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I am currently into a very worrying situation. I landed a position as a PostDoc about 2 years ago, to join a new project and I was really excited about it. However, ever since I started, I have found myself with difficulties to obtain results, to the point that in these two years I have not been able to publish anything at all. I have been mostly struggling with worthless calculations and technical problems that all at once, have pushed me back from making any progress.

This situation has created a bit of anxiety on me, even after all constant signs of trust that I have received from the project's PI: she was from the beginning aware that this was a difficult project to work on. Even with that, we have not interacted a lot, but I would say in general she has always trusted me. The situation has always been in my mind like I am not the right person for this project, and this added to the lack of results is making me face the truth that sadly and academic career is not made for me after all. I feel discouraged about this, but also uncertain about my future, since even if I would look for jobs in industry, my big publications gap does not really stand out to any hiring commitee. I am currently working on two different projects suggested by my PI, one of them can possibly lead to a publication soon and the other is a bit more uncertain... But after all I have experienced, I do not really have a lot of hopes, I have even considered attending professional help.

Are there any PostDocs that have suffered a similar situation? And more importantly, do you have any tips on how to handle it? What are the right choices to make from now on given that my contract will expire in some few months?

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    Yes, there are many postdocs that have suffered the same problem. I am one, and I know of many others, particularly in the last 2 years. Why particularly in the last 2 years? well, don't forget one of the biggest life changing events of the century has been going on. The truth is: its just a postdoc, its just 2 years. Move on, find the next postdoc if you want academia, or otherwise go to industry. But 1 bad job is 1 bad job, not the defining feature of your life. Move on, do better next time. Nov 15 '21 at 15:49
  • Good news is that, even with my lack of publications in the last 2 years, I got a job in a top uni, its less catastrophic than you (and me) think. This publish of perish gets in the brain, but you are more than the sum of your publications. Nov 15 '21 at 15:49
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    "even if I would look for jobs in industry, my big publications gap does not really stand out to any hiring committee" I've heard from many people that your publication record matters very little in industry (though this depends on the industry)
    – Superbee
    Nov 15 '21 at 18:23
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While I agree with Rolf that speaking with your advisor is useful and with DrG9605 that counseling might be helpful, let me add another idea.

Perhaps it is just that you have tackled a more difficult, and perhaps more important, research question than is typical so that "success" in the form of papers takes longer, perhaps a lot longer.

In my fields (math and cs) there are open problems that have been elusive for a century. There are also problems that actually can't be resolved within the existing axiom systems used in math and logic.

I once worked on a problem in which I could develop results every week. It was abandoned as being without real merit. Cute, but trivial. I then worked on a problem that was so difficult that I couldn't get any real handle on it at all. Like cracking diamonds, not eggs. I abandoned that one as well, since I needed to actually finish my degree.

But you may need to try, with your advisor, to decide whether the problem is really amenable to solution in a limited time frame (length of a post-doc). Some problems are fine to tackle (part time) for a tenured professor, since there are no real time limits on finding a solution as long as you can be productive in other ways.

But, research on a schedule isn't possible. It isn't anything like running trains in Europe on tight schedules. If it is real research then you are exploring the unknown and it is a feature of the unknown that we don't always know how to make it known.

Think in terms of your long term goals, which include your next career move. If you can achieve that, with your advisor's help, then you are probably fine. But hard problems are, um, hard.

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The OP mentions something positive here: trust from the postdoc advisor (and vice-versa I assume).

Publication output is one of the most important measures of success in academia. Industry generally has different measures of success.

It appears the relationship to the postdoc advisor is good. It might be worthwhile discussing the situation with them and asking them if they are able to write a positive recommendation letter for industry jobs. In such a letter the lack of publication output could be excused by the nature of the project, but hard work ethics, skills, etc., could still be highlighted.

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    A hiring manager in industry may not be aware that lack of publication output is a bad thing, so trying to make excuses for it may create a problem where none would otherwise exist. Nov 13 '21 at 13:21
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    The recommendation letter should certainly be gauged to the position (and the postdoc advisor will likely know how to do that). I would doubt though that there are too many hiring managers in industry (if it's an industry that regularly gets applicants from academia) who are unaware about the importance of publications in academia. Not addressing the lack of publications at all could be bad, as it could leave it up for guessing why there are none (lack of writing [read as communication] skills?). It could be done positively: "Two-year project xyz is currently being written up in a manuscript."
    – Rolf
    Nov 13 '21 at 17:16
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    And the whole Covid thing that has messed with everyone’s plans…
    – Jon Custer
    Nov 13 '21 at 17:36
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I recommend the counseling route. I was shocked to learn of all of my peers in grad school who were in counseling. This process can be brutal, so they would seek help.

Early in my grad experience I realized that the men professors seemed to be in martial arts and women professors in yoga (don’t mean to be sexist but this was the pattern I noticed). Again, even for professors the job is brutal.

So self-care is important!

I agree with the other comment - have an honest conversation with PI - and maybe together you can strategize about next steps.

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I don't see the situation as positively as some of the other answer authors. If the only positive thing you can say is "she has always trusted me" but otherwise "we have not interacted a lot", then that's not by itself an indicator of much.

To me it says "I'm not going to help you, if you fail it's 100% your fault". Anyone can generate encouraging sounding platitudes, but if there's been no effort to offer meaningful assistance, then "I trust you" sounds empty.

I am currently working on two different projects suggested by my PI, one of them can possibly lead to a publication soon and the other is a bit more uncertain... But after all I have experienced, I do not really have a lot of hopes, I have even considered attending professional help.

Another trait found in sub-optimal supervisors is to lead those under them to feel that it's somehow their own fault when thing don't go well. Yes a post-doc is generally a mostly-independent effort but a supervisor does have some responsibility to mentor and help. Of course not all do, and some are brutal, but a good one will.

If seeking counseling will help you identify if the "I trust you" is anything more than a platitude, or if "maybe I'm the problem" has managed to get into your head without belonging there, then go for it.

Also please consider discussing with trusted and impartial friends. Part of the problem may be that you've been so focused on this work that you haven't made good contact with fellow postdocs in your department (or other departments) and so have been deprived of camaraderie and support that's really important for most of us.

If that's the case, see if you can find other postdocs to start up a casual conversation with and drift to your current situation. You can ask "Does your supervisor help you when you get stuck, or do they just throw you into the water and expect you to learn to swim?" or similar.

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As a voice from industry, the goals differ somewhat in that profit, product development, inventions, teamwork (with much individual effort)are key. When a product or invention is forthcoming consider yourself as being 'published'. Effort otherwise spent in seeking funding is traded for private research to aid your employer. Teaching can become a sideline. You will do much writing to department heads, team members and customers. As a personal note after 12 or more patents, I have never reread one of them after publication; the work itself is satisfying. DaveM2 Nov.2021

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You have not failed anything, yet. It is possible in research that a project or even a well though out method will not lead to publication. I have several methods that I spent months on without any success.

The important aspect, in my opinion, is to let it go before it is too late. You don't have to let it go permanently. Side track to a simpler topic, one that could lead to publication easier. You may contact your supervisor for a topic like that. You could work with some other research group. Get some publications out. Then if you still wish, you can go back to the previous problem.

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