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I am a postdoc researcher in mathematics and finished my Ph.D. some month ago. I wrote three papers during my Ph.D., and I am the only author for two of them.

The day when I started my postdoc position, my mentor asked me "let's work", but I was not ready, so I made a lot of mistakes. My mentor works some area that is not close to me. We tried to work together, but I couldn't follow what they were working on it.

Monday, we had a meeting with her college about a project that I was working on. I gave a conjecture that I wanted to reach it, and then he gave a contradiction example for it and then left the meeting. I felt so bad.

Moreover, they don't treat me as same as when I came here. I feel they think I cheated them or I am weak or stupid because sometimes I feel they ignore me and they don't answer my emails as either. I asked them to write a recommendation letter for some job, but they didn't do it.

These problems made me think about whether I am a mathematician or a lucky guy that I wrote some papers. You can look at my previous questions and see that I had this problem in my Ph.D., but surprisingly I finished it.

I have had several meetings here, also some online meetings, that all were terrible. Now, I lost my self-confidence and am scared that I am losing my reputation due to the above problems and it will spread in the club soon or later that I am a stupid mathematician.

I wanted to quit academia for industry because of the above problems, but as you know, finding a job is very difficult now due to COVID-19, so I'm just looking for a postdoc position, which is very difficult.

To be honest, I don't have anyone to talk to about my problem (my Ph.D. supervisor doesn't listen to me) which is why I wrote here almost everything. What should I do to break all the failing and walk in the right direction?

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3 Answers 3

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First of all, OP, take a deep breath.

There are two well-used tropes on SE, one is 'get mental health support' and 'impostor syndrome'. Both have their place. And if you really feel it is a mental health issue, go for it.

However: I do not think your case is either. You have an objective (I do not say real, you will soon see why) reason to feel down. You have been just shoved to the side by an insensitive PI.

Of course your question is, were you just lucky in your PhD?

Yes, you may have been lucky that you had a good PhD topic. You may have been lucky that you just needed to scratch its surface and results would gush out. Yes. That's luck. That's researcher's luck, it's the luck of the one who can harvest it; the expert in the field. It may be luck or not, but it's still yours and deservedly so.

Others, say, equally talented to you, may have spent their whole PhD on some miserly results to be scraped together in some work paper, who knows? They were less lucky. Was it their fault? Not necessarily. They were good researchers, just picked the wrong topic.

Almost unavoidably, you will run into bad luck periods, but, on the long run, good research comes from honing your instinct on where good luck can be more regularly found to loiter around.

Let's move to the second one. Collaboration. Comes this guy spewing stuff at you and you are lost. You do not get them. Note: "them", not the "math". They confuse these two. They think you don't get the math, but that's not what happened - they simply didn't explain it properly.

Sometimes, you find people, where conversation flows naturally, as if you always had worked together. There is a natural intersection of ideas, even where you do not understand them, you fill it with insights and interpolations from your own experience, quite naturally. It is exhilarating to work in such conditions, and rare. But it happens. And it's the most fun science can be.

You got the opposite. You got some - perhaps famous - guy as mentor that you simply couldn't tango with. It's not your fault.

Or perhaps it is? Your PhD supervisor does not listen to you - well, perhaps your choice of mentors is what needs to be improved?

So, your mentor found a counterexample to your conjecture and left the room. What does he want to prove? That's simple to see one? That if you have not such superior vision into the field, you are not worth to discuss with? How did you get to this guy? Ask yourself this question.

Whether the counterexample may have been obvious, it may be not, I cannot judge. A famous chess master made once a complete beginner's blunder in the opening moves of a game. It happens. It's not nice, but it's not an excuse for a put-down.

If he is that dismissive of your work, cut your losses, and get a different mentor. Find colleagues, mentors etc. who you have a common language of mathematics, where you understand what they say when they say it (I do not say that you need to understand their math fully, only you understand what they communicate). Find a place where you intertwine into the scientific discussion. You do not have to be a Gauss, Galois or Grothendieck to be a good mathematician. Having luck is fair game if you put in your part of the effort (note: I say effort not talent - if you can do a PhD in math, that's a given).

TL;DR

  1. You feel down for an objective reason, not for some mental health problem. You have been treated badly.

  2. You are entitled to luck in the choice of your research topics. You were lucky in your PhD thesis. Expect also some bad luck in your career, but develop the scent for the good places.

  3. Collaboration requires effort from both sides, not dropping packages and expecting someone to pick them up, which is what your mentor did. Perhaps that's the way to test you, but it's not a way to treat people. Get a different mentor.

  4. As with luck, the right collaboration partner can make results come out easy. It will feel effortless and not because the partner does everything. Like luck, find where these people loiter around.

  5. So, perhaps the one thing where you are really not yet good at is finding the right people to work with. Your supervisor, as well as your mentor are both not exactly the most ideal of colleagues. Maybe, however, you are just in a difficult location. Clearly that's something you should work on changing.

It's not your fault. You are entitled to researcher's luck. You are entitled to a proper explanation of fresh concepts, or else direction where to read them up before "wasting" the precious mentor's time. First and Foremost, you are entitled to be treated as a human.

Get out of there and either a mentor or position or even just visit to a group who are interested in your stuff and who you can communicate with.

Good luck. If it comes, it's yours.

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    Thank you very much for your answer. It seems you know my problem very well. Your answer makes me a bit better. I read your answer 3 times. Thanks again.
    – Adam
    Mar 12, 2021 at 21:20
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Postdoc hosts can sometimes be a bit insensitive to their new hires. I've seen it before - they tend to expect more of them than they do of their own grad students, and expect someone who's fully on board with their research agenda. What I tell my postdocs is that I don't expect any progress for at least 4 months from the day they start the job. This is the minimum it takes to read up on literature and be up to speed on how I work on problems.

Small comments can also have a really big impact, more than the advisor thinks. I would imagine that your host is not out to humiliate or demoralize you - what's the point of hiring you to begin with if that's the case? They probably made an offhand remark that rubbed you the wrong way. I remember that I suggested to my postdoc advisor that I start exploring a new topic X, and they just gave me this look like I was daft; I haven't touched that topic to this day.

Following the other answer given here, your postdoc host might not be aware of the issues you had during your PhD, so they're not being as sensitive as they can be.

What should you do:

  1. Communicate with your postdoc host to set goals, expectations (so - study topic X, advise a grad student and publish one paper) and a work dynamic (weekly meetings? biweekly meetings?).

  2. Don't be hard on yourself - you did successfully graduate, there's no reason to believe that you'll do badly in your postdoc.

  3. If you feel that this is affecting you in a deeper way, talk to friends or loved ones, consult a professional on how to better handle your emotional state. There's absolutely no reason for you to suffer through things alone.

Good luck!

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    Thank you very much for your comment. 1) We had a regular meeting, but I couldn't follow what they are doing it and they told me since my postdoc is a year, I should do whatever I want because there is no time for learning. 2)I need to ask my university whether there is a mental health professional at our university.
    – Adam
    Mar 12, 2021 at 21:15
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Also from reading your question history here, it sounds as if you should talk to the mental health support on your campus as soon as you can. There may or may not be deficiencies in your ability as a mathematician that you also have been asking about, but just from reading what you share on academia SE you appear isolated, socially and otherwise, and troubled. I’m sure those around you want you to succeed (they just hired you!), but you could benefit from a professional trained to support people in your situation, helping you to put what you see and experience into perspective.

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  • You're putting a lot of faith in "mental health care support" at OP's campus. I wonder if it is really that reliant. I mean, it's a good suggestion to try them, but...
    – einpoklum
    Mar 14, 2021 at 14:08

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