Late in 2010, I became frustrated with my postdoc. I had been a fairly productive student in grad school, busy with publications and presentations to back it up. Yet, the more time passed, the more I became frustrated and angry with my postdoc and my lab. Let me back up a bit and give some context.
Early in the spring of 2009, as I was doing my last departmental seminar and was in thesis-writing mode, it finally dawned on me that I needed a plan on what to do after the PhD. I’d been diligently working for five, almost six, years and it seemed like things would go like that forever. Finally, one day I woke up and realized that, at best, I had 3 months left in my PhD lab.
My partner was already abroad. We had lived together during the middle years of my PhD, and later he decided to continue his graduate education, moving to Canada to pursue his PhD. Canada was the logical place to go then, and joining a lab at the university where he was studying was a no-brainer.
I started looking for postdoc labs, but the more I looked, the less I liked the idea of doing a postdoc. When I first started in grad school, I wasn’t sure I’d become a professor. By now, as the PhD became an inevitable thing, I had even more doubts. I thought about looking for a position in research with the Canadian government, or maybe going into industry. I looked and looked. The economy had just tanked. It was a pretty bad time to be looking for a job. In addition, I didn’t have a good idea of what I wanted to do, or what were my transferable skills.
I didn’t run to a career counselor, or my PhD mentor for guidance. I ran away from them and into the race for a postdoc. I know now that this wasn’t a wise decision. Eventually, one of my grad school professors mentioned that he had contacts in what would become postdoc city. I contacted the people he mentioned, and one agreed to give me an interview, regardless of the fact that I had no training in anything the lab was doing.
I also secured an interview in a lab that was doing something loosely related to what I had mastered in my PhD, but it was farther away from my partner, and we had been apart long enough. I went to both interviews and liked both labs. Then I got an offer from the lab where I had no idea of what they were doing. And, after a few days, again without consulting with my PI, I accepted the offer.
Later that summer, I relocated to postdoc town. I was told that they would train me until I became as proficient in the techniques that others in the lab mastered, and that the lab tech would be very helpful. I started with small stuff, doing a bit here and there, and did a lot of reading.
It took a while for me to get adjusted, not because the labmates were bad (on the contrary, almost everyone was extremely friendly and beyond helpful), but eventually some people graduated and I was moved into the quarters of the lab bully. My postdoc mentor was also pretty quiet and distant, and almost never went to people, not even newbies, to check on them. In his defense, the door to his office was always open … yet I felt like a complete stranger. And the bully took advantage of that to craft stories as to who was the mentor’s favorite … clearly, according to the bully, I wasn’t one of them.
I started to do little tests here and there, asked questions, went to seminars, participated in departmental things. Yet in the lab I continued to feel like a stranger. I knew it would take a while to get adjusted. After all, I was in a new country, culture and even a completely different discipline. My contract was renewed after the first year, and I tried to start my second year with a positive attitude. Despite this, I still felt a nagging thing in my mind, and this was greatly enhanced by the lab bully.
In November of 2010, I reached my breaking point. I’d been asking my PI for time and mentoring on some of the instrumentation in the lab, yet time was given to undergrads and the lab tech, and all the other postdocs, everyone except for me. I had proved everything he wanted; I had done every test, every column, every assay he asked. I was ready for the action, but for whatever reason, it seemed as though everyone else’s project was worthy of instrumentation time except for mine.
I slowly but surely looked at positions elsewhere. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to end up in another postdoc. One pass through the postdoctoral system was enough for me. To me, it seemed like a waste of time. By this time, I was very sure I wanted some stability, and not the constant worry about grant money, duration of fellowships, and the overall feeling that a training position didn’t offer much security, or benefits.
After New Year’s, I came in the lab with a changed attitude. I decided to finish the remainder of my postdoc, do every single experiment to the best of my abilities, demand time on instrumentation and be more assertive. I would also go on interviews, and I was getting out of the tenure track … finally. I walked into my mentor’s office, and to my surprise, he finally started acting in the way I was expecting him to be. He was positive and supportive, told me to count on him for references and gave me lots of great ideas on how to go for a position outside of academic research and get what I wanted. He even gave me negotiation tips.
I got invitations for a few interviews, and eventually secured a job in NY.
It has been almost exactly a year. I couldn’t be more proud of what I have accomplished and of how things turned out. It wasn’t an easy search, but I was determined to make it, and I’m doing it. In my next entry, I hope to discuss some of the lessons I learned during my time as a postdoc and how that set the stage to get me to the staff scientist position.