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I am an international PhD graduate who joined a postdoc in a private univ in the U.S. four months ago. After careful research and studying the group profiles, I joined a group (less than 2 years old) with a dynamic PI who seems genuinely interested in pursuing similar research interests as mine and moving the field of research forward with some great ideas.

In some sense it was all going well.

I was asked to come up some research topics and systems that I would like to work with. I ended up spending some time (nearly two months) doing some simulations, writing a fellowship grant and coming up with some workable systems that I can start with.

The problem is he has very high expectations and it's getting tough to live upto his expectations, which is in turn stressing me out. We have frequent meetings and discussions, which is a good sign, but I am always focused on living up to his standards rather than research itself. Almost everything, like plotting my timeline sheets to plotting data to presenting PowerPoint, he always has constant criticisms. I took it up as a challenge and tried to do the best I could.

But lately, I feel intimidated and totally worthless. I find it difficult to contribute to group discussions with the fear of uttering something stupid.

That happened today. I froze midway my explanation (got stuck while deriving something). When asked to explain something basic, I totally blew it off. I should have known how to explain it, but I somehow couldn't. This pissed the PI off and he went on a rant about how he expected me to know at least this and it was unacceptable.

While I do agree with him, this has again instilled a fear in me if he is going to throw me out of the lab. Work wise, I have just started with my initial experiments and I am trying my best. Altogether I don't feel too good and feel like I am in a soup. Almost re-considering my options of moving away from the lab.

Some of the questions that I have are as follows:

  • Is it ok to feel intimidated as a postdoc? Or, is it a sign that it may be a postdoc position is not suitable for me?
  • Should I give myself some more time and see how my research work progresses before I make the decision of moving away from the lab?
  • Am I just over-reacting for not being able to answer a few questions and not taking it as a positive sign to improve myself?
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    Welcome to the site. I feel for you! Some personalities are not great matches! I want to note that the people on the site are going to want you to come up with a more specific question/questions. – Dawn Jul 19 '17 at 20:52
  • Thank you Dawn. I will edit the post with a few specific questions! – Amsherg Jul 19 '17 at 20:56
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    Also @Amsherg please format this so it doesn't look like a wall of text. – Sean Roberson Jul 19 '17 at 21:07
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    After you have done all that, do some research on the psychological effects here at play like The Imposter System , and perhaps some research into narcissists and perfectionists and see what you personally can do to cope, manage stress, and interact better. It may be entirely possible to change your behavior and feel better and more positive. – rlb.usa Jul 19 '17 at 22:14
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    @rlb.usa please write an answer, instead of four long comments. – Shake Baby Jul 19 '17 at 22:18
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Brief answers, then suggestions.

Is it ok to feel intimidated as a postdoc?

It is ok to feel intimidated when someone with power over you is doing intimidating things. Also, it is rarely "not ok" to feel what you're feeling; it's more of a question of what to do in order to improve how you feel.

Is it a sign that it may be a postdoc position is not suitable for me?

It's not suited for anyone to be in a position where your living is dependent essentially on this one person who can throw you out almost on a whim, post-doc or no.

Also, you can't judge your performance or capabilities as a researcher until you've had some time to actually do some research, and the opportunity to strike up collaborations etc.

Should I give myself some more time and see how my research work progresses before I make the decision of moving away from the lab?

Wrong question. You should do something now in order to improve your predicament; and your options are not just "quit" and "toughen up, take it and stay".

Am I just over-reacting for not being able to answer a few questions and not taking it as a positive sign to improve myself?

Personally I would be super-ashamed if that were to happen to me and would be preoccupied with it for days, if not weeks. What can you do, it is embarrassing - and it's not helping that your PI is berating you for it. But the point is why it happened. I mean, if you froze up that means the issue is more the state you were in before rather than this event itself.

Now for some suggestions:

  • First and foremost is caring for your emotional well-being. It's not only first in the answer, it's first on the list of concerns, because if you don't do something about that your life is going to be continue being "poisoned" by anxiety and self-doubts.

    Even though, of course, what you're feeling is a result of what happens to you professionally, that's not the exclusive cause. I mean, someone else in your place might tell him/herself "He's such an asshole, but I know I'm make a decent effort and by my self-evaluation I'm fine"; and other people are on that spectrum. This is not just fate you have to resign yourself to.

    So, my first suggestion is to consider seeing a a psychotherapist. Don't be put off by the stigma some people assign to that; you're having an emotional problem that you have not been able to resolve yourself, so ask for more personalized help than you can get on this site.

    I would have suggested to first have deep talks with co-workers you feel you trust, but I'm guessing you don't have those since you haven't mentioned them. If you do have them, consider confiding in one or two of them - even if that seems even more embarrassing. That embarrassment will go away once you talk to them.

  • Try to explicitly negotiate expectations and workplans with your PI. Meet with him in a one-on-one, acknowledge your feelings, his and your behavior (Without going into emotional details or being to combative), and try to focus the conversation on how you two can work together with aligned mutual expectations. Discuss things like timelines, targets, deliverables etc. A framework of mutual expectations might help in making him feel you're not doing poorly since it's what you agreed on.

  • Your academic advancement should not by wholly determined by your relationship with a PI. As soon as you can, if you have at least some research involving people out of the group - not only will that improve your standing with the PI (I think) but it will also improve how you feel and will be a sort of a partial crutch in case you're somehow threatened with termination.

  • I would not advise you to switch workplaces at this point since on the one hand you've been investing in setting things up, and it's a shame if that went to waste considering how you see research potential there, and on the other hand you've not been there for long enough to say with clarity that it's a hopeless work environment.

  • Try to find some kind of activity which you believe would be a confidence-booster for you - at work - and would not be disparaged by the PI. For example - giving a talk or a workshop on something you know very well and others at the lab know little about.

  • Try to find some kind of activity which you believe would be a confidence-booster, or that is otherwise satisfying, outside of work. I know this is kind of vague, but it really helps if you have an emotional anchor that is not depend on your academic success and your appeasement of the PI / employer / the system.

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Some bits that might help you keep things in perspective:

  1. life is short.
  2. science should be at least somewhat fun -- we aren't being compensated well enough to say otherwise.
  3. post-docs are free agents. We are not livestock.
  4. there are many cool PIs out there that you will jive with. Having a great time in a less high-power lab is almost certainly better for you, as a human being.

You are very early on in the postdoc (I am a 4th yr postdoc). I would look elsewhere. You are so early on that you probably don't even need to consider getting a letter from this person you are having problems with. Feels like a good time to cut and run. Best of luck and hang in there.

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