Postdoc fail

Feb 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

*** Disclaimer:  Here I talk about what I believe are some of the causes of my failure as a postdoctoral fellow and how that fueled, even more, my interest in getting out of the tenure-track and back into my former field of training. These are my views, of course, and not those of my former labmates or mentors. This is how I'm slowly understanding the whys and hows of failing and moving on.

If you read my blog, especially between the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 you'll notice that I was in a pretty bad mood. I felt terrible, depressed, disillusioned with science, research, and myself.  It is no secret that I was a very miserable postdoc. I started working in my postdoc lab with high hopes. I was pretty pumped after my defense and I was excited to be in a lab (though I can't lie, I really wanted a "real" job, not another temp position in academia). So, what went wrong? Why did I fail so miserably in my postdoc?

The first clue is in the second-to-last sentence of the previous paragraph. Read it again. I'll wait right here. Do, do, do, deee, do. OK, done? Great, what did you notice? I said "I was excited to be in a lab, though I couldn't lie, I wanted a "real" job." And by real what I mean is that I wanted a job, in science, but another transient position. In industry perhaps, or somewhere where I could make some money and have benefits (I know, I'm a sellout). I had reasons to be hopeful. Some of the previous students from my PhD had found positions in industry/government (granted, at the time my PhD mentor was in a neuro/pharmacology department at a different place, and apparently pharmacology has some cachet to it that the title of my PhD department lacks). I was moving to a new country, but I was somewhat positive (oh how naive some of us were as grad students) that I'd be able to find a job, and possibly avoid doing a postdoc.

My defense was early in the summer of 2009. I started sending emails and CVs everywhere in January of that year. If you recall, that's the time when the economic downturn was pretty horrible. And here I was, poor, naive me, trying to find a job just the middle of a sucktastic recession. I thought that 5-7 months would be enough to at least set something in motion, and that someone, somewhere close to the school honey was attending would be at least a bit interested in my skills. Nope, it didn't happen. There was this interesting-looking start-up biotech in postdoc town, but nope, they didn't even acknowledge getting my application (not even an automated response). I know now that had I been as passionate about finding a job then as I was at this time last year, I would have done things differently. I would have pestered asked for guidance from my PhD mentor saying something along the lines of  " boss, I'm afraid of doing a postdoc and going into the TT, can you help me find a job in something else?" Only now am I finally able to embrace that statement and admit what I'd been hiding for a long time ... I don't think I wanted to continue in the tenure-track, but I did, because I needed the income, and I thought that if I could at least learn some skills, that would make up for it. I thought that after 1 or 2 years as as postdoc I could go back into the job market, better prepared, and that with a better economy someone would be interested in me. But it was harder than I thought.

Just so it's clear, I don't hate the TT. I admire my peers who've gone into academic research and teaching. I just don't think I'm strong enough, or capable enough to maintain a full lab, write successful grants, recruit and maintain happy students and techs and teach on top of it. I admire all of you tweeps and peeps who go that wonderful route, but I don't think I can do it. I love doing seminars, I enjoy public speaking, I enjoy teaching and bringing light into a student's mind, to open their horizons to discovery and wonder. I also love doing research (even if it's sounds contradictory). I love doing the type of research I do, collecting and analyzing the data, creating pretty pictures, helping users with their needs. I like each area as a separate entity. I just don't think I can do both at the same time and still be (somewhat) successful.

Back to the story. So, I didn't find a job (and I wasn't insistent enough to keep at it). Instead, I made my peace with being a postdoc and decided to start from scratch, much like I'd done as a grad student. In a new lab, in a new discipline. I read all the papers the boss sent my way, I asked people in the lab to show me how to use equipment, I pestered the lab tech until I fully understood things. I met with my boss regularly, and I told him many, many times that I'd need to learn certain lab tasks that a lot of protein biochemists do routinely, since I hadn't done anything like that since my 1st year in grad school. And that it would take time, but I'd do it. I knew I could.

Little by little I started learning the ropes, but I had no idea of where to take my project. I can't say if it was because I didn't have the right mindset, or I wasn't interested or passionate enough about the project. Or maybe my critical thinking skills were not as developed as I thought. I just didn't have these fantastic ideas that the other postdocs in my lab seemed to have regarding their projects. That didn't frustrate me so much as it was sharing office quarters with the lab bully.

As time went on, one of my labmates started complaining about everything and everyone. At first I didn't notice. I'm a bit absent-minded and sometimes it takes me a while to catch things that seem obvious to everyone else. I'd share with honey how my day went, and one day he pointed out that sometimes I'd be in a foul mood, or feeling bad, especially in days when said labbie went on and on about how no one in the lab worked harder than they did, how the boss was sexist, how no one appreciated their contributions to the lab, and seem to want to take advantage of them (or their reagents). It was pretty poisonous and constant. And I never got the courage to call their hand and say enough, I ain't taking your BS, go complain to the boss and get the hell out if you're so unhappy and full of poison. It was poisonous, to the point where I was very depressed. I know now that I need to speak up and say stop when lab bullies are in and go all high and mighty about how they're the best thing that has ever happened to a lab and no one can compare to them. I'd never been in that situation, and I didn't react when I had to. I was scared and afraid. And it all invariably affected my performance in the lab.

Between the toxic labmate, the lack of interest in my project and the lack of mentoring and direction I got lost. I didn't know how to get out. By comparison, my PhD PI was very involved in everyone's project regardless of their position in the TT ladder. She would ask how things were going, and if someone was stuck, she'd help them out, lab manager, staff scientist, grad student or postdoc. It didn't matter, she was invested in our success and pushed us to go harder and higher than we thought possible. My postdoc PI was passive in that sense, and never really went out of his way to inquire as to how things were. I did drop by his office and asked for his input, which he freely gave, but it was always, "you try it and report it", not a "let me give it a try and see if it's you or me or the system" after many frustrating trials. I also asked to use certain pieces of equipment, and was met with a wall of silence. I think I spent circa 4 months begging to move on to more complicated stuff, and to have access and training on some instrumentation. It did happen, a few months before I left. Just as I was getting used to the new instrumentation the new job starts.

And I realize that I should have adapted to his style of mentoring, and that as soon as I noticed that it wasn't effective, I should have made a move and pester him for time, attention and training (as he was very hands on with the training, at least). Instead I just retreated and lost the battle, without much fight. That was crappy on my part.

By the end of my postdoc I was fed up and I wanted to go back to my original field of study. Though I did like the new techniques I'd learned (and I was consistently getting decent amounts of material to work with and promising results), it wasn't enough to keep me happy. I knew things in my former field, I knew the people, the papers, the instruments. I then decided that if the problem was all me, then I wouldn't flourish in my next position as a staff scientist. If that was the case, I'd hang my science gloves and look elsewhere. I wouldn't be an impostor anymore, because I didn't even have what it takes to be one.

With a battered spirit, I put on my job-searching pants and told my postdoc mentor that I would be looking for work during my last months there, and that while I wouldn't abandon my experiments, I would need time (and was willing to put in more hours during weekends if necessary) to do my stuff and look for a job and go on interviews if it came to that. From that point on our relationship changed a bit, and I got to see the mentor I'd wanted from day one. We had some of the most illuminating conversations ever. I was very open and honest and he was too. He gave me some spot on advice (especially about accepting an offer and negotiating a salary), inquired as to where I was looking and what I was looking for and asked me about my motivations and interests. I guess in a way he wanted to make sure I was in it for the right reasons.

A few weeks before I left we had a long, intense conversation. We talked about our expectations coming in and how some of them were met and others weren't. We gave each other an informal evaluation of sorts, and for the first time I saw the mentor I was yearning for. He was open, direct, yet kind and reassuring. That's what I had wanted all along ... but I couldn't see it until the very end. And it made me sad, because I saw it in him ... I just didn't work hard enough to get it out sooner, to keep him engaged an interested in me. And I felt like a failure. I couldn't accomplish my mission in the lab, and I couldn't get my mentor to stay interested in my project. I still think about the two years I spent there, and how I could have done much more, if only I'd searched a more, dug deeper, asked for what I needed from my mentor from day one. I sometimes kick myself for not doing enough. Other times I think it simply wasn't meant to be, and that two people with weird communication skills didn't get the chance to see the best in each other. It makes me sad.

I know that things could have been different, but they weren't. That even though I didn't get a paper out, I did do a whole lot of growth and discovery. In his lab and via the contacts I made I did take advantage of continuing ed courses, I did attend some very interesting and high profile lectures. I met people Canadian structural bio gods, and I am thankful for it. I learned new techniques and approaches, and I have a better understanding of what it takes to make things work in other branches of structural biology. I'm thankful that even though I didn't want to do a postdoc, I still did it, and learned that it was OK to move away from the tenure-track, to let those that want it bad and can, try their best and do it. I learned that one can find fulfillment in doing lab science without necessarily becoming a professor, and that there's a place for all. Even though I failed as a postdoc, I did learn a lot. And like honey says, as years go by, some of the lessons will become obvious and I will continue to grow and absorb stuff from the experience. If I hadn't been through it, I wouldn't know what I know today .. even if it was difficult and painful.

My current job isn't always a paradise with unicorns and rainbows (and LOLcats, lots of 'em), but this field I can handle, this type of work keeps me pumped. Dealing with some admin crap every now and then, organizing lab things, making sure that instruments work properly, troubleshooting, helping people ... those things I enjoy. Sure, I may not get to be the first author in papers anymore, or be the senior author ever ... but I am content with that for now. Who knows what the future holds. Maybe one day I'll feel like I can be in charge of bigger things, or that I only want to teach, or maybe I can even be a project manager and keep things going and provide support in other ways. Till then, even with my postdoc failure, I keep going on.

29 responses so far

  • scicurious says:

    I found this story really inspiring, and I'm glad that you managed to really learn some positive things from your experience, I know that can be incredibly hard to do.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Awwww, thank you SO much for your words Sci. Indeed, it was a very tough situation to face and I'm glad I got out. My postdoc lab is a pretty nice lab, especially of you're looking for a LOT of independence and freedom and definitely want to stay in the TT. In my case, I needed a lot of structure and it was sometimes a free for all, so I had no direction or the kind of mentoring I needed. Had I been successful, I believe I still would have looked for a way out of the TT.

  • BeckyPhD says:

    I feel like I could have written parts of that. I also settled for a postdoc in the summer of 2009 because I couldn't find a "real" job that I really wanted. My postdoc sounded exciting and involved learning lots of new techniques and becoming acquainted with a new sub-field. I didn't love it though, and I didn't get the kind of mentoring I wanted and grew to hate it. But that position brought me to a city that I love, where I met and married my husband. That position got me the contacts and connections (and a little bit of experience) I needed to get my current grant admin position that I also love. In fact, my postdoc mentor didn't mentor me the way I thought I wanted, but he did recommend me to my current boss. Within hours of telling me I really needed to start looking for a new position, he came into the lab and said 'hey, you should go upstairs and talk to newBoss today, he's got a position open that I think you'll like.' Although I feel like I also failed at being a postdoc, I realize now that I needed to fail in order to get where I am now.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Thanks for your comment Becky. Oh indeed, it was a hard stage to be in, lots of growing pains that by virtue of being so sheltered during my PhD I'd pushed back and now had to face. Indeed, the more time passes, the happier I am to be out, but also, the more lessons and bits of wisdom I gather from my time there. I also got to meet a lot of wonderful people, I really like most of my labbies and they were beyond nice and helpful. You perfectly summed it up with this: "I realize now that I needed to fail in order to get where I am now." That may be my new motto.

  • Dr. KanneDo says:

    I also feel like I could have written large portions of this. I'm glad to hear that you were able to push through into a better situation!

    • 27andaphd says:

      Aww, thanks Kanne :-). It was tough, but I'm glad I survived. And it's very reassuring to meet others who feel the same. I'm SO not as alone I though I was. Thanks for your words.

  • Dan says:

    Thank you for sharing. Much of what you've written reflects my own experience as a grad student who wasn't fresh out of undergrad. Perhaps because of my perceived maturity, I was treated more like a postdoc than a grad student which, combined with a lack of passion for lab work, has kept me in a perpetual state of imposter-dom.
    Unfortunately, my state of fail has come before defending rather than after, and so now I stretch to complete a MS while my cohort starts finishing their PhD.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Oh Dan, I'm so sorry grad school has you feeling like that. You know, I kind of identify a bit with what you say because I started my PhD right after finishing my undergrad, and I felt terrible once I started doing lab work. I hated pipetting endlessly, I didn't want to have to deal with anything living, other than viruses and bacteria and luckily my lab worked as a sort of struct bio mini-core in that I never had to do a single protein purification and pipetting was very limited. I just got samples and went straight to the instruments, which I loved running. That part I love, not getting my hands dirty with tubes and pipettes and such. But, I have to admit, I was very lucky in finding my lab, and also learning to love and live with UNIX and Linux. My PI felt exactly like I did, which is why she made sure that there was very little interaction with the sample on the prep side, and more interaction on the data collection and processing. Would you find something like that appealing? Maybe you just need to focus your attention and interests on something like that or something else which will get your research juices flowing. That was also a contributing factor to why my postdoc failed. Hugs to you and thanks for your comment.

  • Liz says:

    Thanks for this post, I really enjoyed it. I'm finishing up my PhD and am in a similar situation where what I really want is a "real" job but I'm toying with the idea of a postdoc if I can't find a job, although I know that isn't what I ultimately want. This post provided an interesting perspective on the scenario.

    You made some great comments about using your advisor(s) as a networking resource for non-academic jobs. I would love to hear any other suggestions/tips of what worked well for you when on the non-academic job search.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Hi Liz! Thank you so much for your kind words. I'm amazed at the amount of people that have written or tweeted on this entry. I honestly thought I was alone and that when other people felt like they failed in their postdoc was due to bad advisors, or other factors. My advisor is a good person and his lab is good ... we just were a terrible fit.

      In terms of how I found about my position, one of the things I did to speed up the search was that I joined a couple of listservs within my subfield of structural biology. I was already in one that sent messages on any topic, including job postings before they hit journals, that was a good source. Google and LinkedIn were other good sources. And of course Twitter. Genomic Repairman and I had a very good conversation via DM about my subfield and interests and he alerted me to the post about my current position. Twitter is awesome and there are people like ChemJobber that will post jobs on a wide range of areas and steps in the academic and non-academic ladder. Feel free to check my regular blog on WordPress where I blog about my job search and how I found out more about my position. I'm tempted to make a list of the things I did and also post here on the Guest Blogge my entries on finding a job on the academic fringe. Thank you so much for your comment and your kind words. And feel free to drop a line if you want more details on things (stitchick at gmail dot com).

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    This sounds an awful lot like the dialogue in my head right now.

    I'm not unhappy with my postdoc per se, but I'm not where I'd like to be. The problem is that the part of science that I love comes later in a project with interpretation and story-building and every time I think I've made progress I actually end up moving a step backwards (f-ing cloning). I can't figure out if it's the project (which I can suffer through for a while longer until I can find a TT at a small university where I can teach and do lower impact but quality research) or if I want to ditch it entirely and track down a science writer/editor position. Either would let me do the stuff that I enjoy about science, but the latter will give me a real job and let me get on with my life which sounds heavenly right now.

    • 27andaphd says:

      Oh yes, f-ing cloning. The idea of having a position where I can do a lot of teaching and a bit of research (or consulting, that could still keep my wheels moving without doing all the leg work) sounds very appealing to me too. When I was looking for a job last year I was so desperate to get something going fast, I just wanted out and I so wanted the stability of a regular job, or at least knowing that I'm not under contract for X many months or years and that I had benefits. I think my PhD institution and my postdoc one did have some benefits, but since I was an international postdoc, I didn't get to experience much of those benefits (except provincial healthcare which was awesome!!!!). I think there's still a lot of work to do on the university's side of things, and also for the postdocs to get more benefits and stability, and definitely we need to get the wheels moving on creating more permanent positions, that cater to those of us who can be very productive and contribute wonderful but more focused things than pipetting aimlessly (or cloning the living f^ck out of something). My guess is that this is what some of my freelancing friends found out and why little by little they started working on the side up until the point where they could go completely independent .... but that also does take time, and you still will have to stay in a temp academic position until the whole freelancing can be sustained as a permanent, independent position. Hmmm, seems like it's a big, complex situation with no easy,single answer.

  • Lin says:

    If it weren't for the fact that a large large sea separates your and my lab, our mentors could have been the same. Not a postdoc, but your relationship with your mentor sounds a lot like me with mine...

    • 27andaphd says:

      Oh Lin, I'm so sorry. Hugs to you. It is tough to have those types of relationships with a mentor ... especially when I try to get along and be friendly with everyone. It is so out of character, yet I know that sometimes we click with some and not with others. Thanks for visiting and hugs to you. All the best, always.

  • ruckerz says:

    Hey 27andaPhD

    Love your blog and your post. I've come to the end of my graduate studies and am looking for alittle insight on a possible postdoc position that's come my way. You and I have a shared scientific background (struct bio). Could you shoot me an email?

  • MC says:

    Contratulations for this post (a bit late, I know!).

    Your postdoc experience looks very much like my gradschool experience. I am just struggling to finish experiments and defend, and I'm facing the decision of searching for a "real job", or doing a postdoc if I don't find anything.

    To be honest, I have learnt a lot from my PhD and I have published some papers, even though the first years were an absolute nightmare. Now that I'm getting to finish (yes, at least I'm glad I survived!), I still think that I don't really fit in this lab and with this PI, even if he silently feels happy with the great amount of work that I have done.

    What I ask myself is whether the problem is with this lab/PI or with me. I don't know if giving myself an opportunity in another lab, working on a different theme (I have realised that I'm not interested in my research topic) would improve my situation, or if on the contrary, I'm not the right person to succeed personally in academia.

    It's really encouraging to hear that some people might feel satisfied outside academia and that it's worth trying!

  • Dr 27 says:

    Hi MC!

    No worries, it's never too late to comment.

    I definitely understand some of your hesitation regarding whether or not to pursue a postdoc. A part of me says to be an optimist and try a different mentor and see how you like it. Maybe you'll get that 'loving' feeling about research at the bench again after recovering from a bad PhD experience.

    The other part of me, the part of me that sees things based on my current experience as a staff scientist, says that if you're not sure, don't postpone looking for a job because of a scary job market. I know now that I should have taken my sweet time and started early to look for positions near honey way ahead of the end of my PhD. But I didn't and instead did 2 years of a sad and depressing postdoc.

    But in the end, whatever you choose, do it with an informed mind, explore your possibilities and don't be afraid to get away from the bench if you need to, especially if it will put you in a position to get a steady job with benefits.

    Those are my two cents. Best wishes in everything and thanks a ton for visiting!

  • Christina says:

    Congrats on an amazing post!
    I am happy that you are happy in your new job. I guess this is not a very original comment, but I am going to go ahead and say it anyway: I have been a postdoc for a year and a half and a lot of what you said could have been my own words. Is it possible to email you and ask you a couple questions?
    Thanks again for a wonderful post!

    • Dr 27 says:

      Hi Christina! Thank you for your kind comment. Indeed, this is one of the most common responses I'ce had to the post, people identify with it. I'm still surprised by it all. Feel free to drop a line at stitchick at gmail dot com. I'm away for vacation, but should be able to get vack to you. Thanks again and happy holidays!

  • Ian says:

    Your post literally described the exact same experience I had in my post-doc position. I was glad to leave it. Although I am currently in a new post-doc position, and things are a lot better. I'm still "learning the ropes" as you said, but there is promise of papers and the lab atmosphere is a lot better.

    • Dr 27 says:

      Hi there, Ian. Thanks for stopping by. I'm so happy you got to change the sucky situation and lab for a much better one. It's incredible how being around different people and a better environment will affect how we conduct our research. Best of luck to you and thanks for adding your perspective.

  • Nieves M (@wonderfunlife) says:

    Thanks for being so open and honest, it takes courage to share things like those. I'm happy that you're happy now. I'm still the naive graduate student, but hopefully hearing all these stories will help me when I'm in the job search market. I'm thankful for all of you who take the time out of their schedules to share their stories; there will always be someone that will find them helpful and inspiring 🙂

  • on the same boat says:

    "The first clue is in the second-to-last sentence of the previous paragraph. Read it again. I'll wait right here. Do, do, do, deee, do. OK, done? Great, what did you notice? I said "I was excited to be in a lab, though I couldn't lie, I wanted a "real" job."

    I think you meant "third-to-last sentence."

  • Hello, just wanted to mention, I enjoyed this post. It was helpful. Keep on posting!

  • YD says:

    I am in the middle of my postdoc, and feel this increasing depression coming to me as time goes on. The projects are absolutely brilliant, and my skills are spot on for solving the problems. The PI is nice, smart, and supportive. But, I just don't see myself getting out, even with a pretty good chance of pumping top-grade publications (Nature/Science/Cell) based on the nature of my projects and the lab track record. Why?

    There are better people out there, and the available position pool is shrinking! I am not in ivy school; my PI is not a NAS member or HHMI; I am not a US citizen, so getting a fellow title is hard. I have seen so many cases where smart and hard-working postdocs are stuck as "research assistant prof" or "research scientist", which are essentially permanent postdoc positions without job security. If the fund of the PI becomes dry, or they retire, RAPs are let go. I have also seen people who I can tell will be hired down the road -- but they have no flaw in their CV.

    Maybe it's time for me to think about changing my CV into a resume now.

  • JJ says:

    What an amazing post! Many parts about your postdoc situation could have been my own words, especially about your interaction with PI.

    I am currently finishing my 2nd year of post doc in the same lab I got my PhD. I am also in the field of structural biology and my grad research required me to get a high-resolution structure of viral RNA. Even though I failed to get that structure, I managed to get 2 first author papers out despite the lack of advice and direction from my boss.

    In my last year of PhD I wrote a successful postdoctoral 2-year grant that allowed me to pay myself to stay in this lab as a postdoc. Toward my second year of postdoc, PI got divorced and left for a year long sabbatical in another country. He also did not have any more money to support the one and only postdoc I was able to talk to and get some direction, so things have gone from bad to worse.

    My PI is back now and he offered me another year as a postdoc, again without any advice, direction or involvement on his part and unfortunately he has no plans to add a new position on the current grant I am working on. I lost all confidence in my ability to do research. I am really shy and bad at networking so even though I looked and applied to different position in the industry, government, small college teaching and grant writing I have only got rejections or no answer at all.

    I am glad I found your blog and to know that I am not alone in this situation. I just cannot seem to see the light at the end of the tunnel (postdoc).

  • Paraphyso says:

    Best line ever!
    "two people with weird communication skills didn't get the chance to see the best in each other"

    Now I don't feel like such an enormous freak.