If only it were so simple.
In a comment on the last post, Paul said:
The way it seems to go is that you postdoc until you can't stand it anymore then you start applying like crazy for jobs. In academia and/or industry.
I think it helps to have a few published articles on your CV at this stage. The best way to get those is
1. work like a crazy woman
3. minimize working on everything that wont result in an article. Give anyone hell that asks you to teach that course/lab for a semester. You may be lucky and get a job offer from these favours or you may just be being used.
4. Try not to work with people that piss you off, are stupid, are unfocussed, etc. They will just slow you down.
Regarding 2. Your boss usually has a few pet projects which you probably should work on. Or at least make an appearance of working on. I guess funding for these projects are paying your postdoc? But you should also have a few other pet stealth projects that you're fairly certain will result in papers.
I think this is great advice. Especially since I did most of it. However, Paul is missing a few key points.
1. Did that. Still doing it. See dictionary under "burnout."
2. Did that, but see below.
3. Did that, but see below.
4. Impossible. Don't always know until it's much too late; plus people can have personal problems that appear, unpredictably, out of nowhere. If you have bad timing, you're S.O.L. That was my bad luck. But it's not that unusual, either, which is why I think this advice is on the right track. Definitely necessary, but not sufficient.
Regarding 2. Here's the thing re: pet projects. My advisor helped me come up with a project and apply for fellowships when I arrived. After I got the money, I was on my own. Advisor did not want to publish papers with me. Advisor is prolific but slow to publish.
This has basically been the major problem of my career. My thesis advisor was a foot-dragger on publishing, but his papers are all really solid when they come out, and I was able to browbeat him into publishing my work because he needed papers too.
My postdoc advisor does not need the papers. I need the papers. So the only papers my advisor finds appealing are: you guessed it, only the (very) High Impact Papers. Which take a long time, as I'm sure some of you know.
So far I've spent longer trying to get my papers accepted than I spent doing the original experiments, plus I've been doing more experiments to try to address reviewers' comments.
When I offer to help on pet projects, advisor either turns me down, or the grad students/postdocs who already work on it either tell me they've got it covered (i.e. back off, they want all the credit) or they don't really want to do it either, and my involvement makes it harder for them to blow it off. Either way, I have thus far ended up dropping the issue every time.
And now it's awfully late in the game to be trying to pick up more projects. I need to be FINISHING projects, not starting new ones.
Oh and publishing my stealth projects from within advisor's lab? Forget that. I would be burned at the stake if I tried to secretly submit first-author papers without my advisor, and I can't put advisor's name on anything and get away with it... see where I'm going with this? So that's not really practical advice. And I can't afford to wait until I get a faculty position, because, see above: need more publications in order to get a job.
And that would require publishing what I have. But my one biggest problem, and the one that I think has affected most of my friends' careers, is that publishing with a control maniac PI requires some kind of outside intervention, or a lot of trial and error.
Here's what I can tell you about trial and error:
1. It's very slow.
2. It's very frustrating.
3. It's doomed, because you only get so many tries before you run out of time.
Oh and did I mention that with a lack of feedback, it's totally unscientific? It's like doing experiments and not having an assay to tell if the experiments are working.
So I'm caught in a particularly awful situation now, largely because my project is interdisciplinary and I have been very much on my own, but the other PIs involved can't really stand up to my PI and say what for. First, because it's interdisciplinary work and they don't want to presume they know enough about the project in its entirety to comment on anything other than the part they helped with directly. Get it?
And, they just won't. They're smart people, but they are, as another commenter wrote, covering their own asses with both hands.
So my advisor would like to let me take the lead, but on the other hand, my project has not yet convinced my advisor to begin giving up a lifetime of control mania.
So we've had these kinds of scenarios where I say, "Well I think this is going to piss some people off, we shouldn't write it that way"
and advisor says "No, trust me, I have a lot of experience with publishing, this is how we'll write it."
And then the reviews come back, and guess who was right?
MsPhD was right. But does advisor say "Look, you were right, I was wrong, I'm sorry I got in your way"?
No, advisor gets MORE pissed off at me. Clearly, this is my fault for not making a stronger case for why I was right all along.
I mean, talk about a mindfuck. When I argue? I'm being a bitch, and the paper doesn't get submitted for months or years because advisor is sitting on it as my punishment.
Hello, being a female postdoc. Isn't this great?
But when I don't argue, I get punished by the reviews and advisor is disappointed that I apparently lack the confidence in my scientific knowledge to stand up for what I think is the right thing to do.
Did I mention mindfuck? Fucking mindfuck.
So I lose either way.
My favorite part of all this is when I present this work at meetings, and people say they like it, and ask what's going on with the publishing. Or they might even ask for a copy of the paper, assuming that if it's not out yet, it will be soon.
What's soon? We're wayyy past soon.
When I tell them I'm trying to figure out how to handle my advisor, they blame me for not knowing.
So I have to ask, how could I possibly know?
The other people in the lab who worked on similar projects were all men, and they did everything they could to shut me out. I am still here after all these years because I had to do the good daughter thing and wait my turn.
Nobody seems to get that.
So I've been trying to come up with a strategy to handle my advisor, but I'm using trial and error because I don't have any other insight. There are no women to ask. And I can't do what the men did (whatever that was, I've had to guess about that too).
And it is very slow. And very frustrating.
Anyway I think that's all I'm going to write about being a postdoc for today, because I'm really tired for no good reason. I took yesterday off and only did a tiny amount of work. Will probably take today off too.
To the person who seems to think postdocs have it better than undergrads: that was my assumption when I was your age, too. I thought it got better as you moved up, but trust me: undergrad is the best time.
Your only job is to learn as much as you can, figure out who you are and what you want and how to get there. At least where I went to school, all I had to do was go to class, do my homework, and I chose to volunteer in a lab and work there in the summers. There was no "facetime" outside of class, and I was never bored.
Grad school is basically slave labor. A lot of it is boring. There's a lot of emphasis on facetime. And even if you think you know what you want, you can't have it unless you're lucky enough to stumble into a lab that's the perfect match for both your scientific interests and personality. What are the chances of that?
And postdoc is the same as grad school on balance, better in some ways but much worse in others.
There is the appearance of more independence after undergrad, but in practice you're even more trapped when you move into a lab and you're entirely dependent on the PI to live or die in your career.
It's a horrible mess that doesn't really function as a 'system', and everybody tells you you're just whining if you want to fix it.
Good luck to you.