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On Tuesday, I will be starting a postdoc at a highly prestigious UK institution. I have already been a postdoc for a year at a lower tiered institute, and I believe the probation was not much of a concern mainly due to that very reason. Additionally, a very nice and friendly PI and a casual (yet productive) environment, did not make the probation period much of a concern to me.

However, the current position that I will be starting is at my dream project / institution, and the environment seems more tense and fast paced (and add to that a bit of imposter syndrome). For this reason, the probation period has become an irrational cause for stress and anxiety. I suppose what I would like to know is what to avoid at all costs to ensure that this period passes without any issues.

Note: The probation period is six months and postdoc contract is three years.

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4 Answers 4

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You shouldn't worry about "surviving the probation period". Your goal should be to do a good postdoc - overall, not only during or primarily during the probation period. After all, what is it worth to make it through the probation period, if you're not doing well in the rest of the postdoc - would you be any better off in that case?

Overall, I thus wouldn't worry too much about it - at least not more than striving to do a good postdoc altogether. It might even be that the probation period is a legal requirement for any kind of contract (not just postdocs) in the UK.

(One more comment: Given that you don't state at all how long the probation is, it is hard to give any concrete advice: The relevance of a one-month probation is quite different from a 6-month or 1-year probation.)

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  • Thank you for your useful advice. That is very true, however, I have come up with this crippling anxiety for somewhat of an irrational reason. Also you have a good point regarding the probation period; I can confirm that it is indeed 6 months (the post has been edited to reflect this).
    – Carl
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 0:01
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    Yes I noticed the mistake as soon as I inadvertently edited your comment. I have included the period of contract as well.
    – Carl
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 0:04
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    I wouldn't be too concerned with a 6-month probation - just make sure that after you start, you get engaged soon in the topics you should work on during the postdoc (again, might be very field- and supervisor-dependent how specific that is), show interest and independent thought, be engaged, contribute to scientific discussions in the group ... all the things which you (hopefully) anyway do as a postdoc. But it really depends on the subject.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 0:04
  • Thank you very much for your input and the swift responses! May not seem like much, but very helpful.
    – Carl
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 0:06
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    Just be yourself. Pretending to be someone else for 6 months won't work, and then you don't want to work for 3 years with someone who wants to have (and after the probation believes they got) someone else than you are.
    – user151413
    Commented Jan 31, 2022 at 0:08
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Don't worry about the probation period. This is mostly a formality.

Probation periods at UK universities exist mostly for policy reason (because the University imposes them on all employment contracts). They exist to have the legal option of terminating a contract, in truly problematic cases. They are not a tool (at least not for postdoc hires) to evaluate the quality of a hire.

In practice terminating a postdoc contract creates a lot of hassle for your supervisor. Not least because, they have go through the hiring process for a replacement, which will probably delay whatever project you are supposed to work on by a year. Moreover, if your position funded from a grant, there may not be enough money left in the grant to offer a full three year contract to your replacement, making it harder to find a high quality replacement.

So, unless you do something that makes your supervisor actively want to get rid of you at all costs, you will probably make it through probation.

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The phrase that stood out for me in your question was "... an irrational cause for stress and anxiety". It seems that you are pretty much on top of your professional game, but that the mental stress is the main problem in its own right.

Have you considered talking to a coach/therapist? Professional help for anxiety is not reserved for people diagnosed or burned out. A few sessions might give you better insights than you can hope to get here.

Most importantly perhaps, enjoy and have fun. You have got your dream position at a prestigious institution. It seems that the imposter syndrome gets more intense the higher the prestige, but try to find comfort in the fact that out of all other potential candidates, the chair has your name on it. And in academia that is almost always for a reason. If you bring that confidence in your own ability with you into your work you'll most likely have a great time.

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  • "It seems that the imposter syndrome gets more intense the higher the prestige": That's the point, isn't it?
    – user151413
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 8:32
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It's your dream institution and your dream project, but this is just a patina over the work and the working environment you will be living in the next 3 years. And this patina is unfortunately not that relevant, in the long term.

Why?

If you are interested in the academic career, the postdoc is much less relevant with respect to what you do as research than the "management" aspects (i.e. applying for funds, delivering the bureaucracy on time, supervising younger guns, etc...).

My advice is to think of the probation period as a mutual evaluation period: they are evaluating you, but you are also evaluating your new workplace. Focus on the first "long-term" deadline (1st year project report? 1st year paper? whatever), work towards that goal, at the same time be yourself, be open, be curious, try to get in touch with the research of your peers in the department .... and then after 3 months make your decision.

I think you will need 3-4 months to scratch the patina of your new working environment. If, after three months you are enjoying the project, the working environment, your work-life balance, the place and the project, it is unlikely you will be performing so badly that you do not pass the probation period. It is very easy to assess if a person is enjoying the work, it is very hard to assess quality of a PostDoc work after 6 months, and no one has the time to do that, so the evaluation will be on your motivation to keep on working on the project for 3 years [1], rather than on some metrics.

If you are not enjoying it, just focus on yourself and work hard towards getting your own funds for your own project, make your own plan B. If you have no academic interests, use the remaining months to sharpen your CV for your exit to the private world.

[1] pay attention not to corner yourself in a hole. They hired you for 3 years to work on a certain project, however your CV in 3 years down the road will benefit if you showed some independence in getting funds, supervising students, etcetc ... keep your possibilities open.

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  • I agree with most of the answer, but very strongly disagree with the first sentence "If you are interested in the academic career, the postdoc is much less relevant with respect to what you do as research than the "management" aspects". Maybe that's field dependent - but when, if not during a postdoc, do you want to produce lots of research results, rather than wasting your time with bureaucracy? So, to the OP: This is the time to excel in research. Once you are a professor, you will be caught in bureaucracy, supervision, funding, etc.
    – user151413
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 8:31
  • @user151413 to put it simply: I absolutely agree that being a postdoc is the best time to do research, and it will be most likely the last thing you will do in the academia, if you do not prepare your professor career. Sad but (nowadays) true.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 10:13

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