How to make the most of an nnfulfilling post-doc experience

Before I pose my question, I would first like to describe the circumstances and provide as much "quantitative data" relevant to this as possible.


I am on a leave of absence from a US university for 1 year (2014-2015) and currently working at a lab in France as an Engineer II (let's face it, E2=fancy_way_of_saying(post_doc)). I posted a question about the merits and demerits of doing this a few months back and received some useful feedback (in hindsight obv.!)

I am at an early stage of my career. I received my PhD in Mechanical engineering in 2013. From Aug 2013-May 2014, I worked as a non-tenure track instructor at my US university. I will return to my university in May 2015 to take up a non-tenure track lecturer position. I prefer teaching track to research track. The idea was to diversify my portfolio to work and hence the leave of absence to work as an E2 in France. I am in month 3 of my E2 position.

Gist of current position

To introduce major modifications in a "spaghetti code" developed by my E2 supervisor some 6-7 years ago. The code itself is quite obfuscating and models certain thermal engineering physics problem.

My perceived failings as an E2

The code is obfuscating! No, I am not making excuses but the previous two E2 quit to go on to purportedly greener pastures.

I was given tasks to modify certain aspects of the code and in my opinion (I have no yardstick for comparison), I have not done the best job at it.

Result (for now)

My supervisor has hinted that "we must hurry as there is a deadline next month we must meet" (I did not know of this deadline prior to taking up this position).

I am making a sincere effort to accomplish the tasks but I am not sure if it is my ineptitude or lack of scientific maturity that I constantly see myself failing at my job.

Over the last couple of weeks, my supervisor has not asked me to do any important things with this code/project and I think I have been relegated to "just check the code for mistakes".

Also I find that unlike my previous department head, my current supervisor treats me like a student and is sometimes disparaging in his comments. I suppose this is normal.

Also, what is normal in my current lab is that post-docs share the office space of their supervisors and the supervisors LITERALLY are looking over their shoulders at all time. Yes, I know what LITERALLY means.

I understand that this is a character building exercise for me and I'll treat it as such.


  • Do I have a future or am I looking at a premature "pink slip"? My contract doesn't mention conditions of being fired.
  • How should I make the most of this situation? I want to have a positive impact on this project which in turn will have a positive impact on my career. Although I am in a teaching track from 2015, I feel that this research experience will only enhance my teaching capabilities.

References I have used to understand this better

A postdoc experience

Making the most of your post doc

However, I would feel better if I got "real time advice" from the diverse membership of this forum.

  • 5
    The main problem with this question is that it isn't really one. "Any advice?" style questions are just a very bad fit for SE. Further, the question is probably way too localized. See for instance this meta discussion (meta.academia.stackexchange.com/questions/1093/…) - not exactly the same, but closely related.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 28, 2014 at 8:49
  • 2
    The problem is not so much that the "life story" is given by itself, but rather that the need to tell said life story is a good indicator that the question is of little value to anybody aside from the OP, and hence off topic on SE. I think this is also true with your question. That is why I also don't have a good way to fix the question.
    – xLeitix
    Jul 28, 2014 at 8:54
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    +1 I think in this case the "life story" helps highlight the issue and I think the issue is one that many post docs face.
    – StrongBad
    Jul 28, 2014 at 12:47
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    it is perhaps a unique situation in the world of academia — You can't have it both ways. If this is a unique situation, then the question is relevant only to you and should be closed. If it isn't a unique situation, the details of your life story should be deleted to better expose the useful question.
    – JeffE
    Jul 28, 2014 at 13:48
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    @JeffE that would be ideal, but presenting a life story which allows someone to understand the issue is much easier (for the asker) than distilling the life story and presenting only the isolated issue.
    – StrongBad
    Jul 28, 2014 at 13:58

1 Answer 1


Do I have a future or am I looking at a premature "pink slip"?

This is unlikely, especially in France. The financial savings from firing a one year post doc is pretty small compared to the hassle and bad blood that will result from doing it.

Although I am in a teaching track from 2015, I feel that this research experience will only enhance my teaching capabilities.

Is this really your goal of the post doc? It is not clear to me how a year spent disentangling spaghetti code is going to enhance your teaching capabilities. Most engineers do not take up a non-teaching post docs to enhance their teaching. I am not sure that most post docs would spend a year disentangling spaghetti code with supervisors hovering over their shoulders. Are you sure that an E2 is really the equivalent of a post doc? It is probably worth talking to your supervisor, hopefully again, to make sure you are both on the same page.

Realizing that you are unhappy with the current state of affairs does not really help you to change things. I think grad students and post docs sometimes have unfulfilling experiences because they do not know what they want. You need to figure out what it is you want to get out of the post doc and then figure out a way to work towards that goal. Often once you know what you want the road to obtaining that goal becomes clear.

  • The fact that my primary goal would be disentangling spaghetti code was not mentioned in any discussion or contract. Since I am a mechanical engineer and not a computer science person (tried and tested excuse), un-obfuscating code is not my strong point. However, it is a challenge that will enhance some aspect of my teaching abilities-the courses I have taught have focused on numerical methods for PDEs etc. Yes an E2 apparently gets paid the same as a post-doc. Coming back to the point: I don't mind disentangling code for one year if that is what I am required to do.
    – dearN
    Jul 28, 2014 at 13:05
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    @drN: "The fact that my primary goal would be disentangling spaghetti code was not mentioned in any discussion or contract." What were you told was the primary goal of the job? Also: "Yes an E2 apparently gets paid the same as a post-doc." Just because two jobs get paid the same does not make them equivalent. Jul 28, 2014 at 13:35
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    @drN: Okay, I'm glad you checked. Although what you describe is not what a postdoc ought to be, I strongly doubt you are the only, or almost the only, postdoc who is in a similar situation. The visa stuff is key information too. Actually I worked as a postdoc in a foreign country (Canada) and learned that such issues are not to be messed with. I agree with StrongBad that it seems unlikely that you will get fired from such a 1-year position...though of course I can't guarantee anything! A frank talk with your supervisor seems to be in order: at least you know where to find him! Jul 28, 2014 at 13:51
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    StrongBad: A former PhD student of mine is currently doing his second European postdoc. Both of them involve at least as much freedom as most cognate North American postdocs and significant time to devote to his own projects. I feel confident that there are some NA postdocs who would identify with the OP's plight. In terms of defining what a postdoc should be on a global scale: that is certainly not within my power! However, most people (that I know) take postdocs with expectations like the ones I mentioned above. Surely the moral here is: find out the parameters of the job in advance. Jul 28, 2014 at 15:47
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    @StrongBad My experience is consistent with Pete Clark's. The European postdocs I've known were all given significant freedom and independence, just like North American postdocs in the same fields. This may be more a cultural difference between math/algorithms and other fields of science/engineering than between North America and Europe. +1 for "Find out the job parameters in advance", and not just by asking the supervisor.
    – JeffE
    Jul 28, 2014 at 20:00

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