Monday, January 11, 2010

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?



Anon 1:21,

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.

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13 Comments:

At 3:04 PM, Blogger Kea said...

This sounds pretty typical. My supervisor would have written me a letter, but I realised it was better that he didn't. Anyway, in my field one needs three letters from people 'familiar with your work'. This is completely impossible for me. I have wasted countless weeks applying for jobs with semi-professional letter writers, but with the job situation like it is, I really am just wasting my time ... even with the few good references that I have managed to scrape together.

So no new postdoc has turned up. It seems fairly certain now that my last 7 month (generous, aren't they?) postdoc will be my first and ONLY ... despite me being a leader in my field. So much for supporting women in physics.

 
At 3:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought of killing myself, but then I decided to write the story ... the book should be ready for publishing soon ...

 
At 5:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To the Anon who had a falling out with your postdoc advisor:

I just want to say that I was in the same boat myself during my first postdoc. I also had a falling out with my PI and he subsequently actively blocked me from applying to other jobs and fellowships. He wanted me out of his lab but he didn't want me to get another job elsewhere - it's clear that he was blocking me out of pure revenge and personal nastiness. It is scary when your own PI has it in for you and is actively using his power and influence (which is already orders of magnitude greater than any power or influence you have to defend yourself with) to try to sink your career. How pathetic is that, that a PI would expend his time and energy to block a lowly pion of a postdoc from getting another lowly pion postdoc position?? That says something about the PI's character doesn't it? (both yours and mine)

Anyway. For me luckily I was on good terms with my PhD advisor. He believed my story, not my PI's accusations against me. Also because he didn't like my PI. (which is nice, pitting one PI against another!) So I got letters of recommendation from him as well as from other professors I had collaborated with.

the bad news is that I had to totally - and I mean TOTALLY - switch fields. And I don't mean just sub-fields or specialties. I switched from physics to electrical engineering. I had to do this to escape my PI because he was blocking me from getting jobs in my original (and thus his) field. As a result my second postdoc stint very long because I had to spend a lot of time getting up to speed in the new field. Honestly, if it wasn't for my PhD advisor writing a glowing letter for me, I wouldn't have even gotten that second postdoc position because I was making such a drastic field switch.

Doesn't it suck how one single jerk PI can set your career back by YEARS?? I'm still bitter about this to this day.

I wish you the best of luck with your situation. Just know that you are not alone, that there are many vengeful PIs out there who screw up their postdocs' lives. Hang in there, and succeed despite them.

 
At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, it's the same Anon from before. Thanks for this. I came to some of the same realizations myself. Basically, my boss is a sexist, biased jerk. The woman who most recently left his lab thought the same thing. I am not alone.

I don't want to answer your questions for fear of outing myself. (You know how that is.) But, you could imagine the truth isn't far off from what you've listed as possibilities for why things went down this way for me.

Thanks again and good luck with everything.

 
At 10:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear YFS,

I am in bench withdrawl even though I have yet to leave. What is wrong with me? I felt everything you did, and am choosing to take an opportunity that is away from bench research. I am getting emotional (not to the point of tears), but certainly to the point at which it is obvious to my boss that maybe I should not be leaving. I was doing this mostly for my personal side of things, but with everything we've talked about here, I thought was also for my benefit of getting paid well and starting a life. WHY AM I FEELING SO CRAPPY?

 
At 6:23 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time reader coming out to comment. I faced an identical situation. The person who helped was my PI's boss(HOD, Sr. Grp. Leader). Of course, it helped that this was not the first instance of my PI acting in a completely discriminatory way. Long story short- I was able to get letters from HoD so I had a letter from my current place of post-doc-ing. The other letters were from my Grad. School days and no one asked me about it during interviews, hiring etc.

 
At 8:29 AM, Blogger a physicist said...

I've been on several faculty search committees. I remember one case where a postdoc was applying for jobs, and did not have a letter from the postdoc mentor, but did have an excellent letter from a very famous scientist. VFS explained that the postdoc mentor was evil and that this was in no way the job applicant's fault. This was a helpful letter and we were more than happy to give the applicant the benefit of the doubt... we knew that evil mentors exist.

Another case: someone applied to our job who was in their second postdoc. Their first postdoc was brief and there was no letter from the 1st postdoc mentor. The other letters were very strong (from postdoc mentor #2 and PhD advisor). We ended up hiring this person, and I found out from them that postdoc mentor #1 was a big evil jerk. I'm happy to report that the applicant who we hired has indeed turned out to be a fantastic professor: good teacher, good scientist, good mentor.

So, from the hiring side: not having letters from evil postdoc mentors doesn't doom you. Sometimes, the evil postdoc mentors even acquire a wide-spread reputation for evilness.

On the other hand, publications are pretty important... and that's certainly impacted by having an evil postdoc mentor. Sadly I have no encouraging advice about that, other than that Ms. PhD's suggestions in her post make sense from my point of view.

 
At 11:10 AM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Kea- They say that, but they don't actually have to have known you a long time. If you have time left, you could really pull out all the stops, call up the top people in your field and ask them to speak with you or pay your own way to fly to wherever they are and present your work in person. If they have read your papers, know your field, like your work, and you make a good impression, you can probably find the 1 big name you need to help you get the kind of postdoc position you want. Be brave, stick your neck out. What have you got left to lose?

Anon 3:06- please tell us when the book is out and feel free to send me an excerpt to post here!

Anon 5:17, thanks for sharing your story.

Anon 9:52, I know how you feel. I hope you can find a better place. And I only wish we could start a website or something to list these fuckers by name so no one else ends up in the same situation.

Anon 10:27, Oh, this is so sad to me. I actually do sometimes get to the point of tears when I think about this. I think part of why you feel crappy is because it's a huge change, very stressful, and you drank the kool-aid for so long that on some level deep down, even though you know it's not true, you kind of feel like a failure. Also, for me anyway, it's harder to make choices when I feel like people are second-guessing me (and it sounds like your boss really doubts your choice is the right one). Maybe you should have another talk with your boss if this person is genuinely supportive of you (and not just trying to get you to stay and be a slave)? But then, again, that could make you feel worse. My advisors tend to be pseudo-supportive, which I find most upsetting.

Personally, I'm not sure that getting paid well or "starting a life" (not 100% if you mean all the connotations of that phrase) would make me happy. But at some point it just seems hopeless to continue, and if you're so miserable day after day, something has to change. That doesn't mean the changing process will be easy- it's always a time of mourning, like a breakup. But the idea is that when that period is over, you will feel better. Or so they tell me.

Anon 6:23, Glad to hear it worked for you! Thanks for de-lurking.

a physicist, thanks for contributing N=2 more and an optimistic outlook for the karma quotient.

 
At 10:17 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI Ms PhD,

It's anon 10:27 again. I am not sure if I was clear enough in my prior message. My boss has been supportive of me up to this point and has said that I was one of his top postdocs (and he has had 20+) and always talked about "when you have your own lab... ." At the time, I just wasn't listening to it and wasn't even thinking that I was going to stay in research. But, I think that I somehow fell in love with research after the PhD.

I definitely have had the best boss I could imagine; this was after a not-so-good beginning to my _early_ graduate student life. Somehow, things turned around for me: I got fellowships, travel awards, international travel awards, papers, everything that I was supposed to be getting. But then I had a friend who suggested that this alternative opportunity could get me to be nearby my SO. After not landing anything in biotech-- you know there are tons of layoffs going on right now--I decided to do a little bit of interviewing. I got lucky, or so others think, but it is hard to hear any congrats. The good thing is that I am doing a bit of testing the waters and my boss said that he supports me, no matter what I choose. We have spoken a few times; he is incredibly understanding. The problem is that I know I should go and and check out this opportunity. OK, I don't have Science, PNAS, Nature, etc., yet, but I do have some good journals and collaborators that I have been able to network with; this is the problem--things had their ups and downs, but overall, I settled in and become a productive lab member who is trustworthy and committed.

I did everything right that I was supposed to do, but had tight geographic constraints because of my SO. We have been long distance for almost 4 years, so that is what had to change, or so I was trying to convince myself of. It becomes hard to sleep, but somehow, my thoughts are much more organized and I am finding a new sense of driven motivation. I want to think about this as a sabbatical; wish that geographic constraints were not as they are.
The kool-aid never tasted so good as it seems to now....

 
At 5:06 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If there is one thing you have to remember and realize is that sometimes as a postdoc, we are so engulfed by our own little world that we fail to realize that there is more to life than what we are lead to think.
I have to constantly remind myself that happiness (in your case and in mine who has a shitty postdoc situation) can be a choice. I know of a girl who had a screaming match with her PI, who is quite influential in her field, but has found jobs ever since without the PIs reference. People understand that not everyone gets along with everyone in this world.
Sometimes I think all the emotional roller-coaster that postdocs put themselves through is really of no point and is literally useless.
Leave and find a real job somewhere else where management values people (or at least pretends to) and where you make better salary. Life is too short to put up with people like your boss. When you go for your next interview and they ask you about your previous employer and why there is no letter of recommendation, just keep your answer simple. Do not bad mouth him.
Lastly, I am sure you will find someone out there who will appreciate your talents. Dont waste your time and life in your current situation. It is NOT worth it.

 
At 12:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

At least your postdoc advisor is different from your PhD advisor. In my case I joined the same lab in which I did my PhD, partly because postdoc positions were scarce and also partly because I wanted to learn some additional skills. The project didn't go well and another complication was that I got married and my wife lives overseas in USA while I live in Singapore.

I wanted to leave the lab because of personal and professional reasons and my PI flatly refused to let me go. I wanted to shift to where my wife has a stable job and my concern was that there are very few (6-8)PI's doing research in my field of interest. Therefore it is of utmost importance that I take any opportunity that I get from these labs.

My PI wants me complete the entire duration of the job contract, he refuses to let me go even 1 month earlier. He also made it clear that he will write a recommendation letter only if I apply for a job 3-4 months before my contract ends. I am pissed off with my PI and made it obvious to him. Now I am worried that he could sabotage any of my job prospects and there are only 6-7 prospective PI's to whom I intend to apply for a job.

Please advice me on what I should do......

 
At 10:46 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Short answer: figure out which PI is your PI's biggest competitor located near where you want to be, and then get that person to make you an offer. They already hate your PI, if your field is anything like mine, and they'll be happy to take you and all your trade secrets and loyalties. They won't require a recommendation letter because they don't like your PI anyway. Hopefully you can point at your publications and give a stellar presentation when you interview.

Probably sounds ridiculous, but I know people who have done this and it worked for them. The best possible scenario is the one where your PI's most feared competitor is also way more successful and well-connected, so it will be a step up for you while you're at it - preferably someone who is a National Academy member and/or Howard Hughes Investigator. They might not be the best scientists or the most ethical, but they're the most powerful when you need funding or a job.

Good luck.

 
At 10:06 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi
After reading thru all the threads here, I am sure that majority of PI behaves in similar selfish way . They will use you till that suits your interest, they wont think twice to trash you the moment their need if fulfilled. My PI never wrote me a reco letter even after 8 months I left the lab.. I found myself 3 new positions , they asked a reco from my PI and he never wrote them back.. and since my new employer never heard back from my PI, they rejected my appointment.They never heard my part of story my credentials as a scientist and my talents.. being jobless for 8 months and with a family to run and a 2 y old toddler at home I repeatedly asked for his reco to apply for a green card (at least that will ease my job hunt).. he never wrote a letter either ! At first I thought of banging open his office and drag him by his collar and shout to peoples to expose what kind of mean worthless creature he is..but then eventually I never did it.. I really dont want to make my hands dirty touching that slimy creature..I decided that I will fight more harder, find more ways to get a job because my inspiration is my child and for him I need to do everything.. I am sure one day I will get a job.. someone will find me worthy and I will again set my life OK, pay off all my debts and take my child for his fav movie..in between I will try to expose these animals as much as possible who will go on lengths to lecture about Postdocs and scientist but in practice are nasty hypocrite animals

 

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