Response to postdoc who needs help
From the last post, there was a comment:
At 1:21 PM, Anonymous said...
Ms PhD, I have a specific question for you... I am a 3rd year postdoc, facing the end of my fellowship in a few months. My postdoc adviser and I have had a falling out and it seems to be irreparable. He refuses to write recommendation letters. Well, I need another postdoc job soon, and how the hell can I get one without his recommendation? I thought I'd be getting 2 papers out from his lab but now it's looking like 0. I'm not really that bad. No one else here has papers after 3 years. Why am I being picked on? He's been contacting my former boss (PhD adviser) and actively blocking me from getting jobs. He suggested I go into teaching or industry. WTF. Suggestions?
UGH. That is a sucky situation, but you might feel better to know it is NOT that unusual. AT ALL. It is actually much more common that anyone wants to admit.
First, your advisor sounds like a jerk, but it really depends on what the falling out was about? You can be vague about it - was it something ethical (you disagreed with your advisor about data presentation)? If it's scientific, that is different than if your advisor is discriminating against you, and/or is a nutcase (not that unusual), or if there is some other extenuating circumstance (advisor is running out of money and can't handle the stress, etc.).
Also, keep in mind that in a way it is better to have no letter at all than have someone agree to write a letter for you and then have it damn you with faint praise. He can't do much worse than that, because if he actually wrote nasty things, that would just expose him as a jerk. But at least he was honest enough to say that he can't write you a good letter - maybe that's a sign that he's not completely without ethics?
Second - what is your relationship with your PhD adviser? Have you talked to this person about the situation with your soon-to-be-former postdoc boss? If not, you need to have a frank conversation about it and find out if this person is able and willing to be on your side and help you out or not. It won't be fun, but you might find out more useful information that will be helpful to you as you move forward.
Third - Even if your PhD advisor can't or won't help, you can probably find another postdoc position if that is what you want.
Most people will take a postdoc to work on their projects. However, most people will NOT take a postdoc to work on their OWN project, unless you have your own funding and/or it fits really well with something that lab does.
Contrary to popular belief, you DON'T need a letter from your former boss.
My advice then is to:
a) publish your papers on your own - send them to PLoS ONE or whatever the equivalent is your field, and be done with it
b) marshall your other resources- any PIs who have helped you, like your thesis committee, collaborators, friends who went off to start their own labs - and get their advice on your situation, get their help editing your papers, and get them to write your recommendation letters.
Ideally you want their letters to address what happened with your former boss, or come up with a scientifically believable reason why you're not in that lab anymore (e.g. "project is going in a different direction; I need more training in X field so I am joining a different lab to learn it").
c) Apply for new positions. You don't have to tell them you had a falling out with your PI (your letters will explain the situation for you, much classier that way), but ideally you want to find someone who will be sympathetic and a mentor.
Fourth, and this is probably the most important, ask yourself in your heart of hearts why your advisor said that about you going into teaching or industry. Was that just a generic put-down or way of telling you they think you're lazy? Was that this person's screwed-up way of being concerned for your happiness? Was it a sexist/racist otherwise closed-minded comment that just reflects how biased he is?
In my case, for example, I had to think long and hard until I realized I had NEVER heard my advisor say ANYTHING nice about ANY female scientist. EVER.
Then I rewound everything I had heard him say about women scientists I admired, and realized he always insulted them, not their science but them as people, saying they were "bitchy" or "crazy".
Then I realized that anything this guy thought about my science or said about me would be coming through that lens: where all women who were not idiots and sex symbols were either bitchy or crazy.
Aha, I said to myself when I realized this. It's not me.
Was this person speaking more about themselves than about you? For example, one of my mentors gave me a whole speech about how I should spare myself the pain of academia, and it really hurt my feelings that she seemed to be saying she thought I wasn't good enough.
On further reflection, however, she was really just talking about how crappy she was feeling that day.
Aha, I said to myself when I realized this. It's not me.
Having said that, some of us impatient, efficient and highly organized types sometimes get hit with this suggestion about industry. It usually comes from people who are inefficient and disorganized. They think if you're in such a hurry, you should go to industry.
Fifth, I will tell you what everyone tells me over and over in this business. It's about perseverance, they say. So if you want to do it, you have to figure out how to stay in the game.
What I've learned from staying in the game is that it doesn't change. This is happening to you now- some variations on this kind of thing may happen to you again, and again, and again. All you can do is try to learn the ropes so you don't fall into the alligator pit.
Good luck and hang in there.