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I'm about 5 months into my postdoc now, and I am seriously questioning the choice. Most posts I read about this mention bad advisors, situations with the lab, etc. but in my case actually everything about the lab is great. I'm at the top institution in my field, with an advisor that is well respected in the field and has been around for a long time. The advisor is also an extremely nice person, supportive and consistently provides positive feedback when you present work. The group is also great, full of really smart, but really friendly people. They work a lot, but that's really the only flaw in the group culture (aside from not being the safest in lab maybe). The group is also well funded, and my advisor is supportive of working on anything that is interesting. It seems like this should be an amazing opportunity. Resources galore, support, and scientific freedom.

But here's the thing, I'm totally miserable and haven't accomplished anything tangible that I can call my own. I have helped some people with their projects, but I haven't been able to figure out something to work on that is my own. My PhD used some of the same fundamentals, but this was a relatively big switch moving into the postdoc. I expected some time would be necessary to learn new things and get going, but I barely feel like I've moved forward. I tried several ideas, but nothing panned out. Now my advisor has suggested a new project to make this device, it would be slightly more related to my PhD and we have some of the resources needed to do it, and wrote a proposal to get more, but I'm still really struggling to get going. I feel like this new project doesn't involve many fundamentals, and is just engineering together existing pieces that have all been done before. If it works it might be interesting, but I really struggle to see how I could use it to do fundamental science, which is what you need to apply to academic jobs in the field. I just feel like I am failing at a key part of being an academic, which is coming up with new ideas. At some point that has to catch up to me and my advisor will notice.

So what I am struggling with is whether I should stick it out and grind away on this new project that I don't have much faith in, find a new postdoc and try to move labs (I am not willing to move cities since my partner is also here doing a postdoc), or should I just start looking for an industry job in the area (which would almost definitely come with a much worse commute, but twice the salary)? But if I did the industry search I'm not sure how I could do that without telling my advisor because I would only leave if I got a decent offer. The other labs that would be relevant for my experience are a lot less well known, and I don't think any of them would have as nice of an advisor.

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    I can't say that research is the number one thing that draws me to academia, I far more enjoy the mentoring/teaching/service aspects. Seeing talks, helping others with their work, reading papers, etc. are all great. Even meetings about the department I like. I enjoyed research and had some ideas throughout undergrad and grad school, so I'm not sure what to think now though. – Deer Feb 14 at 16:48
  • You read like a thoughtful person with whom it is a pleasure to speak with. I wish you the best. – user111388 Feb 14 at 17:58
  • I took the liberty to revise your title, as it's a matter of interpretation if your post-doc is not going well. If you've been able to help others, that's certainly an accomplishment. – lighthouse keeper Feb 15 at 10:24
  • that's a good point, thank you – Deer Feb 17 at 22:38
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Welcome to the club of being a miserable postdoc!

I was and am in quite a similar situation. I had the benefit of my first postdoc being with a horrible boss and lab, and my second being with an amazing boss and lab, so it has been easy to figure out which aspects of postdocing are me sucking and which aspects are the environment sucking. During the second postdoc with the good people, it became clear that the persistent lack of passion was on me. Even after I finally saw a few projects to completion, the emptiness remained. I think if you're feeling consistently unhappy, it's a good sign that the academic research life isn't for you. There are tons of other career paths where you can engage in the activities you do find fulling (mentoring, teaching, counseling, etc.) that don't require slogging through miserable research hours.

It also sounds a bit like you have a touch of imposter syndrome. Read this for some tips on how to work through it.

I'd hold on to the postdoc at least a few months longer while you start investigating new options and figuring out finances in case you need to go jobless or re-train for a bit. Once you've figured out a plan, just be honest with your supervisor-- it's unlikely to be the first time they have had a postdoc jump ship.

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If you are not happy helping other people with their projects, then I think it's time to quit being a postdoc. Personally, I think that's the most satisfying part of the job. If you were to move on to a faculty position, you would spend more time helping other people (or applying for funding) and even less time doing fundamental science yourself. If you are not sure what you want, go for a high paying industry job.

As for when, I say leave as soon as you can, unless you are moving to a new postdoc position, in which case leave after one year. But a new postdoc position isn't going to solve your problems.

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  • Actually i love the part where I am helping others with their project - if anything I prefer that over doing any work on my own. the problem is that if you don't have anything that you can present as your own work then you can't get that faculty job and the postdoc was just a period of time where you could have been working at a company (in my field anyway) – Deer Feb 17 at 22:43
  • @Deer I don't see it that way, but in my field almost everything is a collaboration, so the idea of "own work" is pretty hazy. – Anonymous Physicist Feb 18 at 7:43
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You sound like a thoughtful and honest person. Being into Menotring, service and teaching is a great reason to want to be and academic, because it is 90% of the job as fa faculty member.

I can't speak for your field, but in my field it would be not be unusual for a postdoc to produce little in the first 5 months. So its possible you are doing better than you think. The project you are doing now (building an instrument) could easily be a confidence builder that your boss has given you in order to feel better about things (this exact thing is actually mention in one famous article about how to get new mentees up and running).

You say your boss is super nice. I don't have a feeling about how close you are, or how much you trust them. But if you do, perhaps you should talk to them about it? They are likely to know whether your progress is good or bad, how things are panning out, and what your options for alternatives are. You don't have to say you are thinking of leaving, you could just have a discussion about long term plans, and where you see yourself going, and whether they think those are good options.

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  • Any advice on having that conversation? I've tried to start it a couple times, but when it comes out of my mouth it sounds a lot happier and we kind of brush by it quickly. Or I say I'm not sure where this is going, then by the end of the conversation it seems fine, except 5 mins after leaving having thought about it more nothing is different.. – Deer Feb 17 at 22:41
  • I'd start by saying something like "I've been thinking about where I'm going to end up, long term, and which of those places are a better fit for me". You might need to consider that you might already be having the "am I doing well" conversation, and your PI is telling you that you are doing well. You may need to then consider that if this is what counts a "doing well", how that leaves you feeling. – Ian Sudbery Feb 18 at 10:21

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