Postdoctoral Dilemma… Warning Signs And What (Not) To Do

My postdoctoral story began almost 3 years ago.  I graduated from a graduate school program, where most of the professors know and like me, and because of this, I landed a postdoctoral job at a well-known university.  My graduate advisor was an assistant professor (then untenured), and I thought it might be fine to work with another assistant professor for my postdoctoral position.

Initially the postdoctoral mentor (then a untenured assistant professor, only 2 years into her job, but very well-known already in a research area that is different from mine) was nice, then things started to become weird…  For 2 years, a list of the things happened:

  • My postdoctoral mentor was almost always absent or went away to do something else when it was my turn to present my work during the weekly meeting;
  • My mentor and I are both women, but sometimes I felt that she wants to compete with me or tries to show me that she is the one in power. For example, she told me she met one of my graduate committee members in a meeting, with whom I am very close to, when I acknowledged his quirky way of doing things, and she suddenly said that she has known him for a long time and that she knows him very well (which I don’t think is quite true);
  • My mentor never really thought what I was doing research on had any importance…  Until someone she respects in the field published a similar study, and then she became interested in my work;
  • I felt my mentor did not respect me at times.  For example, she would ask her graduate students to join a private meeting between me and her and start criticizing my work and ask the graduate student to weigh in (on her criticism);
  • My mentor showed little support.  For example, she didn’t think I am of R1-faculty material, and when she asked to see my faculty application she told me some of the proposal ideas were too similar to hers, even though they were topics that I am known for in the field (and she has never worked on those topics before);
  • My mentor constantly asked for data, however even when I spend more than 14 hours a day in the lab for a 5-day work week, she was not satisfied with the work and the results; and
  • My postdoc mentor, being a woman herself, picked on me for the way I dress, while the other postdoc (a guy) usually wears a pair of jeans and polo shirt, she didn’t mind.
  • I spent one year to complete a project, and when I asked whether I should start preparing a manuscript for the results, my postdoc mentor started to delegate me to other tasks instead and told me to wait.  I continued to ask her  and even started preparing the manuscript on my own, and she continued to use excuses and delegate other tasks to me, then I found out that she asked one of the graduate students to prepare the manuscript for the work I have done.

I desperately looked for other postdoctoral positions to get out of my situation, and I also applied to faculty positions.  However, with the demanding work hours, I had limited time to devote to “getting out”.  I finally have had enough belittling from her and left the job.  I went back to my graduate institution to teach and finish some papers that I have not had the time to finish, and now I am much happier and have time to apply to other positions.

So maybe you can learn from my experience.

  • When you feel that there was something wrong with the postdoctoral position and you are not as productive as you want to be, you should leave the post within a year and find a new one that would suit you better
  • When you feel like your expertise is not valued, and you are being used more like a technician than a postdoc, also consider leaving the post ASAP because it will not get better, it usually gets worse
  • So what can you get out of the horrible situation you think you are in?  This is where your scientific experience will come in.  Even if you are NOT in a horrible situation or you just got the postdoc job, you should–
    • Go to conferences so you get to know people, and people get to know you (so people can’t use other’s account of you to judge you)
    • Present your work (be it your graduate work or your postdoc work so people get to know what you are working on), publicizing yourself
    • Contact whomever you would like to work with or collaborate with about COLLABORATION opportunities!

There are not a lot of people around me who had a postdoctoral position, my graduate advisor was also quite new to this type of things, and there was just too little knowledge that people I know can provide.  So what to do when you don’t know a lot about being a postdoc or choosing the right mentor?

First, keep up with the increasing knowledge on the postdoc topic (people’s reaction to possible postdoc position reform is here).  The National Academies already felt that there is a need for a more proper postdoctoral mentoring.  Make sure you choose a suitable postdoctoral mentor.  There is a resource on the NAS website about mentoring postdocs, make sure your prospective mentor would help you achieve your goal.  The 2014 report summarizes some important issues on this:
http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18982/the-postdoctoral-experience-revisited

Secondly, there are a few blogs on other people’s experience to help postdocs overcome their difficult situations.  These range from topics of suggested help when one is facing a hard situation (http://www.benchfly.com/blog/lessons-from-a-recovering-postdoc/), to decisions of leaving academia (http://anothersb.blogspot.com/2014/02/goodbye-academia.html), to different  scenarios depending on one’s position(http://bitesizebio.com/10856/bad-reference-its-not-the-end-of-your-science-career/), to handling difficult mentor-mentee relationship (https://tenureshewrote.wordpress.com/2013/08/12/toxic-academic-mentors/), to hindsight reflections (http://guestblog.scientopia.org/2012/02/09/postdoc-fail/), etc.

Lastly, make sure you ask tons of questions, try to ask about the personal struggle people had as a postdoc.

And I hope you will not find yourself in the same situation I was in.  Good luck!

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About leneatiengo

Vegan, without onion, garlic, leek, coriander/cilantro, hing (asafoetida), scallion, green onion, chives
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