I’m in the applied maths field and I consider myself better at math than coding. At some point during my first year as a postdoc, my supervisor told me, “No, you cannot use package A anymore, but use my C++ open source package I’ve been developing for 10 years. Your funding is binding with this project of developing the package.”

Package A was written in the language I am familiar with, but I had very little experience with C++ at that time. I took this as a challenge, to get better with my long overdue lack of skill with coding.

It turns out that the package has no documents with very little amount of comments, written in C++11 standard with reference to packages that has been last maintained in 2002, has been fiddled around with 3 other PhDs and Postdocs in the past whom I can’t make contact with, and has over 70,000 lines of code in total. It didn’t have some of the features that existed in package A, and I needed to change the very basic part of the code that affects the rest of the package to make it work. This feature was crucial to the mathematical research I’ve been doing with package A.

Fast forward a year later, I’m still unable to even get to the research where I left off with package A, and still working on reading the code and maintaining it (too many bugs in the first place!). With zero publication and no progress, my supervisor started to threaten me with cutting my contract, and I’m feeling exhausted with dealing with this package. I still want to work on the mathematical aspect of the research and I am hesitant about abandoning the project. At the same time, I don’t want to waste my career further. I already feel like my academic career is killed, but I want to save my career in industry. I’d like to make something out of this.

What’s your advice?

  • 1
    Did you clearly communicate to your supervisor what the reason is behind your lack of progress? Commented May 22, 2023 at 18:23
  • 1
    I brought this up many times but he says he can’t change the funding source. I just have to stick with it. That being said, communicating during Covid era wasn’t easy.
    – user15988
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 18:31
  • I think the major reason of the lack of progress is hesitation. “If I change this part, it will break the other class, which will break another class, and then I have no idea what’s going on in this class etc.” and I start over.
    – user15988
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 18:40
  • 1
    Your supervisor has put you in a very unfair situation. Even if the funding is heavily related on upgrading said code, from what you describe it seems that developing (let alone understanding) this package is an impossible task. If your advisor has common sense, he should understand it, and let you keep working on the mathematical aspect of the research. Maybe along the path you will find the time to start developing a new version of the package? It seems a bit more realistic (and useful) than trying to read the minds of the people that worked on your advisor's code ten years ago.
    – Amelian
    Commented May 22, 2023 at 19:52
  • 2
    You know, I was in the same situation for 2 years, and I just left and its been great since. Did not publish anything in those 2 years for various reasons (the one you say included) and you won't believe it, but it did not kill my academic career. In fact I work in what you'd say its a fairly good academic institution. You'll do fine, but also remember that not all jobs are for you, and this one just seems its not. That is not your failure, it is how life is. Commented May 23, 2023 at 9:43

1 Answer 1


From your description, you're unhappy with your current position and your boss is threatening to fire you. You've hopefully made them aware of the issue as politely and clearly as possible without outright threatening to quit. Generously to your boss, maybe we could describe your current job responsibilities vs what you expected to have been a miscommunication. To be clear, this sucks.

It sounds to me like you need to prepare to get out of this job as soon as possible. Postdocs don't pay well relative to your qualifications and the workload. You'll need to weigh and decide: Is your boss ever going to give you a good recommendation for a future academic appointment, and do you care? If not, figure out the minimum level of investment to maintain your responsibilities and use whatever you have left and can stand to conduct your job search.

If you're targeting industry jobs, start thinking about what positions you're targeting and what skills are in demand. Brush up on the most important ones. Start putting together and getting feedback on materials. Be careful, the job market for tech jobs isn't exactly blazing hot right now.

If you're targeting academic jobs (i.e., a different postdoc) and can't get a recommendation/assistance from your current boss, activate your network (PhD advisor, etc.) and update your academic materials. Be prepared to follow standard advice about how to deal with a bad advisor relationship.

  • I am hoping I could put C++ as a skill that I could transfer to an industrial job, except I don't feel I've gotten any better at it through the project. If I could make something out of this current situation, it would be a plus for the job interview so that is why I still haven't given up yet. However, as you say, there should be better positions elsewhere.
    – user15988
    Commented May 23, 2023 at 15:03

You must log in to answer this question.

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