*** 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.