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I was hired at a postdoc at a national lab. However, the postdoc was a total failure and mainly for reasons that were out of my control. First, there was a coding / computer science part that was occupying most of the postdoc, but all the challenges foreseen in this part of the project were actually due to a super trivial error in a library. Fixing that ate up 75% of my project. Second, the code shouls have been validated against an experiment but the experiment was late by like one year and a half. So I was there doing nothing and my PI seemed unable or not keen enough to redirect the activity. Unfortunately, in a lab like that and in a group like that, I had no control on funding to do that myself. Some people from many collaborating groups, including the one paying providing the money, were start asking questions / complaining about the situation. Therefore I decided to quit as soon as I found something else (6 months into a 2 year postdoc). That was my dream job, but the project was overtly failing and it was feeling that I would have been fired soon anyway if I didn't quit.

My feeling turned out to be probably correct, as the main PI, the one who wrote the project proposal, left the place soon after. Three are the possible reasons:

  1. the higher-level management didn't forgive my PI for my departure: I was strongly wanted by my group and my academic track is already much better than my PI's (it was a stupid error on my side to accept an offer from someone with such a poor resume, but I was pretty unexperienced back then).
  2. the management ackowledged the failure of the project and fired him (he wasn't the main person to blame, but he was still the one who proposed the project and who was putting his name and face on it)
  3. he decided to resigned and change field: this is the official version he wrote on his linkedin profile, but it is highly unlikely that it the true version. When I resigned we sat down and give them feedback as to which profile my replacement should have had, and other long-term, project-related stuff.

I tend to absolutely exclude a fourth reason: my departure disrupted the project to the point that it failed and either he resigned because of this or he was fired. My duty (checking errors in databases and code-checking) was so trivial that a replacement could have easily be found, or some other grad student or postdoc could have taken over. Also, most of the what I am tellung you about (especially the super late experiments) took place before covid. So the pandemics is not a credible reason.

This is the story. However, that lab is still my dream workplace and I want to get back. Normally, it would be impossible since a postdoc resigning so prematurely would take all the blame. However, my PI also prematurely left, which (1) is a big indicator that something was wrong in the project and (2) that this became blatantly clear to the management.

Given this, I wonder how I could do that. All the closests colleagues are not accepting my friendship on linkedin, which might indicate that they have resentment towards me. However, the higher level management (who know me), are accepting my requests.

The best strategy would probably change group. Other groups in the lab know me and they sure know how I left. The question is: should I find someone in the old group justifying the decision to leave to a potential new team? Should I find out in some way what really happened (i.e., why the main PI left) and bring that forward as a good justification as to why I left? How to approach in general the managers to make them know that I would be more than happy to be back on a more sound project?

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    So how much did you talk to the group management well before you left?
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 4, 2022 at 0:36
  • I gave them advice on how to redistribute the few work I had to do or on the profile of my replacement and about the issues of the projects (which were the same critiques they were already receiving by senior employees and partly from the sponsoring team). I never targeted or told something bad about anyone specific. They also asked me if I was available for future technical support if they needed, which I accepted in written. (Apparently) we parted cordially.
    – casper
    Apr 4, 2022 at 8:26
  • By the way, it was clear to everyone that I out talks were a mere formality. They wanted to develop a code that they found out they had already and compare it to an experiment that was never done. We all knew that the axe was pending on PI and that funding (another BIG problem even before I left) would have stopped. I did my duty and resigned in as good as possible faith.
    – casper
    Apr 4, 2022 at 8:44
  • It was not your 'duty' to resign. Meeting with your group manager earlier on and discussing the issues with the project was a duty, and likely would have gotten you a different assignment.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 4, 2022 at 12:50
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    Was the PI actually your line manager? Don't confuse those two roles, they are usually quite separate at a US national lab. And you continue to presume that your PI was fired, which takes a lot of doing at a US national lab.
    – Jon Custer
    Apr 5, 2022 at 15:04

1 Answer 1

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It may be the case that the bridges are burned and there's nothing you can do. You should make peace with this as a possible outcome. While this may be a dream job, there are other dream jobs you can find. You may also want to consider that you may have an idealized version of what working at this place could be like, but some of the structural issues that led to the failure of your first postdoc could still be present and manifest themselves (perhaps in a different way) if you return. You may find that it's better for your mental well-being if you move on.

However, working under the assumption that you are going to re-apply, here are my thoughts.

  • Do not say anything negative about your former PI, be it in your written materials, during an interview, or just chatting with people informally. First, focusing on negative aspects of a former employer while applying for a job is almost always a red flag against you, because the people with the power to hire you are going to picture you saying the same things about them. Second, as you've said, you have absolutely no idea what happened with this PI. If it was an ugly situation, you do not want to get caught in the middle of it. Stay professional, and if asked comment only on your role in the group. As far as you know, you have nothing to do with why your PI left (and why should you, it's not really your business). That is the truth, and saves you having to get involved in what is likely a very delicate situation.
  • It is not worth your time to speculate as to why the PI left. Ultimately it is irrelevant; that is their story.
  • In your written materials (cover letter, CV, research statement, etc), I would not go into too much detail about your history with this place, and focus instead on the future: what do you like about the culture, what research do you think you can accomplish at the lab, why is your background a good fit.
  • You should prepare an answer for the question "why are you interested in working here again?" This could easily come up in an interview. You have a fine line to tread here, since as stated above you don't want this answer to focus on things you did not like about your former PI. I think you have to acknowledge that you left, but you want to be clear that the reason you left is specific to your working relationship with the PI. (You want to implicitly tell them that you aren't going to end up leaving for the same reasons). But, again, you don't want to focus on the negative. So you should quickly move on in your answer to the reasons you would be excited by the new position. Here is an example of what you could say: "In my previous position here, working in X's group was not a good fit because our interests were not aligned, and I decided to pursue other opportunities. However, I loved the overall culture of this lab and would be very excited to work on Y project, which overlaps with my interests A, B, C."
  • The "anecdotal" pieces of evidence you present, like LinkedIn requests, are not very convincing one way or the other as to what people think of you, and you shouldn't overthink it. It could be that people in the lab aren't checking LinkedIn very frequently. It could be that the senior people just routinely click accept on requests and don't think about it. More to the point, whether or not people like you is not really relevant. What matters is if they think you will be a good fit for a job opening they have.
  • You could try to reach out to former colleagues there to see if there are jobs. I would not be pushy about this. Just a short email like "Hi X, Do you know of any job openings at the lab? I am interested in re-applying." Or, "Hi X, I just wanted to let you know I am interesting in applying for Y position, is there anything you can tell me about it?" You may find someone points you to a posting, or you may find someone tells you about some kind of position they want to fill that hasn't been posted yet. You might also hear nothing. It's not a bad idea to try to use your network. But don't expect anything and don't be too pushy, because it could come across badly.
  • At the end of the day, nothing is stopping you from simply applying to another job at that lab and seeing what happens. If they think you will be a good fit for that position, they will see your application and you will move on to the next round. If not, they won't hire you. That's ok. There are so many factors that go into a hiring position, including their needs (which are totally out of your control), so you can't even conclude from a rejection that they wouldn't like to have you back in an ideal world. These things happen, and you can find another good job.
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  • I agree with most you said. Some comments: "It may be the case that the bridges are burned and there's nothing you can do. You should make peace with this as a possible outcome." The bridges are certainly burned with my previous team, but the lab has more than 10.000 employees, tenths of divisions and hudreds of groups. So I don't think I burned bridges with ALL the institution. [I continue in the following comments since I cannot split paragraphs].
    – casper
    Apr 3, 2022 at 20:24
  • "You may also want to consider that you may have an idealized version of what working at this place could be like, but some of the structural issues that led to the failure of your first postdoc could still be present and manifest themselves (perhaps in a different way) if you return." I know this as a fact, as I have heard many storied like mine. However, now I know which divisions are more susceptible to this kind structural issues.
    – casper
    Apr 3, 2022 at 20:31
  • "Do not say anything negative about your former PI". Rather than badmouthing my PI (as I have said, he put the face, but the real blame was on others), I was more referring to say what went wrong in the project, if asked about it. Just the fact that my PI lost the job soon after I left already says a lot. I don't need to add anything specific about him.
    – casper
    Apr 3, 2022 at 20:35
  • "While this may be a dream job, there are other dream jobs you can find." There are just three labs in the US that deal with that kind of job, this is the big issue. There are other labs in other countries but it is virtually impossible to get in without being a citizen of those countries.
    – casper
    Apr 3, 2022 at 20:41
  • You could try to reach out to former colleagues there to see if there are jobs. I would not be pushy about this. Just a short email like "Hi X, Do you know of any job openings at the lab? I am interested in re-applying." -- That's probably the best way to go. Some encouraging aspects: (1) I was previously warned about this (structural) risk before starting, (2) many employees where solidal with me when I left, (3) I quit a project that was already heavily criticized by many (including the sponsoring group) for being stalled and unclear in its goals.
    – casper
    Apr 3, 2022 at 20:50

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