awake.
And after you’ve had a night like that, you commit for more than one night.
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