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I am an early career postdoc in a prestigious high-ranking university in US. I did my PhD in from a good state university in US and published a decent number of papers. My current PI has no expertise in my field but wanted to delve into a completely different area and hired me to start a brand-new project. I have obtained some preliminary data that can be used in grant application but nothing publication worthy. I believe I could have obtained better results if I were working in a more suited environment.

I joined this lab just before the pandemic and had to go for a long hiatus. Due to covid related restrictions, I was only able to start working regularly from November. During this 5 months, I have realized that the infrastructure of this lab is very poor which is surprising because the lab is well funded and have good number of postdocs and students. We do not have basic supplies like ethanol, bleach, chemicals like glucose, Tris etc. We do not have enough pipettes for everyone, tube holders, even no boxes in -20 or -80 to store samples. All of us keep our samples (eppendorfs) in 50ml tubes. The grad students share pipettes. We do not even have centrifuges.

We share the lab space with two other labs, and it is a normal custom that we always ask chemicals or using their instruments on a regular basis (bacterial shakers, centrifuges just to name a few). These instruments are not shared, it is their lab property. They are generous enough to share things with us, but you can sense that they are not happy. I feel that my PI is just using them to survive. I understand that I can always order chemicals, but I cannot ask him to improve the infrastructures suddenly. In addition, the lab environment is weird, there is no communication between lab members. The lab is super quiet, and nobody talks with each other except when they need something.

In my PhD, I never had to worry about infrastructure, and had all the necessary instruments required in a regular lab. After my PhD, I was super excited to start my postdoc and working on this challenging project, but I am appalled to see the lack of infrastructure in my current lab and want to leave this lab asap. Moreover, during this pandemic, my research interest has changed. I want to diversify my experimental biology background and move into virology. I am frustrated and worried about my career progression and feel I cannot achieve anything from this lab. I love this project, but I can not work in this environment and start working on my area of interest.

My plan is to find a better lab to do another postdoc in virology, but I am worried that if I cannot publish from this postdoctoral stint, people are not going to hire me. I feel I have already wasted one year in this lab and without a publication, finding a decent postdoc will be tough. My contract ends in next February, and if I want to leave early that might result in a strained professional relationship. I also need reference letter from him for my next postdoc application. Is it possible to leave the lab without burning bridges? How can I tell him that I want to move to a different direction of research and leave as soon as possible?

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  • Is there no money or just no supplies? Sharing some things among labs is normal, mooching consumables is not. Combining both issues in one post makes it pretty unclear where this lab actually stands, who is at fault, and what can be done about it.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 16 '21 at 17:54
  • The lab is well funded and have good number of people. It is just that the lab has always functioned in this way. You can order the reagents you need. It just baffles me that a functional lab will not have basic chemicals or a centrifuge or bacterial shaker. I guess my PI doesn’t really care as long as you are producing results. At the end of the day if you are providing him with data that can get more funding and papers, he is happy. My problem is I come from a decent sized lab where everything was organized and had exceptional infrastructure. May be I am expecting too much.
    – iconoclast
    Mar 19 '21 at 1:07
  • As someone working in the lab, isn't it your job to order those things? Yeah I suppose in some labs there are lab managers that do the ordering; for me, a lab manager does about 75% of it, but it's 100% on everyone else to at least tell them what to order and when some things are running low. Not necessarily saying you should stay there, just a bit confused about this being your specific complaint.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 19 '21 at 3:35
  • As I mentioned, I can always order the reagents as needed. There is no lab manager system. Big instruments are generally ordered by the PI. That’s why I can not order a centrifuge, or a bacterial shaker or enough pipettes. Isn’t it a professor’s responsibility to make sure that there are enough pipettes for everyone before hiring new trainees? Or buying a table top centrifuge? Using instruments from other labs, borrowing chemicals can not be a long term solution and I am unhappy about it. Yes, I have politely asked him to improve some of the infrastructures, and it never happened.
    – iconoclast
    Mar 19 '21 at 16:27
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Start interviewing now. When asked, explain your interest in changing fields and that your current postdoc is not a great fit for your new interests.

If your PhD advisor will write you a strong letter, having a letter from a job you only held for a couple months won't matter much. Likewise don't stick around to try to publish something unless you're very close. The most important thing you can do for your career is to get a job you like and will work for you ASAP. Losing a couple months is OK. Losing three years will torpedo you.

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