Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Why I hate being a postdoc.

And here I thought I had nothing to blog about today!

I'm working on a couple of manuscripts and naturally it's excruciating. There's nothing like going through the list of what I've done, what worked and what didn't, to piss me off.
Want to know why?

Well I'll tell you why. Because the stuff that didn't work is mostly based on other people's premises. Their previous publications (mostly unrepeatable). Their reagents (mostly crap). Their assumptions (mostly wrong).

The stuff that did work was mine. It was my idea, and I did it, and it mostly worked exactly like I thought it would.

Well that would be great except for the postdoc part. Because I know what else I should be doing, that will also probably mostly work. But I can't do most of it.

Want to know why?

Well I'll tell you why. Because I don't have the money for the reagents I need. I'm not eligible to apply for the money to get the reagents I need. Because I'm a postdoc.

Also because they won't listen to me. The people with the money. I have to spend most of my time, wasting my time, doing experiments that I know won't work just to prove that they won't work, because they don't respect my considerable experience. Because I'm younger than they are. Because I look younger even than that. Because what do I know, I'm just a postdoc.

So I waste my time and my energy just to prove that I should be allowed to do the experiments that I know will lead to progress and new information. And I'm bored out of my skull doing these other experiments that are uninteresting and uninformative.

What really kills me is, I have tons of ideas for things to do. I'm pretty sure a lot of them will work, would work if someone could actually work on them.

Meanwhile, John Q. Jackass from my lab is going off to start his very own faculty position. He doesn't have any ideas of his own. His entire postdoc project was a me-too project. There are some techniques that are so hot these days that you can just follow a certain formula and get a paper in a High Impact Journal just for showing that A+B still equals C so long as you do it with the latest hot techniques.

It's enough for him to work on for the rest of his career, but I'm not convinced he'll know what to do with it. He'll probably do what most PIs do with their territory: sit on it and prevent anyone else from actually learning anything new.

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At 4:47 PM, Blogger Jennie said...

I'm sure this is a long shot, and maybe you have posted on it before, but I know someone in the medical sciences who was a post doc but their department gave them the title of associate professor so they could write grants. It was a couple actually and both him and her were given this status. I think they liked her a lot more than him but that's besides the point. They didn't get a bigger salary and they didn't teach classes, just a fancy title so they could write grants.
Would it hurt to ask (if you haven't already) considering how long you've been a post doc . . .
I learned today that my adviser never wants me to graduate.

At 6:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least you must get some consolation from responses to your blog - reminding you that for every frustration you're having, there's an equal and just-as-bad problem going on somewhere else, probably the next bench over!

I'm the graduate student who wrote to you a few months ago. I got thrown out of my lab because I dated a co-worker, then landed myself in Hell-on-Earth lab, where the boss poached all my ideas, farmed them out to techs, and didn't provide me the promised samples or budget to do my work.

After almost 6 months of silent suffering (well, I'm actually not a very silent person, but that's besides the point) I approached "Respected Committee Member" with my ever-worsening situation. His response? Congratulations, we were all wondering how long it would take you to realize your new lab is crap and your boss is an idiot. We wouldn't have graduated you from that lab. We'll work it out

Which leaves me wondering... Is this the current state-of-the-art technique for student advising? Watch them walk off a cliff, then reveal that it was a test all along. Are you smart enough to recognize total dysfunction amd assertive enough to demand a better training environment? I guess I finally "passed" his "test," at the expense of nearly 6 months of alternating depression and infuriation.

You asked to hear back from me when things were more "resolved," and I guess they're now being resolved. It seems like a good time to remind you - and all the other demoralized researchers reading your blog - that shitty things, very shitty things, have also happened to me. And if this has happened to me, a random grad at a fairly good school, I suspect that many many other people have also been screwed over.

What have I learned? Graduate school - check that, ALL of science - isn't about the science at all, but simple perserverence.

Good luck to you, you'll snap back and carry on. I truly enjoy reading your blog.

At 8:33 PM, Blogger Unbalanced Reaction said...

Ugh, rough day. I'm fortunate to have a very minimal number of coauthors on my first-authors, so I don't have to rely on others too much. The flip side is that if it's going to be, it's up to yeah...the papers are often slow in coming.

At 7:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have a couple of questions/comments. One, why don't you ever take responsibility/blame for anything? It is a recurrent theme in this blog that everything wrong in your work life is someone else's fault. It's always "if I was allowed to do it my way, everything would be great" Do you ever sit down and actually think critically about your work and how it is going, in a logical, straight forward manner? And think of ways that you can make things better, instead of just laying blame on everyone besides yourself? I've been reading this blog for over a year, and I really see no progress being made, in terms of your thought processes and situation. You continually recycle the same ideas, and don't seem to reach any conclusions/resolutions to anything. I have this image of you as the person continually trying to push the boulder up a hill, and having it roll back on you every time. Yet you keep on trying. Extremely admirable in some ways, yet hasn't it occurred to you that perhaps something needs to change, and that change needs to be made by you? All of the things you complain about, the system, the old boys network, etc, are things that you probably can't change. So why don't you focus on the things that you can change? For example your attitude and the way you look at the world? Or even your career? If its as bad as you say, why put up with it for much longer?

And secondly, when you say you aren't allowed to do things that you want to do in lab, why not? In my lab if I want something I order it, as long as it doesn't cost $5000 nobody monitors it. Can't you just order the reagents you want and do the things you want to do? As they say, its easier to to ask forgiveness than permission.

At 7:48 AM, Anonymous Noah Gray said...

Sounds like you need to switch labs. Not all post-docs have it as bad as you do, with all of the correct answers and best ideas, but with a mean PI who won't listen. Perhaps your brilliance would be better-appreciated elsewhere.

At 11:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow. You sound bitter!

I do know how you feel - I know some people who act like complete jackasses and don't deserve the fame and fortune they get for it.

But reading your blog, it seems like just about everyone else is a jackass, but you are the only one who works hard and has all the right ideas.

Surely you know this can't be the case. I know you will probably get angry at me for this post, and so I can quickly become a jackass, but you are like the boy who cried wolf - after a while people reading this blog start figuring out that maybe you are not completely objective in your interpretation of the world.

Hint - nobody wants to hire a pessimistic bitter person who has nothing but bad things to say about everyone she has ever met. No amount of "right ideas" will help.

At 11:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The tone of this post reminds me of the lab tech when I was a PhD grad student. He could have written this exact same post, except for the part about looking young. He thought that he knew everything and could do anything. His bitterness ate him up. He was eventually fired due to that bitterness spilling over into his performance on the job.

You need to get out. I have no idea if what you say is true or not. However, your bitterness will surely get you in trouble at some point.

At 4:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like that man (John. Q Jackass) knows how to play the game! AND he will be free to do whatever research he wants to do. I am willing to bet that he has experienced all of the frustrations that you have so stop "hatin'". Maybe you could follow his example and you would be on your way too!

Attitudes are contagious and I can imagine from reading your posts that some of that your negativity probably is evident to colleagues and causes them to be turned off. Try being a yes-woman for a while!

No matter what career you eventually choose, you will always be bowing down to someone else. Your opinions will always be trumped by your boss' opinion...even at Burger King. Start being a good employee with a positive attitude and eventually you may be Jane Q. Jackass with a lab of your own. Is't that what you really want? Short term pain, long term gain.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Jennie! What's going on?? Everyone has their advisor say this to them at some point, usually when they're close to finishing. Most PIs have a hard time letting go. Is that your situation? Please let me know.

Re: asking to be promoted, yeah, been there. They're using the excuse that they can't afford to pay me what I'm worth; they also blocked me from applying for grants last year (the last year I was eligible for some senior postdoc type things).

First Anonymous,

It's funny to see your comment come out early in this list- read on, the rest of them are not much consolation!

I hate that they just sat there and let that happen to you until you stood up and asked for help. I'm glad, though, that they were reasonable about it when you did. And huge thanks for the vote of confidence. Some days I think I will make lemonade out of my giant lemon tree.

The rest of you- I'm going to file these comments under "how come you only seem to read and comment on the negative posts"?

Some astute reader pointed out a while back that I get a lot more comments on my negative posts than my positive ones. And it's totally true. I think you're just as guilty of negative reading as you like to accuse me of negative writing.

And people like Noah Gray clearly missed the point that I've already been a postdoc too long to switch labs at this point. But hey, that's a really original suggestion, haven't heard that one before (note the sarcasm, please).

At 6:38 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

re: ordering (one of the Anonymi asked)

I've NEVER worked in a lab where we could just order whatever we wanted. We have to ask permission. For everything. It could cost $15 and we still have to ask someone else to put the order into the system and make sure it gets approved based on our justification of why we need it.

For those of you spoiled brats out there, you might want to think about the possibility that you have no idea what it's like to do science on a budget. It's a lot less fun, I would imagine, than being able to get whatever you want on a whim.

At 8:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"For those of you spoiled brats out there, you might want to think about the possibility that you have no idea what it's like to do science on a budget. It's a lot less fun, I would imagine, than being able to get whatever you want on a whim."

That's right. And I love it. Why complicate my life with a lab that doesn't have enough money? You ought to try it sometime, maybe you'd have less to complain about.

At 9:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

about the last comment, i am currently a postdoc in a lab where i never have to ask for permission to buy things (unless they are like $10,000 per item). you need to change labs. it's liberating to be in a lab that doesn't penny pinch!

At 7:08 AM, Anonymous amy said...

I can definitely relate to the experiences you talk about in this post. In my field, philosophy, the easiest way to get published is to write superficial critiques of other people's work: spot some logical problem in someone else's paper, and then spend 20 pages trashing their argument. I hate it. I want to write positive arguments for new claims, and I want to explore complex issues. But only people who have been in the profession a long time and earned a name for themselves are able to publish papers like that. (The occasional young genius also publishes a paper like that, but I'm no genius). So I've spent four years banging my head against a wall, getting rejection after rejection on my "interesting" papers. Meanwhile, a colleague of mine with no original thoughts of his own, who can't think his way out of a paper bag, is publishing like crazy. Finally, I'm taking the hint: I'm going to write these stupid critical papers so that I can get tenure. Once I have tenure, I'm going to write whatever the hell I want. (Presuming, of course, I haven't learned my lesson too late; I've only got a year and a half to make this plan work).

Anyway, my point is that maybe it's worth it to play the silly game until you can get into a position of power. Follow John Q. Jackass's lead: watch what he does, and copy it. Don't falsify data or anything forbidden like that, but do all the permissible icky stuff. Once you're a PI you can do research the way you want, and you can create a positive research environment for your postdocs. You could save many other postdocs from suffering as you have. Refusing to compromise is much less likely to help anyone, including yourself.

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

"The rest of you- I'm going to file these comments under "how come you only seem to read and comment on the negative posts"?"

Uh, sorry, but I read and comment on your positive posts, as well as the negatives. Did it occur to you that we're (anonymi) not trying to be jackasses, but are actually trying to be helpful? Personally, I thought I could shock you into some introspection, but of course that didn't work. You've been very helpful to me in the past with some of your posts and comments, so what I see is a fundamentally good, helpful person who has fallen into the scientist as martyr trap. I see this "I'm brilliant and everyone else around me is an idiot" attitude way too much in the science field, and I wish those who exhibit it would recognize it for what it is: a defense mechanism to absolve oneself of blame and responsibility when things go wrong. Best of luck, and I look forward to the day when you post about getting a new, exciting job.

At 8:07 AM, Anonymous Noah Gray said...

I guess I missed the part in the post that stated "I have been a post-doc for 9 years and cannot afford to start over now." My apologies [note the sarcasm, please].

It's just funny to see the same old post-doc sob story that nobody "gives me respect." Everyone has to deal with it so please, enough with the self-important gibberish [for the record, I was a post-doc for 4 years]. This is a tough business, it is not always fair, and a lot of the time, luck (and the alignment of the stars) has to be on your side in order for things to work out with experiments, job searching and grant funding. You act as if nobody else is in the exact same boat that you are in. These sort of unfair, lopsided systems exist in every walk of life, even in socialist societies! I completely agree with one of the previous comments that this attitude affects not only one's work, but those around them as well.

Again, the chip-on-your shoulder attitude continues with the comment of spoiled brats not knowing what it is like to do science on a budget. Who forced you to join an underperforming, tight-budgeted lab? Getting a post-doc is orders of magnitude easier than getting a faculty position. You could have interviewed at and chosen labs that had a better budget situation. Did they not extend you an offer? Or do you just like the blogging material that being in this lab provides?

Again, I find some of your posts interesting, but could do without the "unrecognized brilliance" complex. It is quite ironic coming from an anonymous poster.

At 11:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excuse me as I interrupt this by letting my tiny violin play this "toooo-dooooo-toooo-doooo!".

Look, EVERY SINGLE postdoc, and most graduate students go through the same thing as you do. Do you think you are the only one?

Your attitude is completely wrong though, I just hope you don't express any of it in real life, at least not in a way people can pick up on it. The attitude of "everyone is a jackass/idiot/cheater/lazy/kissass, and you are the only one who is genius/full of ideas/hardworking/honest/unappreciated" gets really old after a while. Do you SERIOUSLY think you are being 100% objective? That the entire world conspired against you (and only you), and the whole grant review/job application process is rigged so that EVERYONE (and as we learn from your rants - none of those people are qualified, smart or hardworking) can get jobs and money EXCEPT for you (genius who nobody appreciates)?

You start sounding like a crazy crackpot on the street wearing tin foil hat claiming that CIA prevented him from meeting with aliens or some other stuff like that.

At 6:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I understand the conspiracy theory. I suffer from that too. Its hard and women are our worst enemies. I try to stay focused and say its about the chemistry. I try to say, its ok if I'm not in 'first place.' Just work hard, ask questions, get answers. The hardest part for me is no when the boss lets you have it. The hardest part is when my peers let me have it. That's my breaking point. That's when I start thinking of career alternatives... like massage school or yoga instructor. Or maybe I'm too sensitive. Maybe that's just me.

At 12:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have the strong suspicion that most of the "anonymous" comments on this post were by the same person. And someone quite happy with the status quo in science, too.

At 9:07 AM, Blogger Dr. H. said...

1) Academic research obeys power law...a few profs get all the fame, all the funding, all the citations, all the best hard working underlings, (all the babes??) and so on downstream ...

2) Science is rarely a "genius" thing .. its mostly a "stumbled upon"
thing .. most of your so called brilliant ideas are probably worth crap (statistically speaking)..

3)Hoping to land a breakthrough paper on your own is sheer stupidity .. what makes you think that all these fame hungry academics would miss a great idea ?

4)Science is a people field .. so you must obey the primate hierarchy .. bow and scrape until you have it made .. at which point others will bow to you .. this is the basement ..

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous ajohngalt said...

I'm in the same position, but my feeling is that if we were really as smart as we think we are, we wouldn't be postdocs. Yes, there are politics, but you can learn how to play. And yes, there are greedy, frightened PIs who have never had a fresh idea and resort to taking yours for their own. And yes, the academic system is territorial, and many stake out turf overzealously. You can do either one of two things: (a) suck it up and learn how to play their game; or (b) leave the sandbox and make your own way. As they say in Shawshank -- time to get busy living, or get busy continuing with your miserable postdoc ....


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