My Postdoc Story: Junior Faculty Member
By Anonymous on August 15th, 2012
While nearly all of us face challenges during our postdoctoral years, we often feel alone in our struggles. In this series, we hope to share encouraging and uplifting stories of how other scientists were able to turn their situation around and move forward, despite a non-ideal situation. Like snowflakes, fingerprints, and nightmares, every postdoctoral experience is unique, so today we share the Postdoc Story of another successful scientist.
I. My Postdoc Story
In grad school I was a chemist, technically; since there was no Biochemistry department per se, as a biochemist I would wind up in either Chemistry or Biology, and Chemistry it was! As a postdoc I studied still chemistry, technically (based on legacy reasons my PI was in that department), but in reality it was way closer to cell biology. Now, I’m an industry postdoc, which I’ve been for roughly two years, following a two-year academic postdoc at an R1 university in the US prior to my industry stint. Very shortly, however, in less than a month, I’m about to become an academic postdoc (once again) at a way smaller, teaching-centric university, with duties in research but much more so in teaching. After completing my degree, I was motivated to do a postdoc because I wanted a career as an academic- a professor- and this is what I was guided to do. In selecting my postdoctoral lab, I based my decision on one of the lab’s publications in Science which was allegedly representative of their projects, the reputation of the PI, and the fact that it was a “big research” university abroad- in this case, in the US.
Going into the postdoc I wanted to achieve, quite honestly and frankly, whatever it was that would be necessary to get me hired as a faculty member back in my home country within 2-3 years. I didn’t know what that was (and probably still don’t, based on the significant variability and subjectivity I’ve seen from one academic hiring committee to another), but I knew I wanted that. On the road to pursuing my goals, I didn’t expect that I would be directed by/reporting to not the PI, but rather to another postdoc with more seniority and allegedly more experience.
II. The Situation
If you had to draw an organizational chart of my grad school lab, it would look like a stagecoach wheel. At the center was the PI, and out of him would be spokes that would link him to every grad student and undergrad in his lab. The outer circumference would like all of us students to one another. But none of us were “senior” or superior to one another; we all worked together quite happily, through our PI. My first postdoc at that R1 university, however, was quite different. An organizational chart of that lab would look more like a tree diagram or even a totem pole. It was a postdoc-only lab (no grad students or undergrads) and yet there was definitely a pecking order. In wild contrast to grad school I no longer had any control or freedom over my own project, right down to my day-to-day decisions; all of that was micromanaged by a more senior postdoc. Outside of the lab things were as bad… or possibly even worse. I was in a new country, in a small college town, within a state I shall not name that even other Americans told me was known to be less hospitable than other states which were warmer and friendlier.
III. The Emotions
To say I felt frustrated, helpless, stalled, angry or any of those, that would barely scratch the surface. It was honestly the lowest I’d ever felt in my entire life to date. For the first (and so far, only) time ever, I actually needed to begin regularly seeing a therapist. It wasn’t a single incident either to led to this. I wouldn’t want to bore readers with the minutia but it was definitely a slower- and, more painful I might add- accumulation of events over the course of roughly 16 months that brought me to the breaking point. I suppose that the straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was that I was almost bullied by my PI into remaining at the lab, in that town, over the Christmas/New Year’s break instead of returning home for the holidays, since my project hadn’t shown much tangible success to date (recall that my project wasn’t really even “mine” given that it was micromanaged by a senior postdoc… and yet I was to remain in the lab over the holidays?). The very afternoon that he “suggested” I remain at the bench for the holidays was the very same afternoon that I began sending out emails to look for another position.
IV. The Solution
As I just indicated, I immediately began to look for other labs or other career paths that fateful afternoon. By then it had been well over a year (16 months) that I’d spent in that first postdoc, and so I felt I’d held my ground long enough, given it a fair shot, and not been hasty in my decision to leave. It was time to get the hell out, now. I didn’t make use of any resources or talk to anyone at that R1 university, but instead my old professors and my old grad school PI. Some were supportive, others not so much. From other postdocs during those events, up to and including the present day, I’ve heard other horror stories and so I know now- and I suspected back then- that there is no single right way or perfect way of handling this bad situation; all I knew at the time was that I alone was in the driver’s seat and I alone had to handle this. One interesting suggestion made by one of those old profs was to not just look for other postdocs but, indeed, professorships; even though I felt that this postdoc had largely been a failure, he apparently felt that I had some qualities that could get me hired as a prof even back then (actually, between then and now, I’ve been invited to five faculty interviews, but sadly no offers, so at least he was partly right). Ultimately, I found an industry postdoc that allowed me to return to my home country and, no less, my home city.
I spent roughly two years in that industry postdoc, and while it was an improvement in some ways, in many other ways it wasn’t. It took me away from academia and the things associated with academia that might be required to attain a career as a professor. I couldn’t teach or interact with students apart from those who came to intern at our company during summers. In industry, publishing is not the top priority and so, again, my two years at this company did not contribute to my publication record. Still, I was working hard, and four out of my five faculty interviews so far took place while I was at this company, so somehow I knew I was doing something right (what that something right was, I’d love to tell you dear readers, but even I can’t put my finger on it). Unfortunately, since none of those four interviews resulted in an offer, whatever I was doing right… wasn’t enough.
Knowing I needed something more, by some coincidence (I might hesitantly say “miracle”) I stumbled across the perfect advertisement for exactly what I felt I needed; a “named” postdoctoral fellowship (named for its endowers) at a very prestigious, teaching-centric (with some research) university. The fellow would not be locked away at the bench, doing only research, but rather juggling some research with teaching two 4th-year biochemistry courses, one in the Fall semester and one in the Winter. When more time would be available in the summer, the fellow would ramp up the research (hopefully enough to publish something) and would also be responsible for supervising students themselves. Overall, as it was described to me during the interview, it was called a postdoc but considered to be much closer to a “junior faculty member.” It sounded like exactly what I needed and, more importantly, exactly what I wanted. I start shortly, and hope that it turns out to be… what I hope it turns out to be!
V. The Lesson
Actually, the first piece of advice/thing I wished would be preventative; I wish I’d not been so focused on reputations and research productivity before choosing that very first R1 postdoc. I’ve come to learn since then that things don’t happen nearly as quickly as you’d like and so, your first priority needs to be happiness. Even if your research is productive, even if you publish in Science or Nature, even if you are invited to speak at conferences- if you are miserable on any given day, if you live in a town that you hate, if you are micromanaged by senior postdocs, why on earth are you doing what you’re doing? You need to so carefully choose where to go, so as to not wind up in the situation that we’re writing about here. The second thing I wish is that there had been more of a support system; as I mentioned earlier, I’d heard a lot of horror stories, but very few success stories (at least, very few success stories from scientists that I could personally relate to). The third wish I have is that people in high places wouldn’t be so pushy, both in my pre-postdoc days and in the post-postdoc days. Was it really necessary that I went to a big-time lab in an R1 university? Was it really necessary that I went abroad? What would’ve been wrong with going to a smaller, friendlier, happier university a mere two hours away from my grad school university, pacing myself over 3-5 years, and gaining success little by little while remaining truly happy and content every day (or, at least, most days)? Who sets these obscene standards and hoops we need to jump through in order to define “real” success; more importantly, why should we listen?
I volunteer as an alumni mentor for both my alma mater (undergrad and grad school). After I left my first R1 postdoc, I came up with a little expression that I like to tell mentees who approach me for advice: “Ultimately, you alone can make the important choices in your life, but ultimately, you alone have to face the consequences, good or bad, to your actions.” Choose carefully when deciding on a postdoc lab. And if you wind up in an unfortunate position in your postdoc lab after all, whether your decision is to stick it out or to close up shop, again, choose carefully.
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