I can certainly relate to your post! Still trying to figure these sorts of things out for myself. And, if you're at all like me, you tend to see the world in a pragmatic and pessimistic perspective when it comes to developing a scientific career because YOU CARE and YOU ARE THOROUGH. I, too, want a lab of my own (or at least I think I do). Maybe my American science story will help you to see that you still have a chance, even in the USA. I also have friends that are PIs today at GOOD American institutions who literally did 10 years of postdoc in several labs before finding their paths, and for the record, they are AMAZING scientists says myself and the institutions that hire them.
Unlike you, my PhD experience was great. I was surrounded by great mentors and labmates that patiently and thoroughly taught me electrophysiology (in slices!). Even with all of that, I only published a single first author paper. That one paper was published in Neuron, and then I was proud and confident to begin a postdoc. According to an article that I read about 3 years ago, only ~10% of graduate students graduate with a first-author publication from their PhD. Mine wasn’t published until shortly AFTER I graduated and started my postdoc. That basically means that others saw promise in me despite my bare-boned CV. The same is true for you! I know that you are at the postdoc phase, but you REALLY don’t have to worry about not looking productive during your PhD even at the point of finding a faculty position.
Here's where our experiences start to merge: After graduating, I started a postdoc at Yale. Very quickly I started to realize that things weren't working as they did in the previous lab. No joke,: amplifiers weren't working, the vibratome sounded like a jet engine, cameras were shoddy, I couldn't see fluorescence in slices, viruses weren't expressing, the osmometer wasn't calibrating, the pH probe wasn't pHing, the list continued! On top of that, my mentor and labmates - literally all of them except 2 - were strangely sadistic human beings: genuinely happy when I failed and genuinely upset when I succeeded at something. My mentor would throw things at me and other lab personnel, cuss at us, and the worst was the gas lighting. He would bully me into writing and submitting grants about a project that he designed even if I verbally expressed my concerns. And lastly, he would slam pens into counters while yelling at me to make a point instead of actually making a point worth discussing. I left that God-forsaken place after 16 months after a lot of introspection and internal struggle (I worked my whole life to get to an Ivy League institution and what a disappointment!). I knew that things weren't working after only 5 weeks in the lab, and the whole "courage-gathering" process required the advice and support of my PhD mentors and other PIs with whom I have developed personal relationships.
From the Yale experience, I still do not know what lessons the universe was trying to teach me. Perhaps God was trying to show me that he really does exist by making me experience a Hell that could not exist otherwise?! All I can tell you is that I'm a different person today: I'm more cynical, less enthusiastic, more defensive, more cautious, and more insecure about designing and performing experiments. And if you could know me, you would understand that I'm not exaggerating or pointing fingers. I am most certainly capable of pointing one at myself. You would also understand how traumatizing this experience was on my psyche and my physical health.
Today I'm in a very successful laboratory with 30 other labmates that are helpful. My new PI is generous and kind, although he is very fancy and busy so I don't see him so much. In fact, I chose the Yale lab OVER THIS LAB at Johns Hopkins when I initially interviewed. Why? Because during graduate school and before my paper was published, I wasn't very confident in my own independence….. because I am careful, thorough, pragmatic, and pessimistic.
YOU, MY FRIEND, AREN'T IN A POSITION TO GIVE UP! Even as American neuroscientist and electrophysiologist, I am telling you this. You could end up in a great place: mentally and geographically! Just hear me out:
Just because things aren't working for YOU, doesn't mean that they are working properly. Surprisingly, others in the lab at Yale were publishing and collecting data despite that commercial companies demonstrated that our osmometer, pH meter, amplifiers, and vibratome were malfunctioning in their own ways (even today I wonder how from those Science and Neuron papers emerged quality results upon one utilizing all of this objectively subpar equipment!). There were also people WHO LEFT THE LAB BECAUSE THEY WERE UNHAPPY AND UNPRODUCTIVE that weren't around to tell me that they were having similar problems YEARS before I arrived; I had to find them to hear this. From my Yale postdoc, I didn't really have any data! I went from patching 4 neurons simultaneously and ~20 cells/day in graduate school to patching 20 cells/year (that's a real number!) as a postdoc. But if I went to a lab down the hall, suddenly I could patch again! That was a telling and uplifting experience!!!! Also, reviewer comments associated with my REJECTED grant applications expressed similar concerns that I did to my PI at Yale before those applications were submitted; these experiences confirmed that I'm not a bad scientist and that I can design good experiments and scientific rationale. You might very well be suffering from BAD LAB SYNDROME! It's a real disorder, and I'm convinced that it's contagious (bad labs spawn bad scientists that make their own bad labs and so forth).
I FIRMLY believe that most labs are good labs, but I know some people that are unlucky and have repeated awful experiences. Also, I know several people from Yale who aren't good scientists and also don't have stellar CVs that hold PI positions around the world. Some are lucky like that, and you and I are not. BUT, that doesn’t mean that you should give up! You are probably a wonderful scientist that is experiencing self-doubt from being in unsupportive environments.
My advice to you: Keep going on this career path. PLEASE evaluate whether or not your lab is a good fit for you, all things considered. If the answer is "No" or "I'm not sure" then start looking for a new lab, regardless of the amount of time that you've been there. Cut your reservations about leaving a place without a paper. Just leave. I wasted arguable 15 months of my life, changed my personality for the worse, look less scientifically productive, and have developed insecurities that I'm still battling months later. I'm happy to give you my contact info if you wanted to chat more about any of this. Lastly, please don’t worry about looking unproductive by not having a list of publications. My PhD advisor would tell me that and would share stories about other scientists that she deeply respects that care about quality and not quantity. She also mentioned that our department had recently offered a position to an older faculty candidate who had only 3 first-author papers in her life: Science, Nature, and Neuron. Seriously, you have a lot of time! Don’t sell yourself short if you still care about something. A postdoc isn’t wasted time unless you only care about money; it is a valuable learning experience that both academia and industry cherish, appreciate, and seek. Unless you didn’t mention something extremely important, you aren’t as astray as you think.