You may have had a successful PhD, with publications in high-impact journals, a great mentor, and peers you got along with. You interviewed for the ideal postdoc position. Your presentation went well. All the people you interacted with during the interview welcomed you. Your personality seemed to be compatible with theirs. You seemed to be a good fit for the department. You accepted the offer. However, months into your postdoc, you started having an unsettling feeling.
A year went by, you are convinced it was not what you expected. In fact, you are not a good fit after all. You are constantly under pressure to deliver, and then there is office politics, something you were not taught in grad school. How do you cope?
Before discussing some options, here are some red flags to look for.
Working long hours. You have plenty of time during the interview to ask about the hourly requirement. You have to know your rights. What were the terms of your agreement? Was it 60 hours weekly, or more like 80? Chances are, your postdoc contract does not include the number of hours you are required to work. Know how many hours your Principle Investigator (PI) expects you to work, and put it in writing. Know your responsibilities and remind your PI of his responsibilities.
The NSF and NIH both agree on the definition of a postdoc. That “defined period of mentored advanced training” includes a commitment of at least 40-hours per week, or as specified by the sponsoring institution.
Working long hours does not equate to productivity. If anything, it equates to frustration, and I am saying this from personal experience.
I’ll say it is difficult to have a typical 40-hour work week, month after month. There is a lot involved. Planning and completing experiments, troubleshooting, data analysis, brainstorming with your PI (and other colleagues), maintaining lab notebooks, writing abstracts, manuscripts, progress reports, pieces for grant proposals, presentations for journal clubs, annual meetings, the list goes on. However, having a postdoc consistently work 60-80 hours a week for the same pay is unfair; and it can be amicably resolved.
What other situations can make one’s postdoc experience a nightmare? Office politics of the worst kind. You may have heard a little about faculty members not getting along. Your grad mentors likely protected you from what really went on during departmental meetings. Now, as a postdoc, you’re bound to experience some aspects of office politics.
It may take up to six months to understand a department’s culture. You may find yourself in a department that is dysfunctional; one that lacks trust and transparency. Your ideas may even be stolen. Collegiality is a fundamental social skill, yet, being collegial is no guarantee that those at the top will welcome you.
When collegiality breaks down, regardless of where and how it started, it must be addressed. What options do you have? Be thoroughly organized. As scientists, we often document all our experiments. Yet, when it comes to discussions with PIs, department Chairs and other senior members of the department, we leave that to memory.
When relationships get strained, if it isn’t in writing, it didn’t happen. Documenting all relevant conversations is for your protection. Furthermore, find a secondary advisor who is well established and respected, ideally, from another department. Depending on how serious the situation is, you may have to change departments.
Your secondary advisor may offer suggestions. Changing departments, or institutions, is a lot easier with a National Research Service Award (NRSA). When my PI moved to another Institution, my NRSA stayed with me. The transition to another department was smoother.
While your postdoc is not what you expected, all is not lost. The experience you gain will shape your professional personality. You may be interviewing for that dream job, then this question comes up–describe how you remained professional in a difficult situation. There you have it, an opportunity to answer the question with a specific example. In future posts, I’ll share some additional thoughts on making yourself marketable, despite bad experiences in previous positions. I also offer career advice on an individual basis. Until then, “Happy Reading”
Christiana W. Davis, MD
Owner, Consult To Aspire