A Difficult Postdoctoral Experience

Joe, who has had two postdoctoral appointments in academic environments and now works in the biotechnology industry, says it can sometimes be difficult to anticipate—or prevent—a frustrating experience. For his first postdoc, he carefully chose an adviser whose project in the life sciences seemed to fit nicely with his own interests, but a series of difficulties blunted his productivity. He offers a summary of his experience, and some lessons he learned:

  • Know when to cut your losses: In his first year, Joe tried several experimental approaches that failed to give results. His adviser was seldom in the lab to offer guidance, and Joe was slow to change direction. When he tried to consult other senior scientists, his adviser refused to allow it. “She felt this was interfering with her laboratory. In retrospect, I probably should have cut my losses and moved on. But there's great pressure to keep going, to tough it out.”

  • Understand your adviser's policy on publication: In his third year, Joe had finally found a promising new direction, obtained results, and written them up for publication. His adviser, however, did not allow him to send out the paper because she felt it should be a “bigger story.” “The timing was critical for me. I had to be applying for jobs, and I had no publications. I was ready to have my work judged by my peers, and I was unable to do so. She finally rewrote and published the paper—after I'd left the lab.”

  • Talk with former lab members before signing on: Joe talked only with current lab members, who he now knows are not in a position to be critical. Later he learned that he was the fifth postdoc to leave that particular lab without publications or jobs. “I should have talked with some former members, because they are freer to be honest. In a good training environment, postdocs are getting jobs and continuing their research. I might have saved myself a lot of difficulty.”

  • Be clear about your agenda: He went on to do a second postdoc, with better—defined goals. “I needed publications, and I was frank about this with my second adviser. That lab was doing work in my field. I was offered a year 's support, and after that I knew I would be on my own. It was a fair offer, and clear. After nine months I was able to raise my own funding. I got my publications, the work came out well, and I entered the job market in good shape.”

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