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My Postdoc Story: Pre-faculty Fellow | BenchFly
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My Postdoc Story: Pre-faculty Fellow

My Postdoc Story: Pre-faculty FellowWhile 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. The Story

In grad school I was an immunobiologist. As a postdoc I studied neuroimmunoregulation. Now, I’m just starting a one-year research fellowship as a prelude to becoming a faculty member in my hometown university. After completing my degree, I was motivated to do a postdoc because, coming from a developing country, training in a first world institution is an advantage in the search for an academic position. In selecting my postdoctoral lab, I based my decision on the lab research projects, they suited my interests, the lab also had a good publication record and funding was not a problem, and the opportunity to live and work in Europe was a plus.

Going into the postdoc I wanted to learn new techniques, expand my network, increase my abilities as a scientist and improve my CV with high quality publications.  On the road to pursuing my goals, I didn’t imagine I would start and build a project just to be left out of it at the end of my fellowship.

II. The Situation

Actually, I didn’t realize things were not as perfect as they seemed on the surface until the last leg of my fellowship. Before that I was pretty happy for the most part–I had excellent lab mates and was living in a great European city. Shortly after my arrival my PI asked me to start a project involving an animal model. I of course complied even if this meant changing projects from the very beginning and spending a lot of my time doing technician’s work. Working along a grad student we managed to get a lot of data and the project was expanding–more experiments, and more people got involved. I got so caught up in the work that I barely noticed my 2-year fellowship was about to come to an end. I then decided it was time to have a talk with my PI about it; to my shock, I was given 3 months to finish whatever I could and return to my country. I couldn’t believe I was being let go like that. I thought my work was valuable and important for the project; I was in charge. I was later offered the possibility of returning to the lab after staying a few months in my home country, however this was small consolation given that I was about to dismantle my entire life there to return to my country without a job or publication.

III. The Emotions

I spent the remaining months of my fellowship not only burned-out but also sick. I got anemic and I’m not sure how it happened, but I suspect it had a lot to do with how terribly stressed I was. The worst parts were the feelings of rejection and failure left by the situation but the lack of productivity was also painful. In theory, I obtained enough data for several publications, but nothing was published. After my departure and subsequent decision to not return someone else took over and first authorship is no any longer secured for me. It’s the way of the game, I’m afraid. 

IV. The Solution

The way I saw it there was nothing I could do, I was being let go and wasn’t in a position to force anything. I also wasn’t interested in looking for another job just for the sake of staying in Europe. Regarding the publications, it’s all in the air, I don’t know what’s going to happen with that, and I feel powerless, to be quite honest.  Despite all of this I kept going; I looked forward, even If was exhausted, depressed and insecure about my abilities as a researcher.  Eventually, after my return to my home country, I got the support of senior researchers at my old school and successfully applied for a fellowship that will land me in a faculty position a year from now. All in all, I only spent two months unemployed. I guess we can say I was lucky, for now. I am aware that the road to become an established researcher is long and difficult and there is no guarantee.

V. The Lesson

I think the most important thing I learned was about me. At some point I was convinced I didn’t have the desire to keep doing science, I was wrong. I also learned, after all the monologues my friends had to endure, that I didn’t really want to be a postdoc anymore and that the way to have some control over your work–and its publication–is by being as independent as possible. You need to be careful to not get sucked into the postdoc mentality or you could risk getting stuck in postdoc limbo forever, stalling your career, especially if you are already in your mid-30’s. I would advise: 1) stick to your needs not those of your PI or the project, especially if you’re working under a fellowship, and 2) never forget that postdocs are temp positions–there’s always someone waiting to fill your position.

 

Want to hear another story?

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

 

4 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. Christopher Dieni

    wrote on September 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Another scary situation right there. It's very dismaying to think of the whole concept, what science has "evolved" to in this day and age; that there is such a glut of highly-trained doctorate-holding scientists, that any one of them is completely expendable and, as you say, that there is always someone else able and willing to do your job. It's fantastic that you found yourself on a road towards a faculty position, but many others aren't so lucky. People across the postdoc spectrum need to start learning to stand up for their needs!

  2. Christopher Dieni

    wrote on September 3, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Another scary situation right there. It's very dismaying to think of the whole concept, what science has "evolved" to in this day and age; that there is such a glut of highly-trained doctorate-holding scientists, that any one of them is completely expendable and, as you say, that there is always someone else able and willing to do your job. It's fantastic that you found yourself on a road towards a faculty position, but many others aren't so lucky. People across the postdoc spectrum need to start learning to stand up for their needs!

  3. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

    My two favorite lines: "1) stick to your needs not those of your PI or the project, especially if you’re working under a fellowship, and 2) never forget that postdocs are temp positions–there’s always someone waiting to fill your position." Great advice.

    Pretty much sums up your comment as well. The postdoc is a temporary position meant to be additional training on the way to our first "real" job. However, many of us forget a postdoc, technically, *is* our first job (as a PhD) and we need to treat it as such. This means taking charge of our own scientific and career development–not waiting for someone to do it for us. If we don't stand up for our own needs (professionally and personally), who will?

    The most successful–and happy–people I know are those who feel in control of their career path. They have a vision for what they want, but since they feel in control of their situation when something unexpected (read as "bad") happens, they're able to solve the problem and move on. Whereas those who are just floating along in the postdoc are often rocked by the unexpected turn of events.

  4. alan@benchfly

    wrote on September 4, 2013 at 10:59 am

    My two favorite lines: "1) stick to your needs not those of your PI or the project, especially if you’re working under a fellowship, and 2) never forget that postdocs are temp positions–there’s always someone waiting to fill your position." Great advice.

    Pretty much sums up your comment as well. The postdoc is a temporary position meant to be additional training on the way to our first "real" job. However, many of us forget a postdoc, technically, *is* our first job (as a PhD) and we need to treat it as such. This means taking charge of our own scientific and career development–not waiting for someone to do it for us. If we don't stand up for our own needs (professionally and personally), who will?

    The most successful–and happy–people I know are those who feel in control of their career path. They have a vision for what they want, but since they feel in control of their situation when something unexpected (read as "bad") happens, they're able to solve the problem and move on. Whereas those who are just floating along in the postdoc are often rocked by the unexpected turn of events.

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