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I have started a 2-year postdoc six months ago, in the US. I am starting being concerned about its outcome in terms of publication and scientific production in general. These are the issues:

  1. the project is basically turning out to be pretty poor in terms of scientific content, and that was sold in a completely different way when I was offered the position. In particular, what I was meant to do was developing mathematical models and implementing them as new code. However, what I am actually doing is just debugging a pre-existing code, which is hardly leading to significant publications. Mind, I wasn’t expecting to publish during the first six months of the postdoc, but looking at what is planned for the future, I can’t realistically expect that the nature of the project is going to change. Moreover, my institution is trying to keep alive a rather obsolete and seriously limited code, which is unlikely to be competitive with other research groups. Unfortunately, I do not have much freedom change code and/or approach (see point 2). Whenever I proposed something new, it was basically dismissed as a distraction.

  2. Due to my group policy, I do not have much independence to add anything to what the sponsor is paying for. I cannot even use my affiliation to publish independent research that I may carry out while being off duty (this is security policy, providing details is not going to add any significant information). In my PhD, I doubled my publication outcome by doing research in my free time, now I’d have to publish without an affiliation. While I knew this in advance, I was expecting to be able to publish from my main project. In any case, I don’t believe that having to rely on my free time is the best way to grow and be productive.

To sum it up, this is looking more technical consulting than scientific research.

Given this, I am being seriously worried that this might impact negatively on my future career in research, unless I become permanent at my current institution (which is not granted at all, especially considering the project I was put onto). It is hard to grow as a scientist or even as an engineer by doing ‘‘monkey’’ work.

I am asking for advice on how to prevent this. As I have said, if things go on like now, I will have a two-year ‘‘publication hole’’ in my resume that won’t likely help me to find new positions. I will be really sorry if this happens as I was able to publish much more than the average during my PhD, and I don’t want to ruin it all. On the other hand, if I stay open to other opportunities now, I am not sure how well it may be perceived.

So, I’d wish to know what you think about this situation: am I worrying to much or am I right to be concerned? I am not learning anything from this activity, nor producing, in a period in which I’d wish to grow further, and I am feeling like wasting all my previous efforts and results.

And for the better of my future career (I want to go on doing research), should I wait till the contract ends or should I act now and look for something else?

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  • How can you not "use your affiliation" for your own projects? They told you that you are not allowed to say which lab you are in when publishing projects you do in your spare time? Oct 23 '20 at 18:10
  • Yes, the only stuff I could submit to journals was unpublished work from my PhD (I could use my old affiliation). Security policy is rather strict, this is all I am advised to talk about on the internet, but this is the situation and adding details isn’t really going to be useful to answer.
    – Wolf
    Oct 23 '20 at 18:20
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    Do you look for advice in how to present this situation in the future (what to look for when applying) ? Or do you look for advice for your current situation (probably "get a new, good position as fast as you can")
    – Mark
    Oct 23 '20 at 18:41
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    It is hard for an outsider to judge your situation, but this is a real concern. I have heard of some postdocs, particularly in engineering fields at national labs, encountering this or similar issues.
    – Anyon
    Oct 23 '20 at 19:52
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    Per se, it may not be such a big problem (maybe readers could take your work less seriously, but I am not sure and this is not the point). In fact, I have started doing some new research after I published all my PhD stuff. Free time research is a great addition to your project, but still, if you are ONLY relying on that to publish, I think that something is not right (I was offered and accepted a research position, after all). Also, my activity - however mechanical and repetitive it may be - it’s taking much more time than my PhD.
    – Wolf
    Oct 23 '20 at 20:36
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I think that the more you stay in the position the more you’ll be trapped into it. I see in the comments that you are at a national laboratory, so I understand that the salary might be tempting and that’s not easy to give it up. However, from a long term perspective, you could lose an opportunity to flourish and to get known. Plus, how long is your contract, 2-3 years? None or few publications could harm your chances to stay in the field, particularly if you want or have to move to another lab or university. It comes down to choosing between being well paid today or increasing your chances to be successful in the future, unless you think you can change your situation without leaving.

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