Letter: What should I do? --Anonymous
Yet another Anonymous commenter sent this question:
I think I've reached the point where I really hate coming to work every day. I've been a postdoc for about 1.5 years, in the biomedical sciences.
I work at a very prestigious institution, for a PI who is a major player in his field.
His lab is set up in that it is basically a junior faculty-run operation. Postdocs are assigned to work with one or more junior faculty.
In some ways this is a good thing, in that early on you get a lot of individual attention and hands on training, and you get to feel like you are in more of a team environment than is found in many labs.
On the other hand, you never feel like a project is truly yours. In lab meetings our PI often directs questions about our projects to the junior faculty (which makes one feel like a technician).
Apparently there have been issues in the past with authorship, as our PI doesn't often let the jr faculty take last author, so it ends up being a co-first author with the postdoc.
The junior faculty don't hang over our shoulders much, but there are definitely a lot of "how's everything going" conversations which end up turning into meetings going over data, getting suggestions, etc. In other words, things that should be done by the PI.
Anyway, since starting in the lab I've been moved around to several different projects, most of which were small portions of someone elses' work.
I wrote and was awarded a fellowship by a nonprofit society, so I'm funded for the next few years at a salary that is actually a little better than the NIH guidelines. The fellowship, however, was based on a project that my PI never intended for me to continue (I did a small portion of it, but the rest was subsequently done by one of the aforementioned junior faculty, leading to a submitted first author paper for him). So I feel like we deceived the funding agency. When I expressed my reservations about this to a couple of the junior faculty, their response was "it doesn't matter, once you get funded you can do whatever you want with the money."
All in all, a potentially crappy situation. A conundrum for me, because the benefits of finishing my postdoc here could be high (high profile papers, name recognition, having the fellowship). But I'm not sure its worth the stress I'm going through on a day to day basis.
I'm thinking of bringing these issues up directly with my PI, and asking that I be allowed to do my own, independent work without supervision from junior faculty. Or, I may just jump ship, if I can find another alternative (probably industry at this point).
That sounds awful. Are you by any chance located outside the US? Is your PI an MD or perhaps in something more related to chemistry?
The story about writing for funding on one thing and working on something else is quite common. I have to wonder to what extent funding agencies realize this happens.
I have heard of these kinds of situations with junior faculty before, but this may fall into the category of Researching The Place Before You Go There.
Did you interview there? Did you have different expectations based on the interview visit than what you found when you actually arrived?
I have a few friends who are in similar (though maybe not so extreme) situations, and in those cases they all had reservations about going to that lab, but went anyway, and then regretted the decision. They viewed it as a trade-off at the time, but then found it was not at all as advertised. E.g. the expected equation goes something like this:
famous PI + crappy lab situation = good papers, good job
but the real balance is something like:
asshole PI + really unhappy lab situation = no papers, want to quit before getting job
I suspect that asking for an independent project wouldn't fly in a lab like that.
Jumping ship to industry sounds great, but it would be more like the lab you're in now (teamwork!) and less like what you say you want (independence). So I'm not sure, from what you've written, which of these is more important to you.
Sadly, sometimes the best and worst way to find out what you want to is to do the experiment. This is one of the things that's so scary about postdoc vs. grad school. At least in grad school, you could do a rotation and hopefully get an idea of the lab atmosphere.
To me, this lab just sounds like a bad fit for you. There are plenty of labs that run more traditionally in academia, particularly smaller ones with less famous PIs.
The irony is that the best labs are often the ones you never hear about, because they publish many solid papers but none in high impact journals. Unfortunately, with all the pressure on postdocs to get papers in certain journals - as some kind of proof that you deserve a faculty position? - the trend is for more postdocs to go to labs like yours, and the smaller labs end up hiring elsewhere (students, technicians, or recruit from overseas).
Sigh. And as you can see, labs like yours don't emphasize honesty and independence, so we can imagine what kind of researchers they churn out.
I'm not sure from your comment what the source of the stress is on a daily basis for you. Is everyone else happy, or are they cut-throat? Are you the black sheep of the lab (wanting to have your own ideas and work on them, for shame!)? Are you just worried that everyone is dishonest and that your best ideas will get stolen (sounds like everyone is stealing from everyone else there)?
I would suggest you look around at other labs. You may find that the grass only looks greener. Or you may find one that suits your personality and ambitions better than the one you're in now.
I can't emphasize enough that funding sucks right now, and you have to really do your homework on the new place before you go there.
In the meantime I would suggest that you try to find some allies in your current lab. Is there anyone who feels like you do (to commiserate)? Or anyone you'd want to work with? Could you have a small group of postdocs who work together, each on their own part of a larger project, instead of each being paired with a grabby junior faculty person? Are you just paired with the wrong junior faculty person? Perhaps you could take your project in a different direction (find some new cool thing) that could help you switch to working with someone you trust and admire rather than whomever is causing your current stress. It sounds from your comment that switching around is pretty common in this lab, so the question is whether you want more or less of that.
Best of luck, please write back if you want to discuss more, and hang in there.