I am a UK based researcher in life sciences. My research is in neuroscience, mainly involving in vivo electrophysiology. My PhD project was a disaster for a number of reasons (technical difficulties, difficult supervisor etc) and so I finished with very few results. Through a side project I got a middle authorship on a paper in a respectable but not outstanding journal (impact factor ~5-6). Despite all the difficulties I endured during my PhD I still wanted to be an academic researcher and decided to take a 3 year postdoc position at another UK university.

The postdoc project seemed promising and the lab had a track record of publishing decent papers. Unfortunately disaster has struck again, and none of my experiments have worked or produced anything publishable. I only have 6 months left on my contract and the odds of me getting a paper in that time are pretty much zero.

I know I need to think about what my next step is career-wise but I feel so stressed and demotivated that I worry I'm not thinking clearly. Plus my confidence is rock bottom from feeling like everything I touch in the lab falls apart. Part of me thinks it's time to cut my losses and try a different career path, however the thought of giving up on my long held dream of being a researcher is heartbreaking, and I then start to wonder if I'm quitting too easily. When I tell my science friends how I feel they all tell me that I'm not a bad scientist, that I've just been unlucky and that they're sure the next project (whatever it is) will go better. Are they right? Do I still have a chance? If I took another postdoc and got a paper from it, would that ever be enough to make up for the long gap in my publication record? Or would it be a case of too little too late?

Any advice would be much appreciated!

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    Why aren't failures publishable? Scientific academia needs a major kick up the bum
    – Strawberry
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 9:28
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    @Strawberry "The laser broke because of a power spike and half our mice died and our algae had an unexpected and unrelated bleaching event, so we couldn't obtain results to any level of statistical significance above that previously reported in the literature to either confirm or reject any hypothesis" is a mode of failure that is distinct from a null result and it's still not publishable. Academia still needs a kick up the bum to publish negative results, but that's not synonymous with failed experiments.
    – E.P.
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:55
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    @E.P. Now that's a paper worth reading!
    – Strawberry
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 12:40
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    You might consider this: princeton.edu/~joha/Johannes_Haushofer_CV_of_Failures.pdf Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:19
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    @Strawberry - "Applications of Murphy's law to electrophysiology lab experiments: a case study". BAM.
    – DVK
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 3:06

12 Answers 12


Are you intending to stay in academia? You stated in your question that you've always wanted to be a "researcher"... you should be aware that there are many industry positions with similar duties and responsibilities. Having zero publications isn't good, but your skills as a researcher aren't limited to the length of your CV. I would spend some time investigating positions in industry that would allow you to perform similar work to what you're doing now in academia.

Hopefully someone else can post something focusing more on your academic prospects.

Edit: Your comment of "not sure if my work is relevant to industry" deserves more attention that an answer on an online forum can provide, but very briefly:

You are not defined by your field. I have a BS in psychology, a PhD in biomedical engineering (which actually was entirely neuroscience, but all my courses were electrical engineering), my first two jobs were a bank quantitive analyst and a data science manager for an insurance company, and I now work for a cybersecurity research firm. When writing a resume you choose which skills to highlight and how to sell yourself. I strongly recommend you re-evaluate your own skill set and see whats out there that interests you.

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    Hi, yes I was hoping for an academic career. I am considering exploring industry as a potential alterntiave but to be honest I'm not sure how useful my skill set is in industry (I'm an in vivo electrophysiologist in Neuroscience)?
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 12:56
  • @ML15 – I've added the info about your field to your original post (see second sentence) and edited my answer to address your new comment.
    – eykanal
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:26
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    One of the best software jokeys in my company had a B.S. in Philosophy. It's all about how well you can contribute.
    – DVK
    Commented May 27, 2017 at 3:08

The answers here so far are all encouraging and supportive, which is nice, but realistically and bluntly not having first-author publications after a Ph.D. and a postdoc is a bad place to be if you're looking for long-term academic positions (at least in the life sciences I'm familiar with). Does it make it impossible to find a faculty position? No, but it makes it much more difficult, and in today's climate finding a faculty position is already very, very difficult. No matter which university you go to (low-ranked or not) there will be lots of competition from people who do have first-author publications, and first-author publications are high on the list that hiring committees look at.

I haven't worked in industry, but I understand that there's less emphasis on publications in the hiring process there, and there are other "alternate" career paths (I put that in quotes because faculty positions are now so scarce that they are the alternate).

But for a traditional, academic pathway, you'd need to have some exceptional characteristic or quality to overcome the lack of first-author publications. If that is the path you really want to follow, you might want to do a second post-doc while searching for faculty positions.


Unfortunately disaster has struck again, and none of my experiments have worked or produced anything publishable

Not that I know the details, but this probably isn't right. It's a good question and correct methods that make research publishable, not the results.

Even high impact journals like Nature publish no-effect papers e.g. Doi:10.1038/nature09042. So if you have unpublished work which was well conducted you still have opportunity to get some first author papers.

As an aside, I got my current post - in clinical trials - with only one published paper in total (albeit first of two), so a lack of papers probably isn't a complete bar.

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    I disagree. A negative result is not synonymous with a failed experiment, and there's plenty of failure modes which are not publishable even in the most optimistic light.
    – E.P.
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 11:57
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    My situation is a bit like the one outlined by EP above. My PhD project aimed to record from two brain structures that had recenty been shown to be anatomically connected (previously they were thought not to project to one another). My plan was to stimulate site A and record site B. I'd never done any elctrophysiology before the start of my PhD, and the postdoc who was meant to teach me suddenly took a sabtical for personal reasons. My supervisor was very 'hands off' and hadn't been in the lab for years so I spent most of the first year trying to teach myself how to do the technique.
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:04
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    I never managed to record a response despite trying different stimulation protocols, recording from different locations in the target structure and trying different anaesthetics/surgical preps. Unfortunately, another group published a paper in which they recorded from the exact same pathway as I was trying to, and reported that whilst they got consistent responses in awake mice, as soon as they anesthetised them the responses disappeared and concluded that this pathway is heavily suppressed under anaesthesia. So my study basically ended up being a less convincing version of theirs.
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:07
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    My supervisor didn't feel it was strong enough to publish so I moved onto helping a different postdoc with ana antomy study. That got me the middle author paper that I mentioned in my origianl post. In my current project I've suffered a lot of technical difficulties - breakages, ectopic gene expression, unstable elctrode implants, following behaviour protocols that don't work etc
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:22

Realistically, you don't have career prospects in academia, at least ones that offer a stable middle-class life.

At least from my vantage point in the USA, to get a full-time faculty position in the sciences, you have to hit the ball out of the park serially - complete a stellar Ph.D. followed by one or two stellar post-docs, where "stellar" means "lots of papers, at least one or two head-turning results in fashionable journals, and a glowing reference letter." I have many friends who are tenure-track faculty, and all of them met this bar. The job market is simply too competitive for you to have good chances with less. In the USA, if you don't get a full-time faculty position, your working conditions tend to be worse than that as a high school teacher (I'm saying this as a person who was a high school teacher before his own Ph.D.). You have to go to war to make your rent and have healthcare. I grant that the UK is more civilized in this respect.

There's an outside chance that two stellar postdocs in a row could redeem your chances. But that leaves no margin of error. If you can't execute two flawless postdocs at this point, you're done, having spent more of your prime overworked, having moved every couple of years, and having earned very little. I would never accept such a risk in my own life.

That said, the skills, passion, and grit attained in a Ph.D. are valuable and sought-after in the private sector. In coaching grad students, both as a soft-money professional managing an academic research group and as a private-sector professional doing recruitment, I find the biggest hurdle in exiting academia to be emotional. It is deeply painful to curb-stomp your identity as an expert in "neuroscience, mainly involving in vivo electrophysiology" and admit that most of your hard-won subject matter expertise is worthless to your professional future. Once you can do that, you'll be able to attack the next hard job of retooling your skillset to be more marketable. Doing this in weekends and nights while maintaining appearances in academia requires some spring in your step. If you can do so, you'll subsequently find that your career prospects are excellent indeed.

You'll do things you never thought you'd be doing. Believe me, it's hard. I wanted to be a chemistry professor since I was 16. I got the Caltech chemistry degree with honors, the U Chicago Ph.D. And I had to walk away. But there's redemption here. Life went from a straight-and-narrow crucible as a budding chemist to a true adventure as a software engineer, data scientist, educator, and general scientist about town, full of opportunities and impactful decisions to make. I love it.

I wish you luck!

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    Interesting answer. One request for elaboration. You write: "n the USA, if you don't get a full-time faculty position, your working conditions tend to be worse than that as a high school teacher". In other words, do you mean that as a postdoc, your working conditions are worse than a high school teacher? Commented May 28, 2017 at 20:39
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    No, as part-time contingent faculty your working conditions are worse than those of high school teachers.
    – Raman Shah
    Commented May 28, 2017 at 22:34
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    Fascinating answer, it gave me a lot of things to talk about. Thank you
    – JZL003
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 4:31

I have been in a similar situation. I finished my post-doc with very few papers. I only had two short papers (unrelated from each other) as first author to account for my postdoc time. This certainly costed me a position in a top 15 UK university, where my competition (other postdoc) had several top papers, and also grants. However, they still called me for the interview.

In my experience "from the other side", that is, as a potential employer of postdoc has been that it is not that easy to find good post-docs. At least in my field (CS/HCI) there aren't that many people with the specific competences you might be looking for. Finding someone who has the sufficient training is what is important, even though they might not have an exceptional publication record.

You might have to accept a position at a lower ranked university as it happened in my case. However, I was able to recoup the time lost with some good papers in the meantime and I will move to a top-10 European university later this year.

So, it can certainly be done.

  • hey wanderer, what having gants means? and also grants.=?? in terms of postdoc? postodocs in UK can apply for grants?
    – SSimon
    Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 4:02
  • @SSimon I mean having been awarded a research grant (money) from a funding agency. In the UK postdocs can apply to fellowship from the UK research councils (like the EPSRC, if it hasn't changed). They could be involved in EU funding proposals, and other agencies to which a post-doctoral researcher can be PI or co-PI. Commented Apr 5, 2018 at 15:58
  • @wanderer this is very useful information.
    – SSimon
    Commented Apr 6, 2018 at 4:58
  • I’m not sure how useful this advice is for fields that aren’t CS or data science related. In most fields there’s an abundance of overqualified applicants even outside the top 15. Commented Jun 23, 2019 at 13:14

Having bad luck in experiments/results is something which happens even to people who are scientists. In academia - as in everything else which we do we can be lucky or unlucky and this can impact our options. (And consider that working outside academia is not the end of the world).

The short answer is: don't bet on an academic career - usually these are set by the end of the first postdoc. Unless you have enough money (so that you don't have to accept any position and even can afford to work in badly paid positions for a long time) and are willing to go through a long streak of bad job circumstances which will complicate your personal life very much, following an academic path under this circumstance is very likely to convert some streak of bad luck into permanent damage to your life. As much as I would like have seen good people around me who had such a streak find their way back, most of them never recovered from something like this.

The little bit longer answer is this: let's look at the facts:

  • this will be an evaluation factor when you apply for the next position
  • In order to get a position in which you can "make up" the missing success to some extent in a predictable time (e.g. 1 postdoc or 3 years), you would normally have to go to a good, successful group
  • Typically very good groups get many applications and can select from a big amount of applicants, putting you at a disadvantage
  • This leaves 3 options to you - if you want to stay in science: go to a bad group and accept a longer time of uncertainty with the prospects of getting a good result there with low probability, accept a job which is not that prospective, but gives you stability (e.g. lecturer/assistant/technician), or wait for a job/opportunity in a good group to come along.

Which one of these you will take, depends on your personal savings, priorities, mobility, character, determination and dream job. I have seen people getting happy using the latter 2 options. Having a stable lecturer/assistant/technician job will not enable you to rise very quickly, but could be a way to come back on the long term or just do research happily. Joining a bad group can only work if you have some connections in the field so that you can collaborate with other groups (e.g. you are paid by a university which starts up, but work as a guest somewhere else) - for the people which I knew which assumed that the bad lab would get magically good when they appear, this lead to a disaster. I have seen that waiting for a opportunity in good group worked out for one person which I knew.

If you can accept a long streak of uncertainty with an unforeseen outcome is up to you. Another word of warning: People will recognize that you are there because of your dreams. They will use this to put you under pressure, and potentially not care much about you.

Added after comment:

A good group IMHO has (in this case) the following properties:

  • solid publication record (regularly impact factors > 4) based on their own work (not as participants of collaborations)

  • a good groupleader - he should impress you by knowing what is going on

  • Track record of having many group members as coauthors (this indicates a good leadership and a collaboration in the group)

  • clear structure, with sub-groupleaders if the group is big enough (important to keep people from fighting)

  • Track record of not burning PHDs/postdocs and dropping them when a project/field gets cold, but rather using knowledge management to have them enabling other experiments

  • Good mixture of small and big investigations - the small ones should be collaborations where guests visit and bring in stuff to do experiments on, and give people a solid base as coauthors

  • Connections in the field: Postdocs and PHDs should be sent to other groups at some point.

  • Balance in co-authorships: PHD and Postdoc coauthorships should have no sign of nepotism.

  • a good reputation of solid work in the field - sometimes there are groups with a good publication but bad reputation.

  • Invited talks should be not only given by the groupleader

  • A good summary of the situation. And correctly emphasizes the importance of being in a good group. While this isn't very important, the answer could be reasonably expanded with a discussion/description of what to look for in a good group. Commented May 27, 2017 at 12:08

Your PhD can't have been that bad, if you passed! I'm not sure how it works at your current university, but in my department our postdocs are often helping current PhD students with experiments, whether it's helping to design and troubleshoot or simply getting some data for them, and with writing papers. It also increases their publishing output. If you're concerned about your output, then that might be worth considering for your last 6 months. A second postdoc could yield numerous first author publications, depending on what it is you're looking at: however, there is definitely an element of luck involved, so you shouldn't take it personally if things don't work out. That's just how research is sometimes.

It may also be worth considering industrial or commercial research: there are still opportunities to publish, and I know a number of academic researchers that started in industry and only moved to academia later. Speak to the academics at your university: they'll have a lot of advice to give, and I'm sure that a few of them will have been in a similar position.

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    I got my PhD mostly by trying to explain as throughly as I could all the steps I'd taken to test and fix my experiments and from the bit of anatomy data that I got from a side project (which led to the middle authorship paper mentioned in my original post). My examiners were kind and told me they felt sorry for me. Thankfully they saw 'good scientific thinking' in my thesis even though it was short on results.
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:28
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    This does sound like a lot of bad luck, but your work was obviously something worth looking at (since I noticed you mentioned another group published around the same time), and to gain your doctorate you have to show some deep understanding of your field. From what I understand, neuroscience is now quite a prominent part of pharmaceutical industrial research, while a quick google search found quite a few job advertisements for "scientist, in vitro electrophysiology" at places like Biogen and Alkermes. Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:08
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    You might actually find that it's not the "academic" aspect of the research that's most important to you. Industrial research is often collaborative and gives more immediate rewards, as you know the research will be applied. The science is often more important than the setting, if you like. Commented May 26, 2017 at 14:11
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    This not intended as commentary on the OP, I'm in no place to judge, but "Your PhD can't have been that bad, if you passed!" is terrible logic. Lots of people have gotten Ph.D.'s based on projects that left them in no position to get a postdoc, let alone launch a stable academic career. I don't think that's the standard most committees use, and certainly you can't rule out a committee being a bit lax. Commented May 28, 2017 at 18:13
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    The entire point of a PhD standard thesis is that it must be, at least in principle, worthy of peer review publication. That's pretty naive. Many PhDs are not worthy of publication. It's nice to set your standards there, but you should also be aware of reality.
    – iayork
    Commented May 29, 2017 at 20:44

I've actually been in a rather similar situation (I'm sure this kind of thing is far from unusual), and didn't really recover. I think to a large extent the probability of an eventual recovery from this kind of situation depends on what kind of leverage you have.

You don't mention your supervisors (or what the term is for senior people where you are). What is your current relationship with them? This is highly relevant in your situation. Also, you don't say whether you are a UK citizen or a resident. This is also highly relevant.

So, a little, hopefully relevant, autobiography. After my PhD, I spent some time in a couple of different places, nominally as a postdoc. One of the positions I was in wasn't really a research position. The people I were working for weren't very nice. This seems to be unfortunately quite common. I wound up working on various projects. What they mostly had in common was that in practice I was the only one working on them. I did nominally have other people working with me on these projects, but what they had in common was that they were senior to me, and their only interest was getting their names on those projects. These are not promising circumstances in which to complete projects, and the end result is that after a while I had a bunch of partly finished projects and no finished ones. As a foreigner in the US (in this case) I had no leverage, and nobody wanted to help me. And as everyone knows, doing a research project solo is horribly hard work, and very time-consuming.

Anyway, the point of this is that (it seems to me) things can go wrong quite easily, and they're not that easy to fix. But a lot of it depends on your circumstances. If you are in a position to get a reasonable post-doc even after your current one finishes, then you're already in a relatively good position.

One note: try very hard not to be the only junior person to be working on a project. The senior people don't care - they don't have much invested, and the failure of that project won't significantly impact them. However, other junior people would (or should) care.

You don't specify anything about your current projects. Are you the only one working on these projects? Presumably you have senior people involved, at least to the extent that they will put their names on the project if you get anywhere. Have you been talking to those junior and senior people? Do you really have no results? And how many different projects do you have on the go? Oh, and to be clear, you got no published papers from your PhD? Did your PhD not contain any publishable results, or did you just not get around to extracting them?

As you can see, this answer is more questions than answers, but it's hard to give specific suggestions without knowing more details about your circumstances. If you would care to elaborate, perhaps the forum members can make more concrete suggestions.

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    During my PhD I was the only one working on my project and it was a bit 'left field' of wat my supervisor usually does. I didn't get any publishable results from my PhD (basically I didn;t manage to record a response and ended up in the 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' trap). In my current project I'm also on my own. I have been trying to get recordings from various GM mice but they all turned out to have issues with expression etc. I've suffered various equipment breakages and I've essentially had to re-build my rig from scratch.
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:15
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    Also, I am a resident in the UK so that's not a problem. I'm not sure how much leverage I have though - I found out my boss has a new grant which requires a postdoc but 1) he didn't tell me about it (which I wonder is a sign he doesn't want to employ me again) and 2) even if he did offer it, I'm not sure I want to take it. I've struggled to enjoy my current research area as much as I did my PhD and I worry that with all the negative associations I have in the lab whether it's better to start afresh somewhere new?
    – M.Loft
    Commented May 26, 2017 at 13:19
  • Hi @ML15, My answer could probably be better written. Being a resident is a form of leverage, in that you don't have to leave the country if things don't go well. Believe me, this is a good thing. Being a citizen even more so, since then you may be eligible for govt grants (e.g security-related) which non-citizens would not be eligible for. I don't know anything about the kind of experimental work that you are engaged in, but as I understand it, you've had various problems with your experimental results which were partly act-of-god, or at any rate not under your control. Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:23
  • It is possible to move to a less dicey area? I remember a colleague in a lab I worked in saying that he had moved from experimental work to more computer type work, because (I forget his exact words) computers were more predictable and mistakes were easier to recover from. (Actually, I think he said something overly optimistic like - things always work with computers.) I'm not suggesting you move to computer work. But perhaps more collaborative projects where the life and death of the project doesn't rest entirely on your shoulders? Commented May 26, 2017 at 15:25

I would like to give you the same advice I would give to someone having done very successful PhD and postdoc, not getting a tenure-track job yet, and wondering whether to get into another postdoc or quit academia.

Imagine you go to the next postdoc (or two), and do a truly great job, and that it does not suffice to get into academia (the market is hard everywhere I look) and you have then to move to industry. Would you be happy for your additional years in academia? Or would you regret not forking earlier?

My advice (to almost everyone) is: take your decision as if it was a given you won't get a permanent job in academia, because that is the most likely turn of events. Only go for the next (or first) postdoc if you enjoy the prospect of it for itself, not because you hope it will give you access to something else (e.g. a tenure-track job). Otherwise, it is probably the best move to look into something else -- there are plenty of jobs around, and your PhD is proof that you can learn a lot, fast, and become autonomous in many, many different fields.

Now, when I say "take your decision as if it was a given you won't get a permanent job in academia", I really only mean take your decision as if: if you do decide to go for a postdoc, then as soon as the decision is made you should go for it fully, and try to be the best craftsman (craftsperson?) you can in your line of work.


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.


First of all take care of your self. Exercise, take some breaks. This will improve your mental performance.

In this life anything is possible. In you position I will definitely change my mindset from "I will fail" to "I will shake earth and heaven to succeed". Do everything a human can do to make most of you remaining time as a postdoc.

You really have to believe you can make it. The worst thing is to quit and say "it was impossible all along".

You can to trust God/your destiny/wherever that one day, somehow, if you don't give up, you will achieve your dreams.

To sum up, the most important thing in life is your viewpoint. Why feel "the pressure"? Just do your best there, try some more and research a topic alone (if the field allows it).

You may ask: "And if I fail and years pass without results?". This is the wrong mindset. The correct one is: "No matter the result, if I do my best, this research won't be futile.". You may get hired for an industry position based on the fact you have a PhD.

You never know, do your best, follow your heart, and don't ever give up because "it was impossible all along". It never really is.

I would stick at least 2 more years in academia before thinking about doing something else. But no matter what, do not say "I have a last chance and I quit".


Watch the film Underwater Dreams. It is a documentary about a group of ragtag underdogs who beat a crack MIT team in an engineering competition. How did they do it? By documenting and explaining their work extremely well.

I'm not going to say that your talent and skill at documenting and explaining will get you a dream job right away. But after reading your question and your comments, it is clear that you do have a strength in that area. I don't know what other strengths you might have, but that one I can already see.

If you want to keep progressing towards your dream, I suggest you do another postdoc, get a position as a research assistant where you will get your name on some group papers, or in the worst case tread water as an unpaid researcher (which plenty of trailing spouses do).

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