Lessons from a Recovering Postdoc
Maybe you think it will never happen to you. You were a successful graduate student. You got along with your dissertation adviser and your committee members. Your project progressed, and when it was stalled, you had something else to work on. You worked, you published, you defended, and you moved to the postdoc position of your dreams.
Then one day–maybe three, six, nine months later–you wake up to find that the dream is a distant memory. You are tired, angry, bitter, depressed… You have turned into the disgruntledoc that you swore you’d never become.
What happened? You made a decision about where to spend the next 2 to 8 years of your life based on a few hours of interaction with a group of people putting on their best face. There’s a chance you didn’t even spend a full twenty-four hours in the city you decided to call home. Once you’re there, though, you find that some things change, and some things simply never were. The stress of starting over in a new city, the “surefire homerun” project that proves more elusive than the Loch Ness monster, a new departmental and institutional environment, a clash of personalities… These are all factors that might contribute. It’s rarely a single thing that pushes someone to consider walking away and starting over again.
And it’s never an easy decision for those who do. It’s one that is filled with doubt and questions: Is it just because this experiment isn’t working? Am I a bad scientist? Was my PI simply having a bad day? Am I just not committed enough? Am I cut out for this? What will my family think? What about my grad school mentors? Will this kill my career?
At least those are some of the sentiments that crossed my mind, as I struggled for months to make and follow through on my decision.
But I also learned some important lessons along the way.
Trust your gut. I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to convince myself that I was just experiencing “growing pains” associated with switching fields between grad school and postdoc… or that it was the steep learning curve of completely new, nontrivial methods. Both were true to an extent, but I also knew there was much more below the surface. As a postdoc, you have the experience of graduate school behind you. You know enough to realize when things aren’t quite what they should be.
Do not compare yourself to the “golden child”. There’s one in every lab–the trainee that gets along great with the PI, has all the freedom he or she desires, sends out manuscripts, receives praise during meetings… Do not use that individual as a comparator! Use caution in comparing yourself to anyone else in the lab as a marker of what you’re “doing wrong”. Different people have different responsibilities, projects, personalities, and tolerances. In grad school, we told new students that every PI/lab/project has its quirks or eccentricities, and you have to decide which ones you can tolerate. The same is true in a postdoc, but often you don’t have as much time to figure that out until you’re already there.
“Fake it ’til you make it” isn’t always the answer. When I first started to experience doubts about my situation, my first response was, as Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work.” Some people might stick out a tough postdoc and emerge on the other side with publications. If you consider this strategy, you need to ask two important questions: What is the likelihood of getting to the “make it” phase (e.g. getting publications and mentoring that you need for the next level)? And what effect will the “fake it” phase have on you and your career? I did not care for the spread on the “make it” phase. I got into science because I enjoyed it; I feared that none of that would survive the “fake it” phase.
Usually there’s the right choice and the smart choice, but they aren’t always one and the same. Make it work or move on? That’s the choice you face. You might tell yourself, “The smart thing to do is to wait a little longer, work harder, try to salvage something, even a single publication, from the wreckage. Maybe things will get better. Besides, who’s going to hire a “failed” postdoc, especially in this economy?” Then there’s something else saying, “Yeah, finding a new position is a terrifying prospect. But is it anymore terrifying than things remaining exactly as they are?” No circumstances are ever identical, but for me, it was between what seemed to be the smart choice–staying on–and the other choice–moving on. I chose the latter, because it was right for me.
Find an ally. If you’re leaving a postdoc on less than favorable terms, then most likely your PI isn’t going to be very supportive. Add to this, you’re combating all the self-doubt associated with this decision. It’s time to seek out someone you trust, who can provide perspective and feedback, and who is willing to back you up. My PhD research adviser was patient and helpful; talking with him helped clear things in my mind that had been muddied by the turmoil. As a reference for my new position, he was a strong advocate for me. I will never be able to repay that debt.
Rediscover your confidence. You’ve spent months stuck in the mud. You’ve been doubting your abilities and your judgement. You’re convinced no one wants to hire a “failure” of a postdoc with “nothing” to show. You have to stop this cycle of thought. Think about all the things you know, the skills you’ve acquired, the papers you’ve published. Having trouble with that? Prepare an industry CV (or something like it), even if you don’t intend to apply there. Part of an industry CV is listing out competency and expertise in specific techniques, skills, and concepts. A look at the list of things I had mastered during grad school and my postdoc made me realize how much I had going for me and helped focus my job search.
Don’t make it personal. This is a hard one. There is a great deal of tension and, potentially, animosity between you and your PI, running both ways. But you have to keep things professional, even if the courtesy is not returned. When you start sending out letters and going for interviews, keep the focus on you, your skills, and your science. Obviously you can’t just ignore the time spent in your current position, but you can at least cast it in a neutral tone. You don’t have to supply all the reasons you’re looking for a new job, so stick to the ones that are professional and career-driven. Trashing your supervisor during an interview will set off alarms. What you say about your supervisor says much more about you than it does about him or her. PIs can read between the lines; this is a good place to let them do it.
You are not alone. It’s far too easy to isolate yourself… To convince yourself you must be a terrible postdoc, an awful scientist… To tell yourself that no one else has this sort of problem… That anyone else would have made this work. The good and bad news is, you are not alone. When I first mentioned vague doubts and notions of leaving my postdoc lab, I received comments and messages from people, saying “I’ve been there”. Some were postdocs just moving out of similar situations. A couple were PIs telling me that their first postdoc positions were nightmarish. These served as reminders that I wasn’t alone and that a painful postdoc does not necessarily doom my entire career.
After more than a year and a half, I walked away from my first postdoc without a single publication. I have now made another lab my “home”. Things are different. I’m still a postdoc, but I’m happier. Hopefully, you won’t ever need this advice. If you don’t, understand that some postdocs aren’t so lucky. And if you do, just remember: You are not the first, and you won’t be the last, but find a way out, over, or through.
Not sure a postdoc is right for you? Check out Stephanie Huang’s article on Finding Your Passion.
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