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A while ago I had to pick between a few post-doc offers. I ended up choosing one in a modestly interesting project hosted by what you'd call a high-profile university, with seemingly strong PIs (decent citation counts, many annual publications in top-tier conferences) that I did not, however, know in person.

From the very get go of my employment, I got weird vibes from my host university and the local group. I found no group cohesion, common research agenda (other than vaguely following the latest research trend), or basis for collaboration. There was an excessive amount of less senior colleagues working basically on their own, with the local PI being at times unable to even recall individuals' names.

With respect to the project itself, I quickly realized there was very little idea (if any) on what to actually do, what the challenges and/or the opportunities were and how go about them. Despite this, there was an almost immediate push for publishing "something". Meetings between myself and other project affiliates quickly started going sour, with ill-guided suggestions, condescending tones, etc. This strongly demotivated me, at which point I started pursuing other (external) collaborations while tying loose knots. This proved relatively fruitful and gave me peace of mind for a while (subduing both the impostor syndrome and the feeling of "wasting my post-doc").

However, this didn't sit well with my superiors, who are dissatisfied with my work (or lack thereof), and reasonably so. I tried finding ways to make ends meet (intermediating between the people that actually want to work with me and the people that just expect something of me), but to no avail. It seems to me that such collaboration prospects are being dismissed for purely punitive reasons regardless of their possible merits. It was communicated to me from my PIs that I am to work alone from now on, except for their supervision.

At this point I'm wondering what's the best way forward. I am strongly in favor of quitting ASAP. This won't deprive me of income, as I have secured a number of (far better paying) industry offers as a backup plan, at least until I get to find another academic position. Meanwhile, a part-time industry job should allow me some time and the "liberty" to keep some lines of research open (done of my own volition at my own time with people of my own choice). Ethically this is absolutely in line with my personal moral compass; I think this is the "honest" thing to do, and have a strong disdain for the kind of work conditions that I am subjected to. I don't see the potential of feeling any kind of remorse/guilt from a work-ethics perspective. I'm wondering, however, whether this might bite me in the ass a few months/years down the line (even though I can't exactly imagine how). Another, more sinister/cynical, part of me believes that I should keep this going, pursuing any opportunity for fruitful collaboration/investigation I currently have or may stumble upon in the future, while doing the bare minimum to justify my contract not being terminated -- thus no odd timings on the cv, plus a constant stream of publications bearing my name. I'm certain that the latter option will however be difficult for me to manage in the long run, and might backfire in multiple ways. What should I do?

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  • "This won't deprive me of income, as I have secured a number of (far better paying) industry offers as a backup plan. It should also allow me more "liberty" with respect to my research endeavors (done of my own volition at my own time with people of my own choice)." This sounds like you don't actually want to work in academia, only do some research on the side. Is this correct? Mar 13 at 9:37
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    For many senior academics (professors) a big part of their day will be filled with management and teaching responsibility. Even the little time they have left for research is spent more on managing/supervising/helping others then own research. This may be a slight exaggeration, but not much. Mar 13 at 10:20
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    This much I know, but this has little to do with the working conditions I have described.
    – user185461
    Mar 13 at 10:24
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    I've known a few people who did postdocs after stints in industry. It's field dependent, but not impossible. Regardless, getting out of the current gig ASAP seems like a priority.
    – Zach H
    Mar 18 at 3:15
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    "There was an excessive amount of less senior colleagues working basically on their own, with the local PI being at times unable to even recall individuals' names. [...] It was communicated to me from my PIs that I am to work alone from now on, except for their supervision." So now you are fully integrated in the group ;) . Enjoy the freedom, take what you can and do your best, you are not working for/with the group, you are on your own. Good luck!
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 19 at 13:02

2 Answers 2

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It sounds like you've got four options:

  1. Accept an industry offer. Sounds like you're OK with this -- you mention several upsides and no downsides.
  2. Keep doing what you're doing. Sounds like this is risky, neither you nor your supervisors are happy with this arrangement.
  3. Try to salvage your post-doc: commit to working on the specified project without other collaborators. I agree this also seems risky, and not particularly healthy, based on the story you told.
  4. Look for a different post-doc.

Only you can choose between these four options.

I'm wondering, however, whether [option #1] might bite me in the ass a few months/years down the line

Nope. You'll probably burn the bridge with your current supervisors, but the world is a big place; unless you're working in an extremely niche area, it's hard to imagine that this would matter long-term. The biggest drawback (or upside, depending on your point of view) is that it's unlikely you'll be able to maintain a competitive research cadence if research is not your full-time job, so option #1 will probably close the door to post-docs or professorships.

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    I appreciate your input. I should've mentioned that option 1 is a temporary backup plan that would buy me time to look for a different post-doc, hence my doubts. I'll reword the question to clarify my intent.
    – user185461
    Mar 13 at 14:28
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    So it seems like your real question is quite different, and mostly independent of the backstory: you want to know if you'll be in a weaker position applying for post-docs if you take an ostensibly permanent industry position for a few months while you continue your search. You might consider making a new post with this question.
    – cag51
    Mar 13 at 20:39
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    I don't see why you would assume the 'ostensibly permanent' part, neither the 'few month' part. All I'm saying is that from a monetary perspective I am not dependent on this current post-doc, and that I would like to pursue another (assuming I find one which meets my standards). I think the backstory is very relevant; I thought it was obvious I am looking for guidance and perspective on my situation, which I have no access to other than the SE hivemind. I don't believe my situation can be summarized as "can I find another post-doc if I quit my current one for a temp industry position?".
    – user185461
    Mar 13 at 21:00
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    Okay then, good luck.
    – cag51
    Mar 13 at 21:25
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Academics is a poison on society, drunk daily by people that fetishize the ersatz moral supremacy bestowed by knowing a few extra things than others makes them "better".

Life is not that.

The problem with thinking that academics is life betrays the obvious contradiction.

If you are at a university you should really, um, read some philosophers.

Wittgenstein was one of the few honest academics.

Wittgenstein pointed out that philosophers didn't solve anything real, they spend their time making "strawman arguments" with artificial definitional boundaries and then parading around their hollow victories against arbitrary problems, and then seeking plaudits they feel they deserved. The sound of one hand back clapping. (My sum of Late Wittgenstein)

Proving nothing. Tell me you don't recognize his observations within that place you inhabit. Lots of hot air. No tractive effort.

So, treating university as a situational clinging game may work for you but it's not without pitfalls. Your life specifically.

How many people will read your work in academics? Is that the number you want?

Few people on earth read what's in their libraries - sitting there for free.

In contrast, all academics is absurd, so imagine how many people walking around you will care what you wrote?

The real number that's important is how many years have you got?

Most people that survive universities learn some stuff, make some novel augmentations, and then get out and improve life. For themselves and others.

Do yourself a favour, go to some faculty party and observe some of the permanent inmates that lived their whole life cocooned in a university. Beclowned describes more of them than "successful".

Your life, you only get one.

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