How to Leave a Postdoc Quickly with Your Reputation Intact

Dear Dora: Leave a PostdocHi Dora,

I started my postdoc in November. As much as I would like to say that it is going great, that is not the case. I have tried to work it out so far but I am thinking of changing the lab to find another postdoc or more ideally, a job in an industry. I will be quite obviously asked the reason of having such a short time in my postdoc. I am wondering what is the exact way of saying that without sounding like someone who is difficult to work with. I do not wish to personally attack my mentor. Also, does having a postdoc usually impact the process of getting a new job? My Ph.D. advisors and committee members can give a great recommendation for me but that will not be the case with my current advisor. Please help! and thank you! 

Darya, Postdoc


Dear Darya,

It is not usual to have a very short postdoc. I personally know a few people who got job offers a few months into their fellowships, and we all thought they were really lucky. ;-)

If you want to leave, I would recommend looking for a job rather than another postdoc.  When you apply for a job, you can say that you believe the position would be a great opportunity and you do not want to pass it up even though you just started your postdoc. If you decide to apply for another postdoc, you can justify your decision by telling your new PI that the other postdoc was not a good match for you because of the project.

Word to the wise: You should never badmouth any of your previous bosses or coworkers in an interview or even after you get a job.

The great recommendations from your previous mentors will definitely support you, so your interviewers will not think you are tough to work with.

The job market is picking up, so this is the perfect time to look for a new opportunity!


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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5 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. alan@benchfly

    wrote on March 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm

    Couldn't agree more with the statement: "You should never badmouth any of your previous bosses or coworkers in an interview or even after you get a job."

    Science may be an international discipline, but practically speaking it's a smaller community than we think and word travels fast. Even if everyone agrees with what you're saying about an individual, the fact that you're badmouthing someone *at all* reflects poorly on your character. How does the person you're talking to know you won't turn around and say something bad about them?

  2. annette

    wrote on March 23, 2012 at 2:04 pm

    For better or for worse (probably worse), labs are full of complaining among grad students and postdocs. But is should never go outside the group walls. To paraphrase, "what happens in lab, stays in lab"…

  3. Max

    wrote on March 26, 2012 at 12:17 pm

    all this hush hush is pretty unrealistic and a bit self-defiant, if you ask me. Science is not Cosa Nostra…. if the guest lab has a pattern of generating bad experiences, the word is probably already out there, and rightly so. if it has not, it won't be a bad review to ruin its reputation. it's people lives and careers we are talking about, but the weakest link here are postdocs and grad students, not the tenured adviser. if I have to protect someone it's the future of the former (by being honest, if asked), not the reputation of the latter (by lying). so, the advice about not to badmouth has to be qualified: one thing is not to spread unsubstantiated gossip at open meetings, another is to refuse to give a honest opinion about a personal experience if asked. so my advice here is to be honest if asked explicitly (and if you leave after 4 month you will be asked, period). the next employer will always contact your last "horrible adviser" and and you risk he/she will end up hearing only his version of the facts. then you become the passive aggressive liar unable to elaborate your feeling in a mature way…just say you were not a good match, if probed on the details, just be honest.

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on March 26, 2012 at 4:03 pm

    Fully agreed- you should always tell the truth, especially if asked by a grad student or postdoc looking to join the lab. However, it's all about how you communicate it. There are ways to say things to those outside the lab that gets your point across without sounding like you're badmouthing the PI. For instance, if you work for a suffocating micromanager and someone asks how you like working for Dr. X, you could say "Between the daily meetings and unscheduled drop-ins, it's impossible to get anything done- let alone think for yourself." -OR- "That depends on your personal style. If you're someone who needs daily input from the boss and likes to get their feedback on each experiment as you run it, this will be a good environment for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more hands-off approach, this may not be an ideal fit." You still convey the problem while telling the truth, yet it's presented in a way that doesn't sound negative.

    With respect to the job interview, I think you want to follow a similar approach- not hiding anything, but always figuring out a way to make it sound positive- as you say, communicate in a mature way. "We weren't a good match" is a great start and if probed on the details, you want to be sure to answer in a way that doesn't turn into he-said-she-said. If you can't articulate why you left without sounding negative, bitter, or petty- keep working on your response until you can. The PI's side of the story will likely carry more weight with the potential new employer regardless, so what you're trying to establish is your maturity and character – that's where you tip the balance in your favor.

  5. Dr. 27

    wrote on June 14, 2012 at 11:53 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with you Alan and with the previous commenter. Like I said on 'My Postdoc Experience' my experience was not ideal, the mentor, some labmates and the project weren't a good match. I have phrased things like you said: "That depends on your personal style. If you're someone who needs daily input from the boss and likes to get their feedback on each experiment as you run it, this will be a good environment for you. If, on the other hand, you prefer a more hands-off approach, this may not be an ideal fit."

    Whenever I've been asked by someone I trust why I left my PD I'm honest, but tactful. I mention how I used to work one on one with my PhD PI and be in a small lab, and I went to the complete opposite for my PD. My boss is a good man, it's just that his style of mentoring and my style as mentee didn't mesh. My experience wasn't so bad in terms of having a vindictive labmate or a boss that was belittling everyone, it was more of some passive-aggressiveness from certain people, sharing an office with the lab bully and having go after my boss every single time, and not him coming to me at least once to check on how things were going. I think my PD lab is a great place for people who want a boss that's totally hands off and wants all the freedom they need to take a project the next step, preferably going into the TT. I didn't want to become a prof, so this wasn't a good choice on my part.

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