Saturday, November 18, 2006

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).

Dear Anonymous,

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.

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At 12:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wouldn't dismiss the possibility of doing a more independent project out of hand. If you don't ask, you won't know. In my experience, too many people think too much how to interact with their PIs and end up being insufficiently direct. A lot of people (especially those that are used to everyone just saying yes and telling them all their ideas are great) will appreciate your candor and will work better with that. Others derive their demonic powers straight from hell and will treat you like shit regardless.

The other important question is whether your fellowship is in any way transferable. If you can pay for yourself at a new lab, that gives you a lot of power to leverage an independent project in your current lab.

At 5:22 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for the responses, I appreciate it. To answer your questions, I'm in the U.S. My PI is an MD, but not in chemistry (let's just say it falls under the general umbrella of biomedical science, I don't want to do too much to identify myself or my lab). Yes, I did interview prior to taking the job, and I was well aware that there was more of a team atmosphere there than at other labs. I don't mind cooperation or teamwork, but to me that means being on an equal footing with others on the team, not being subservient or "supervised" by a jr. faculty member. I actually have very little desire to be a PI, I feel that the odds are just too great against it, and I have absolutely no desire to be a postdoc for the next 6-10 years making crappy pay.
However, as a grad student I was very independent, and was allowed to pursue my own ideas (in fact, my PI didn't believe my thesis hypothesis, but allowed me to pursue it and subsequently changed his mind based on my data). So I'm actually getting more supervision as a postdoc, than I had as a student. The difference now is that, the stuff I'm working on is much, much more cutting edge, high impact, etc, thus the people in charge are not willing to let postdocs have much leeway because they are so focused on getting the results, publications, etc. Personally, I'd rather work on something of my own, that was not so high impact, but that doesn't seem to be an option here.

And no, the fellowship would DEFINITELY NOT be transferable to another lab, unless my PI was in support of it (which he wouldn't be if I left early). I do agree that approaching my PI with this could be a good approach, but would have to be done very carefully.

Source of stress, I'd say its more coming from myself at this point, than anything else. I feel unmotivated and bored, and worst of all trapped in a situation I can't get out of easily. The other people in the lab are mostly ok, but the atmosphere is very intense and competitive, so they aren't exactly supportive or overly friendly. And my PI talks to people like children at times, which sucks.

Anyway, thanks for the suggestions, I just need to see if I can make this work before I decide to bail. It feels a lot better to write this stuff down and get some feedback.

At 8:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello- I have been following your blog for some time now and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences. I am currently a phd student in biomedical science. I often wonder how i ended up here as my undergrad degree was in psychology. I don't go to a very well known university but it's in the midwest. I am weeks away from taking my PhD qualifying exam. Do you have any recommendations? Or would you be willing to share your own experience? I am really scared that I will fail being from a psychology background my basics aren't very strong and I've really just done ok in my classes while I have been here.

At 12:36 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the grad student worrying about quals:

It's been my experience that quals are highly variable, depending on your school, program, and the people on the committee. In my program, we had to come up with a "grant proposal" based on something that we were not working on. We received advice from several senior students, the gist of which was, there is no way to predict what the committee will want. Some committees quiz students on background information(like, what is the charge of that particular amino acid, etc). My committee only asked about my proposal. Typically, the whole concept of a "qualifying exam" is a joke, because they hardly ever weed anyone out of the program (even if you fail, they usually give you unlimited tries to retake the test). My advice, prepare for the worst, that way you'll be ready for anything, but don't try to study and cram in so much information that you go crazy. And get plenty of rest before the exam.

Also, I have to say this, ARE YOU SURE YOU WANT TO BE A BIOMEDICAL SCIENTIST???? I can tell you, if I could do it all over again (I'm a postdoc) I probably wouldn't choose this career. If you read this blog, I don't need to reiterate why.

At 8:45 AM, Anonymous richard gard said...

Hi Ms PhD,
I am a teacher and musician, and my students told me about an anonymous comment posted on your blog, dated Jan 18, 2005. Would you please remove it as it is hurtful and completely untrue (except for my name, my father's name, and my college position).

I couldn't understand why someone would post such a thing, randomly, but I have recently learned that my brother had a very unhappy break-up with a girlfriend in late 2004, and she went on a rampage against the entire family using a splogging bot.

You'll see that the comment is not germane to your blog thread and meant only to be harmful. I thank you for deleting it as it is hurtful to my children and my students. Please contact me if you have any questions.


At 1:45 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...


Done. Sorry it was even up there in the first place- nowadays I've turned on more moderator features, so I'm more selective about letting comments through. I hope this particular comment didn't cause you too much trouble. You wouldn't believe some of the comments I've gotten, directed at me, but since I use a pseudonym, it's hard to take it too personally.


At 5:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi i got a wonderful chance to read your blog as it is related to our field of biomedical sciences...? i was just wondering if somebody can fetch me an honest advice on How intense Phd and post-Phd life could be ? I know that life as a reseracher being a married women is very challenging with lot of & reserach with meager pay.
So my question is..Is it worth doing Phd in biomedical sciences ? is it just the job satisfaction that i should expect or even a happy personal life and time to spend with my family and friends with less tension as some incentive!!!! I greatly appreciate your advice regarding these issues..Even other people reading these blogs can address my questions... Looking forwrad for your responses.Thanks a lot!!!

At 7:57 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just started my postdoc in the biomedical sciences 4 months ago. I am single, and moved to another city for this job in academia. The pay is extremely low, the stress is high, and need I underscore even more:there is very little funding.

The only benefit (and it is a major one depending on your personality) is to truly enjoy what you are doing. If you live for that exciting experiment or can't imagine doing anything but, then by all means stay in the biomed sciences and transgress the long road from post-doc to something more, However, if you are only nominally interested now, you really should investigate an alternative career. If you find yourself zoning out during scientific talks directly pertaining to your area, maybe you should get out now, The only thing that keeps one successful in this academic environment of too many PhDs and not enough faculty jobs is to stand ahead of the crowd. Genuine excitement and interest in what you do will naturally keep you on top--and don't forget that social skills are important also. Don't burn bridges, build them wherever you can and that will help.

I myself am just beginning to realize that while I am interested and I do care, the lack of money, the constant stress (deadlines, grants, talks, papers to write) aren't exactly keeping my flame burning and I find less scholarly worries creeping into the picture (let's report only the "good" experiment in this paper, or gloss over all the things that don't work because it makes the (insert here: paper, talk, begging for money grant)--less impressive). I am tired of the politics that impinge upon publication and the lack of truly original ideas anymore--and then I realize--there aren't many ideas in this field these days because they are beaten out of us. I am learning my personality is just too idealistic and too easily swayed by the oppressing forces to cope with these demands. So I understand now, though I didn't many years ago, why someone might get a PhD in biomed science and completely do something else afterwards.

Anyway, I am just rambling now because it feels good to confess these thoughts as I don't in my "lab circle".

In response to your questions about what to do:

It is awful that you cannot communicate directly with the PI. How can that lead to your future independent thought and success? I suggest that you take steps now to alter that situation. IF there is no receptiveness to your ideas, and you are treated as a child, etc then don't bother staying. It is not a favor for yourself to stay even though you might get the higher profile papers, job security etc. Interviewers are smart: they realize that large labs don't necessarily harvest good candidates. If you feel that you may succeed in a different environment, look for it in a smaller lab. In my observations the most successful postdocs (ie move on to independent, good positions) have a very intimate and good repoire with the PI and also enjoy what they are doing. Seek this out, and you will be more likely to achieve success rather than riding on the coattails of a big lab (by the way many of us stuck in smaller labs feel annoyed by that Cell paper that gets out that just shouldn't due to the big name on the paper, it's not a great accomplishment to be the first author of that).

Good luck on your decisions.

At 8:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Personally, I think that having a PhD- pursuing a career as a post-doc in academia completely destroys your personal time. The pay is meager, though if you are married, then I suppose you would do well with the second income. Job satisfaction is the benefit. But it rarely comes without many sacrificed personal hours. There is a lot of stress involved if you want to be successful. If you aren't so concerned, ie this is more of something fun to do, then you can do a reasonably good job and spend the other hours with your family. I guess it depends on what you want. There are also alternative careers after post-docing that could be rewarding. I have one friend that went on to counsel graduate students/do recruiting. Another is incredibly rich as she went into patent law (I think this would be insanely boring, but she loves it, and I have to admit her beautifully tailored outfits and shoes do make me wonder if I could learn to love it too).

My favorite time was being a PhD student. Your hours are rather flexible and more attention/mentorship is given to students rather than postdocs. Being a student is a preview of what is to come by attending lots of talks, meetings, writing. Try and see if you can talk directly to students and postdocs in the programs you are interested in, that will give you a better idea. Good luck.


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