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My first year as a postdoc in Japan – the exciting, the challenging, and the unexpected

The first year of my postdoc here in Japan has just passed, so it is a good time for some kind of summary and reflection. Getting the postdoc – paid full-time research position – in Japan – a place I always wanted to live in – was a dream come true. Changing a job and a country at the same time is quite an adventure however, so this is how it went:

One: postdoc

The exciting: I have STARTED a postdoc! I have started a full time JOB which pays me real money (‘real money’ is the money I can pay ALL my bills with). AND the job consist mainly of me learning new exciting things, solving problems and doing what I love ALL day, everyday. What a blessing!

The challenging: transition to being ‘by myself’ as opposed to being a part of a team has its challenges. The problems related to the project, are my problems only. All the decisions are on my head, all the logistics are mine. Because this postdoc is in another country, the safety networks are scarce. Of course I have all the help I ask for, but I have to ask first.

The unexpected: This was the biggest lesson I have learned this year: I have trouble asking for help. What an opportunity for growth! This year was all about learning to ask for help, learning to delegate, to compromise and sometimes to let go (bye bye EMG component in my data collection).

Two: Japan

The exciting: I have moved to Japan! I have always wanted to live in Japan for a year or two, so I was super excited for this opportunity. I still cannot believe that I get to live and work in Tokyo. I still remember taking a tram to Japanese class through snow and cold many, many years ago and dreaming about visiting Japan one day. I could do this postdoc anywhere in the world and I would love it, but doing it in Japan, makes it just so much better.

The challenging: I have moved to Japan! There is nothing more challenging than moving your whole life to another country, especially when you lack the language abilities to be an independent adult. Regarding the work, moving to another country requires investing time in mastering all the new ways of doing things; all the things. From simple things like where the printing paper is, how to get to or out of the building after or before hours, to more complicated such as how to recruit sports teams to your study.

The unexpected: Japanese cultures influences research in Japan too. How I recruit in my study is influenced by the customs of Japan. This feels obvious now, but did not occur to me when I was planning my study.

Three: conference

The exciting: sports medicine conference! I have been on a conference last time in 2015. That is a toll of no full-time job and having a baby. Conferences are so inspiring.

The challenging: presenting in a language you don’t really speak is tricky. The initial plan was to memorize the presentation, but as often in life nothing went according to plan, and I had resorted to reading from my notes. I decided to present in Japanese to give everyone in the audience a change to understand my research. It was stressful but a correct decision, I stand by it 100%.

The unexpected: I choose to present in Japanese to make my research more accessible for Japanese audience, but unexpectedly, I have got something out of this myself too. I have learnt that I can overcome things, I previously thought were impossible to overcome. I have managed to stay positive (I have focused on the fact that at least I knew the topic…) throughout the experience. This presentation will now be my benchmark for all the presentations to follow. There cannot be many harder things to do, than publicly present in a language you don’t know.

Four: people

The exciting: I have met a few amazing people, including JSPS fellows! I have attended the JSPS orientation and several other events where I could talk to people in exactly the same situation I am. What a relieve to get to know that we all face the same challenges. Also I have met amazing people in my lab without whom my journey would not be possible.

The challenging and unexpected: Preparing and running research project in another country takes more time than expected. No matter how good your plan is, you cannot account for the things you don’t know about, and these things are in millions in a new country. And again, everything turned out pretty much ok thanks to “a little help of some friends”.

Five: outreach

The exciting: This year I have received some opportunities to share my research, also here in Japan. Not only some long awaited articles have been published, but I have also presented my research to Japanese high school students!

The challenging: I have been a high school student myself a long time ago, so many years and three countries later, I struggle to recognise what is the state of knowledge of a high school student and how far it is from my research. Preparing a lecture was a real but welcomed challenge for that reason.

The unexpected: Fun is universal. I believe that having fun while you learn is important. Therefore, while planning the lecture for high school students I have tried to come up with some fun activities. I was really afraid that the activities will not fly, but they were actually the most appreciated part of the lecture.

Six: lab work

The exciting: I have got involved in other studies in my laboratory (study design, data collection and data analysis). I enjoy research in general, and I have just discovered that advising on other peoples’ projects is exciting too.

The challenging: I guess that having your best advice rejected may be sometimes hard to swallow. Not much can be done about it, apart from managing how I react to it.

The unexpected: I have learned this year that I can learn anything. Obvious as it is, I don’t think it was my belief before. It is so empowering to know that I am able to learn whatever I want.

Seven: English

The exciting: I got to present my research progress in English regularly. Our office have ‘research meetings’ every month where graduate students present their progress, and more senior members of the lab practice their presentations before going to any conference. I am with graduate students on this one, and I am so grateful for this opportunity. Keeping the English language going or even developing it may be hard when you are not a native speaker, especially if you live in country with yet another language.

The challenging: What a confusing language mesh to manage for my poor brain. I’m Polish, living in Japan, but working mainly in English. There are days that I don’t really speak in any of these languages as my brain shuts down and refuses to comprehend.

The unexpected: I have learnt that immersion is a key in language learning. I am spending only 2-3 hours per week (not even every week) studying Japanese, and yet I have made some progress. I guess everyday life teaches you what you need pretty effectively. Of course it is not enough to write an Ethics application, but allows me to shop and ask questions if need be.

To summarize, I have enjoyed my first year as a postdoc very much. I have spend the most amazing year living my dream life, and got to share it with my family and even a few visiting friends. To celebrate the finish of first year of my postdoc in Japan, I have even applied for a job in Japan, literally on the anniversary day of entering to Japan. What a year! I can’t wait for the second year to unfold.

How was your year? What was most exciting? What you are most proud off?

PS: This post was inspired by @someblondescientist. Check her out on an insta:

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