5

I am currently a postdoc at one of Europe's universities. I have a grant that covers my postdoc position (1.5 years) and it's coming to an end soon. I have been working with one member of the research group on a research topic. Since the last year, I have been encountering many problems and I want to list a few of them here:

  1. There is no direct contact between me and the head of our research group (PI). This makes the ongoing progress of the project very slow. This is also due to wrong decisions taken by the member whom I am working with. The overall environment is not that healthy.

  2. Since I am coming from abroad, I'm facing a little bit of racism (not so much). He considers that we are slow and not good enough to do research. That's what he thinks! Anyhow, you know, things like that lead to lack of interest or to demotivation to work.

  3. During our meeting to present results, the PI takes decisions to do some study or calculations, and after doing so, I present the new results and he says that such calculations are useless. It happened many times and I don't know why he requests them in the first place! In this way, I lose more time and cannot make any progress. Until last week, I worked for months on some calculations that he requested, to which he replied: "Why did you do such calculations?"

My postdoc experience so far has been really bad. To be honest, I didn't think it would be like this since I had a good experience during my PhD. Now, it's totally different. In my point view, there is no clear path for my research project in the first place. I mean, everything we wrote in the research proposal for the grant is not being implemented by any means.

Until now, I have no publication and I am concerned. Will this have a negative impact on my CV and on finding a new postdoc (a postdoc without a publication)?.

I am always doing what is requested of me, because at the end I need at least a good recommendation letter. I am really frustrated on what to do because working under the supervision of someone (that member of our research group) who is not experienced isn't really helpful and at the same time, frankly speaking, my PI is really careless. I would really appreciate your considerate answers.

2
  • 3
    There is no question in the question. It's hard to provide answers in such cases :-) Oct 26, 2021 at 21:54
  • OP says they are frustrated on what to do. So I think the implied question is "What should I do?"
    – cgb5436
    Oct 27, 2021 at 2:32

2 Answers 2

5

I think your number one priority should be finding a graceful way to get out of this group, since it is not a good fit for you. I wouldn't advise quitting without having alternative employment, so this advice boils down to... you need to find a new job. In fact, independent of the toxic environment you find yourself in, you really need to find a new job, since it sounds like you have less than 6 months before the end of your current contract.

If you want to stay in academia, then this means you should apply for more postdoc positions (or, if you feel ready, faculty positions... but it sounds like you don't think you are ready). The application season is now, so you should be applying yesterday! There is not much you can do about your publication record at this point, given your timescale. Obviously, it would be better if you had more papers, but I don't think you should assume this makes you un-hire-able, and I think you should apply and see what happens. After all, your postdoc has not been so long. In your cover letter and research statement, discuss projects that are ongoing, and how you can move them forward in a new postdoc. If you should end up interviewing anywhere, do not say anything negative about your current position. Focus on the research that excites you that you want to do.

Longer term (once you are secure in a new position), to avoid falling into this situation again, you need to develop your own internal sense of what papers you want to write and what you need to do to get that work finished. While ideally you will have a good working relationship with your advisor, especially as a postdoc, (a) your advisor is generally expecting you to drive your own research, and (b) your academic career depends on you developing a research profile that you carry with you to different institutions. Unfortunately, this may mean you need to stand up to intimidating bosses, if you feel they are giving you tasks that are not helping you achieve your research goals. It's not easy to say no to people with power over you, and it helps to also learn finesse in dealing with these situations. But, fundamentally, you need to take responsibility for the success of your research.

You may also want to seriously consider non-academic options. I'm saying this from the perspective that you should keep all of your options open, and I am not trying to imply I don't think you can get a new postdoc position. If your contract ends in 6 months -- and assuming you can't and/or don't want to try to extend it -- then working now to make sure you have as many options as possible before your contract ends, will help you make the best decision for yourself. The academic job market is finicky.

Best of luck, I know this can be a very difficult situation.

5
  • Thank you so much Andrew for your detailed answer. Much appreciated!
    – Naps
    Oct 27, 2021 at 8:34
  • 2
    While I agree with most of this answer, it seems very optimistic about OP's long-term career prospects in academia, specifically the encouragement to look for another post-doc. My concern is that OP would now need a postdoc with strong track-record building opportunities, and after the first post-doc ended with a weak track record, the chances of securing that seem low. Oct 27, 2021 at 11:01
  • 2
    My concern would be relaxed if there were many examples of individuals who had an unproductive first post-doc, followed by a very successful second one. In my field, I don't know any such examples. Oct 27, 2021 at 11:02
  • 2
    @lighthousekeeper On the one hand, I don't want to discourage the OP from pursuing an academic career, since I read their question as implying they would like to stay in academia. If that's their number one choice, then I think applying for postdocs is the best strategy. On the other hand, I agree that an academic career might just not work out -- hence, I suggested should also consider non-academic jobs. I am intentionally avoiding commenting on what outcome I think is more or less likely, since many factors can play into this, that wasn't the question, and IMO this is up for the OP to judge.
    – Andrew
    Oct 27, 2021 at 15:15
  • 1
    @Naps In case I worded things too optimistically and wasn't clear, just to follow up on lighthouse keeper's comments, while I think (if you want to stay in academia) you should not give up and you should apply for postdocs, I really think you should also seriously think about applying to non-academic jobs, for your own benefit. It is very possible that you won't get a postdoc and you won't have a lot of time left in your contract to figure out what to do if you don't get a second postdoc offer, if you wait to consider non-academic positions until you get to that point.
    – Andrew
    Oct 27, 2021 at 15:19
2

Since "what to do" was already answered, I'll try to give a few ideas about why this could be happening. I would do so in form of an overly detailed hypothesis with little basis in provided facts, and several or all points might be untrue, but I hope you would still find it useful as a perspective different from your own.

So, let's imagine your PI expects you to be significantly self-sufficient. They say people from country X are bad workers, but that is not necessarily racism - they say it with the same intonation about the graduates of the university down the street. They know their approaches/background/habits don't mix too well. Let us also imagine the PI has a knack for bouncing their ideas off people, so when they come to a meeting and try to figure out what to do next they throw in some ideas - however, when it comes to acting upon them, what they'd do (and expect you to do as well) is to give it a good ponder and possibly do something entirely different.

What I'm getting at is that this whole situation sounds like a gigantic communication issue, and the gut feeling tells me it comes from mismatched expectations: your PI expects you to actively exercise your creative freedom and push back on tasks you find not that fruitful after considering them for a while more than the meeting format allows, all while you seem to think your PI is your boss and you're expected to do as they say. One reason you might be perceived as a bad worker is not because a good one would do the same tasks faster but because they would ignore/refuse those tasks and do something else instead. This is well-known in the industry (customers don't know what they want or at least express something entirely different when requesting features), but in academia can get extra weird.

So my advice is: yes, quit this group, find a new one like Andrew said etc etc... But in the future, pay more attention to what the expectations are and find examples of someone living up to them. People are notoriously bad at spelling out what they actually want, and you might find that you tried to work hard but ended up being too diligent for your own good.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .