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I am a postdoc in cell biology and I'm considering to change my career path after having spent the last 1.5 years in a lab that has completely destroyed my passion for the academic life.

Background: I was working abroad for a few years and, due to personal reasons, I asked a PI with which I collaborated in the past the possibility to go back to the homeland. I knew this to be a suboptimal solution but I needed to go back. This PI accepted and, to smooth the transition, I wrote a EU grant proposal, which was funded (yay!) to move back to my homeland.

The new lab is mainly a clinically oriented lab run by MD, but it has contributed to the field with nice basic science discoveries, generally with the help of collaborating lab. My tasks were to basically to setup and run the cell biology section of the lab.

For the first year, I was forced to write grants for the two/three PIs in the lab and I (33 y.o.). We got in total 3 grants (~ 2 M€).

My project theoretically started last autumn, but I was "forced" by the PI to give priority to these new projects rather than to mine. Due to severe issues with our collaborators, I got the cell lines I wanted to work on in my project with 6 months of delay, and other issues did not allow me to physically start my project before 8 months of delay. Now, after 1 year into my project, the experiments have still to start, mainly due to:

  1. the lack of a proper organisation in the lab: there are no lab meetings, there is no supervision on the experiments, the PIs work in a separate premise. There's also a shortage of workforce, as they pretend that 1 person (me) can run the whole cell culture facility AND perform functional experiments AND order reagents AND collect quotations from vendors AND do conference calls AND analyse results AND go to the ethic committee AND write grants.
  2. a proper lab structure: all the 4 postdocs in the lab are treated as technicians and the PIs do not have skills to understand the basic science we do. The two/three PIs do not understand that these are severe issues and they are constantly asking for results.
  3. a decent mentoring: as I'm the most expert person in the lab concerning cell biology, I'm not receiving any helpful mentoring tips from my PI on my everyday work. Moreover, being the only one to understand a topic implies that the discussions on my topic are generally between me and myself.

Now, after 1.5 years in this lab I would really like to leave that toxic environment but this will mean to stop my EU-funded project (12 over 24 months left) and will clearly burn all the bridges for future academic position in my city and, probably, in the whole country.

I'm considering whether to switch to industry jobs, but this would mean to start again from scratch and acquire new skills. I've notice I've acquired skills and achievements (papers, h-index, citations, etc..) that are now completely useless in the current job market in my country. I'll do what necessary of course, but it will be a bad hit for both the spirit and the career. Start from scratch in another field in mid-30s isn't often a very successful strategy.

Do you have any tips or suggestion to escape from this toxic situation that is now also significantly affecting my health?

Thanks :)

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    First, congratulations on getting all these grants, it looks like you're very good at your job! It looks to me like the problem is not academia vs. industry, it's just that your particular work environment is terrible. Important question: are you the PI on any of these grants? it's sometimes possible for a postdoc to be PI, in which case it might be your responsibility to plan how the project is going to continue. Otherwise you can give your notice and walk out, it's their mess not yours. – Erwan May 20 at 18:27
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    I forgot to mention: there are certainly many companies interested in your skills, particularly your grant writing skills! so you certainly wouldn't have to "start from scratch", you may not realize but you do have valuable skills for industry. – Erwan May 20 at 18:30
  • Thanks Erwan for the reply. The grant I used to move back to my country is mine, while in the other three I'm not the PI even though all the grants rely on my cell biology skills, as at the moment I'm the only one in the lab able to perform those exps. It is indeed interesting what you say about writing grant skills, and I will look actively forward to those positions. My fear is that, as cell biology is not very developed in my country, most of the industries would simply not be interested in those skills while they actively look for other profiles. – window9598 May 20 at 20:02
  • Sounds like a lot of work, but I have to ask - how did you expect less? Wasn't your PhD also juggling several responsibilities and dealing with myriad setbacks? – Trusly May 21 at 21:03
  • Yes, PhD was similar to that as well, but will less responsibilities (of course). Moreover, since PhD was an early step in my career, not many important decisions were made and I literally could have changed path without affecting much the later career. I was very calm and a bit more light-minded. Now that there seems to be only one career path, to recognise and understand that this single track is failing is really a terrible sensation. – window9598 May 22 at 11:59
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You are working in a dysfunctional organization. This can happen anywhere. You can look for a job in a better organization. Just keep in mind that industry organizations can also be dysfunctional. When you make your next career move, investigate the reputation of your next employer to find out what their strengths and weaknesses are.

If any of your grants were in your own name, use those resources to control your situation. Remember that your PI only has power over you while they have something you need. If you do not want to keep working there, then that power is essentially gone and you can act in your own interests. In reality, your PI needs you more than you need them. Since you are apparently very good at grant writing, you bring in more money than you cost in salary. This means you hold a great deal of power.

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I'm not familiar with finding mechanisms outside the USA, so I apologize for my ignorance. Are any of the grants transferrable? At least in the US, some of them are so if you switch institutions, that money goes with you. I would imagine most places would be happy to accept someone bringing them funding. If they are, try applying for positions at other institutions and make sure to mention that you already have funding and are bringing that funding to them.

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