Postdoc Malaise…

DM Physioprof put up a post on grad school malaise some time a week or two ago and today “B” chimed in on the problem of postdoc malaise. B’s problem is quite different than the grad school question that DM dealt with but it is an issue I have been hearing a lot lately so I thought I would cover my opinion of the issue.

B says:

It’s just coming to the end of a (way too short) 2 year appointment with the dream (tenure track job in my case) not in sight for myself and almost everyone i know who’s in a similar situation, it’s so hard to be motivated about… no, not finally my own research appointment and group, but the next postdoc! What do we do? I am so close to quitting, but anytime I say this to anyone there is a loud ‘NOOOOOOO! you can’t you’re too good at this to leave academia”. Well I’m apparently not good enough to get a job offer (everything I interviewed for went to people who were already assistant professors by the way).

Will I and my peers really feel some great relief and revival in our second postdocs after hauling ass across the country or continents and get started in yet new labs and with new people? Really? Really really? Because I see a bunch of us running on empty with no end in sight… For me, the PhD was never unattainable, doing science was never a chore. But chasing a goal that seems unattainable and spending all my time doing job applications is dreadful and makes me hate every day…

I heard many stories like this at the APS meeting last week. It seems fairly clear to me that the short window of opportunity in which I got my tenure track job is closing somewhat as institutions deal with the realities of the present funding crunch. This has a very adverse effect on postdocs that are ready to hit the job market. While it undoubtedly is not the ideal situation for people like B, it is an opportunity for people in her situation to take action for their career development, just maybe not in the way they would envision it.

B appears to have done a two year stint as a postdoc and has been out interviewing but has not been able to land the job she wants (or maybe any job at all). B obviously loves science and isn’t ready to give up on her dream. First off, I concur, don’t do it, stick with your goal because it is attainable and it is still early days for your budding career. In B’s case I would suggest that she start looking very hard into doing another postdoc. In particular, do a postdoc that will give her some skills that will greatly enhance the chance of landing that dream job. If there is some technique that B doesn’t know and would be a big plus to the future research program now would be a good time to pick it up. Another option would be to go with a mentor who will allow for a good deal of independence in the research program to allow B a shot to develop her research aims to the point where an R01 application is immediately apparent from the preliminary data she has generated. This can be a big plus when going to the interviews and it can make your chalk talk really shine.

Postdoc-ing is a funny thing. Often times you feel that you are ready for your own lab but as you progress a bit more it can become clear that you weren’t quite as ready as you thought you were. Take me as an example. I was a postdoc for 4 years total in two different labs. After 2 years I hit the interview trail but didn’t get any takers (although I thought I was ready). After the failures of those early attempts to get my dream job I did a bit of self evaluation. The facts of the matter were that my story wasn’t ready to go and I needed to learn more about how to fully test the hypotheses that I wanted to go after as a PI. So, I buckled down, albeit somewhat reluctantly at first, and got into the business of creating my story. By the time I hit the interview trail again my hypotheses were backed up by a good deal of data and I had a nice story to tell. Moreover, in hindsight, I learned that the approaches I had proposed on my first tour were overly complicated and that I hadn’t effectively couched the relevance of my work for a wide audience at a basic science department. I think I actually got close to getting a job on that first tour (after 2 postdoc years) and looking back I am happy that I didn’t get it. I wasn’t ready and I never would have had time to get the program off the ground, start a lab and get grants written much less recruit good people and begin mentoring them to be productive in the area I wanted to pursue.

Finally, the funding situation appears to be as bad as its ever been right now. I obviously don’t have the experience to make such a statement but many senior colleagues I know have this opinion so I’ll run with it. Everyone knows that something has to be done and NIH appears to be set to make a concrete commitment to make some changes that might get us back on the right track with a little help from congress and a new administration in the white house. Moreover, there is no denying the greying of faculty at research institutions (see the Zerhouni presentation on WriteEd’s site — link above). Unless these universities are going to close up shop to a large degree in a decade or so (slight chance), there will be new rounds of hiring for junior faculty and a continued commitment by NIH to get junior PIs into the funding game at an earlier career stage. With all this in mind, B, stick it out!! It seems that there are some colleagues at your institution that are pulling for you and we’re pulling for you too. Maintain that optimism about your profession and focus on what you can do to make yourself the best scientist you can be. Some things are clearly beyond your control right now but you can reorganize to get them back into your grasp over the slightly longer term.


12 responses to “Postdoc Malaise…

  1. PhysioProf wrote that post, actually, not me. but otherwise, spot on advice. especially the “I thought I was ready but I really wasn’t” !

  2. Ooppsss!! Fixed it.

  3. (1) It is totally fucking ridiculous to think that a two-year post-doc in the biosciences should be sufficient to make one competitive in a job search. It is a complete waste of time that could be better spent in doing more science to go out on the job market after a two-year post-doc.

    Seriously. This person needs some reasonable advice.

    (2) This NIH Peer Review Advisory Yadda-Yadda is a total load of baloney, and ain’t gonna do jack shit about the fundamental problem, which is that paylines are at 10%ile instead of 20%ile.

  4. PP, I agree; however, some optimistic spin is good for the morale, me thinks.

  5. I’m curious…what do you think of some of the “non-traditional” post-doc opportunities that have been cropping up…(i.e. the HHMI Janelia Farm Fellows Program or the Broad Fellows Program at Cal Tech–basically you start your own lab). Do you think that researchers that opt for this track will be helped or hurt? or does it even matter as long as they’re “productive”?

  6. First off, I know nothing about these programs. But, my personal opinion that one should do what they think is best for them. However, you must/should get a few things out of a postdoc. You must be productive. You must considerably expand your capabilities. You must get quality mentoring (from some source, preferably your PI). You should develop an independent line of scholarly activity that can move with you. You should work your tail off to develop an international reputation for your work. You must at least develop a reputation within your subfield. If you can do these things I think it doesn’t matter what route you chose for a postdoc. For instance, in my area there are many successful PIs in academia that postdoced in industry. There are also many successful industry PIs that postdoced in academia.

  7. I, too, was dumb and applied after 2 years as a post doc. At that time, I had ~15 papers (10 first author) from grad school and 3 papers (1 first author) as a post doc, and I thought “Why not?” I was even prodded into applying by someone on a hiring committee. What happened? Crickets! That’s all I heard!

    I sat down with the chum who told me to apply and he/she said that I made it deep into the conversation, which is very good for someone so young, but all concluded that I was just too young. In follow-up conversations, this person said that it’s a real risk to apply too early for two reasons: (1) You are probably too young to get the really good places to hire you; and (2) when you are older/more accomplished and get back on the job market, you risk the hiring committee saying “Yeah, we saw this guy a couple of years ago. Been there, done that. Next.” All this despite the fact that you might have a C/N/S paper!

    So, I buckled down. I ignored the $35k/year, the visions of failure, the risk I was taking in believing in myself, and the fact that buckling down and developing into a solid scientist was a risk with no guaranteed reward.

    I got some big papers, a K99/R00, and now an unsolicited tenure-track position in my hometown. I couldn’t have done any of that without buckling down, bending over, and learning to love the thorny excrescence being jammed into my a-hole several times a day. I learned some very difficult complementary techniques that allow me to argue my point furtively, and I feel that I am poised for some bodacious communications in the next 5-7 years. The bunghole still hurts, but not as bad as it did when I didn’t have the salve of certainty.

    Take home message: either ignore the stress imposed on you by the uncertainty of a scientist’s life, or learn to love it. Above all, collect data like my toes collect sock lint and read papers like an autistic child. Live and breathe for data; and smoke a doobie every once in a while so that you can put your hard work in its proper and insightful scientific context to optimize your impact.

    Even then, you’re not guaranteed success, but the fruits of your labor can actually be eaten rather than ensconced in your rectum.

  8. This is a great discussion for a lowly PhD student hoping against hope that I’ll eventually land The Big One in a university in my home province of Quebec. And Treefish cracked me up!

    Back to my point: I haven’t been through the job search process yet, but it seems to me that one of the major points that’ll sell you in the interview, over and above your publications, knowledge and your “story”, is that zeal you get when you know you’re on to something big and all you feel great about it. In a word: confidence!

    I’ve seen lots of talented people apply for various positions that they could probably handle and do well in. Then there are those who come into the room and you feel that they are already tenured… I think this aspect goes far in a job interview. By the way, when I say confident, I don’t mean cocky or arrogant, just very sure that you’re work is going somewhere.

  9. Funkyneuron, I think you have hit the nail on the head! Note that PP had a few posts on this back on the old DM site. Check this one out and the links within…

  10. Another point in getting that job is teamwork. As a prof, you’re expected to teach and collaborate. If you can demonstrate that you understand how to work well in a group, I think the chances are on your side.

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  12. First-class information it is definitely. My boss has been searching for this update.

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