My Postdoc Story: Staff Scientist, @27andaPhD

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.

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I. My Postdoc Story

In grad school I was a structural biologist. As a postdoc I studied structural biology (whole different system). Now, I’m a staff scientist in structural biology. After completing my degree, I was motivated to do a postdoc because I wanted to join my boyfriend at the school he was doing his PhD and learn a new skillset. In selecting my postdoctoral lab, I based my decision on advice from a prof friend of mine and his network of fellow profs, location, projects.

Going into the postdoc I wanted to achieve independence, continue publishing in structural biology and acquire new skills to make me a more competitive scientist. On the road to pursuing my goals, I didn’t expect how off hands my supervisor was, even when he was thoroughly informed of my lack of training in the new area I was starting at.

II. The Situation

During and after my postdoc interview I tried to do every sensible thing to make an informed decision. I asked a fellow prof (not my PI) about his contacts and he knew (and recommended me to) someone in postdoc city he could put me in contact with. My postdoc advisor knew that there were things I didn’t know and hadn’t been trained and would need a bit more hands on help from the lab tech or labmates. Besides starting in a whole new branch of structural biology, I also changed the focus of my studies and had to come up to speed in terms of the literature. In addition, at one point I was sharing quarters with the lab bully, a person that complained day in and day out about every single thing that bothered them about everything in the universe, especially the lab, the boss and the labmates. Little by little I realized that I wasn’t as passionate about the project as a postdoc as I was before graduating, I was begging for time and resources to study my system, and it seemed as though everyone else took precedent over me. I became frustrated, my project stalled and I hated going to the lab. Sunday afternoons where the most depressing time for me, and it affected my relationship with my boyfriend. Fridays at 6pm were my joy.

III. The Emotions

I felt frustrated, helpless, stalled, bored, angry and like I was wasting my time swimming in BS and not taking full advantage of my talents. The instance that pushed my decision to look at life post-postdoc was when I came back from the winter break in December of 2010. I talked to my boss during a one-on-one meeting and told him that since I’d be approaching the end of my contract soon, I’d be looking for work (actively and openly) and that I’d need time to go on interviews if need be. Also, the accumulation of little things, from the lab bully to some admin BS that had gone on in the past, all of it together helped me decide that my time was up.

IV. The Solution

I first tried to suck it up, I was scared of changing and of those changes bringing in more trouble. But eventually I couldn’t fake it anymore, so I decided to quietly start looking for jobs. I had a phone and a physical interview during the winter break, and that gave me hope to continue in the search. I was open with the boss about applying for jobs and he was very supportive of that decision. I talked to the webmaster for the department, who’d done a postdoc then decided to pursue a different path and now was managing grants and updating content for the site. She was a wonderful source of comfort and seeing how happy and fulfilled she was, I decided to take the plunge. I contacted fellow scientists, my grad school PI and people in my grad school field of training. I also used websites like CareerBuilder and Monster, and product companies to apply to jobs. But the single most important resource for me was to be on an active listserv that sent updates on jobs in my field. Through that and a friend on Twitter I learned about my position and with my friend’s encouragement I applied to the job and got it.

V. The Lesson

I think the most important piece of advice I could give, in terms of sticking in or leaving is that your gut, your heart are important to listen to. They will tell you whether you’re feeling happy or sad, accomplished or stalled. In my case, my heart was out of my chest, in my boyfriend, he encouraged me to look for a way out and find a reason and a place to smile, to have science make me smile. It is important to listen to our inner voice and what it tells us, and look for role models, for help, inspiration and real solutions to feel happy and excited about science. Sure, experiments fail, we sometimes don’t get along 100% of the time with our labmates, boss or department, but even in those moments, if the science and sense of accomplishment make us smile, then we know we’re in the right place.

If I could tell my grad student self 3 things to keep in mind, they would be:

  1. Listen to your heart and take risks
  2. Don’t be afraid to leave the bench
  3. Have a back-up plan in case things don’t work out, that way you can cut your losses and keep on going without having to stick it out just to get a paycheck

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Stay up to date with the latest from @27andaphd on Twitter.

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Do you have a Postdoc Story you’d like to share? Email us and let us know.

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4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. DrIzzo

    wrote on June 14, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    I've been in a postdoc that's been rapidly deteriorating for two years now and I think it's time I faced the music and figured out how to either turn things around or find my next lab. Part of what makes it so tough I think is that I've had a clear vision of how I wanted my career to unfold and this situation certainly wasn't part of it. Neither was doing a second postdoc. Realizing that's part of the risk in science has taken me a while to come to grips with but seeing that I'm not the only one helps.

  2. BovidCure

    wrote on June 14, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    I'll just say "ditto". I may have stuck it out too long – I'm at the end of postdoc #2.

  3. Dr. 27

    wrote on June 16, 2012 at 10:25 am

    Indeed, you are not alone. I wish I hadn't waited that long. In my case, I knew all along that I didn't want to become a PI. Thus, I should have done a postdoc, but in a non academic lab, maybe industry, to position me better for an "alternative" career. It's definitely hard to break off of the vision we've had about how our careers should be and should go. It took me almost 2 years to do it, and I'm happy I confronted my demons and decided to go for it and leave. I hope things improve.

  4. Dr. 27

    wrote on June 16, 2012 at 10:26 am

    It does take a lot to stick it out, especially when things are tough and we don't know where to go. Hugs to you :-). It does get better, I promise.

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