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I am at the end of 2nd year postdoc at a famous CS lab in the US. I have changed my research area (but related) that I worked for my PhD.

1) My current project and the lab focus are different than what I was working on earlier in academia. Moreover, the problem I'm working solely on is widely-accepted as hard to tackle. I have some preliminary results but not enough to publish a paper. An alternate (inferior) approach at some other university (with grad students) took almost 4 years to run. I'm being constantly told that I am unable to progress as they expected. This is de-motivating me to hold on to addressing this problem. With no visible publication yet, peers and other colleagues are assuming that I'm not worth researchy material. How do I take these criticisms constructively and stay focussed and solve the problem.

2) From my PhD, I had 4 publications in top rated conferences in my field. There is another group in my own team who work in the same area. When approached for collaboration with them so that I can use my expertise in the current projects, they do not include me in any work. What puzzles me is that why do they not understand (or why am I unable to convince them) that I hold expertise in that area and could very well contribute to their work. They are happy to take a novice with little-to-no knowledge of the field, but do not want me. They had few publications this year, where I could have very well been one of the co-authors. Due to points (1) and (2) I have no single publication; neither as a main author in the new research area nor as a co-author in my area of expertise, which makes it very hard to proceed to next level of career. I spoke to a senior scientist about this, he replied that most of the postdocs and few staff are so insecure of funding, that they do not want anyone else to be included in their close-knitted group. How do I overcome this?

3) There are couple of postdocs in my team each with their own mentor. My mentor is fairly junior having recently converted to scientist, himself being a postdoc for few years. Other mentors are more senior to my mentor. I feel that my peer postdocs are being guided and mentored very nicely; they are invited to talk to any visiting scientists, work with summer students. My mentor has 3-4 summer students every year; but does not want to me collaborate with them. This is reducing the scope of any joint publications with them, while others have atleast 2-4 papers per year with the summer students.

4) I am not gaining any visibility in terms of invitations to serve for program committee or workshops, where my peer postdocs have bunch of them in hand, owing to the support from their mentors. All postdocs have more or less the same number of publications in similar venues. I agree that it has to do more with networking, but due to the nature of work, I hardly get time to attend any networking opportunities barring 1-2 workshops a year. This is not helping me boost my research career.

I want to get feedback on how do I boost my postdoc career and survive here if at all I want to. I personally think my mentor is limiting the options that I have to improve networking skills, collaborations across projects. I feel so isolated and dejected. I am willing to learn any skills that I may be lacking.

Thanks, K

  • 2
    Two years as a postdoc at a seemingly crowded place? Time to go somewhere else? – Karl Jul 20 '17 at 20:49
  • @Karl. If only there're more postdoc jobs in every region.. – kate Apr 12 at 7:41
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I am actually in a situation that's similar to yours in a lot of respects (i.e. at the end of a postdoc and not that much to show for it due to lack of collaboration with my team for various reasons). So I'll give you some advice I have been trying to apply myself - although I haven't quite succeeded spectacularly so take it with a grain of salt.

  • It's a systemic problem. This is not practical advice on what to do, but emotionally, you need to try and kind of self-distance yourself from this situation to realize that academia does not encourage researchers - after their PhDs and before tenure - to go out on a lim exploring something deep that doesn't show immediate results. There are no mechanisms for consideration of effort and risk and potential impact of success, while an epsilon-improvement on the state of the art in what's fashionable is usually a sure-fire success.

  • Finding collaborators is job #1. Unless you can churn out award-winning work yourself, you absolutely must find collaborators. Maybe that means quitting the group, eventually. In the mean time, be very very active in contacting people who do work you feel you could build on or collaborate in, introducing yourself, talking about your plans etc. Possibly also out of academia if that's relevant.

  • Try to bargain with your mentor You're expecting your mentor to behave in certain ways, but s/he isn't doing so. You should have (and possibly still can) talk it out with him, in the sense of realizing why he is acting the way he is

  • If you can, try to get direct access to students You mentioned trying to work with tenured faculty's students. If you could somehow get in touch with prospective students yourself, that would be a bypass. Proposing to teach a workshop or proper course, or to co-teach something, or to offer a "lab project" course, or to give a guided tour of the lab's activities, could help. Of course, that has a cost in terms of effort.

  • Take the time/effort to also pick more low-hanging fruit Try to either branch out to a close/related subject, or work on a problem in your main subject of interest, which you think is not very significant - i.e. probably the opposite of your intuition regarding how to choose what to work on. While this would not yield a great publication, it could yield something publishable and opportunities to talk to people and make connections. It would also make it not appear like you're unable to produce anything in the bottom-line sense.

  • Explore collaborations with your PhD advisor and his/her group. You did well during your Ph.D; I assume the people around you did not all die in a car crash... talk to them, especially your old advisor if you're on good speaking terms. In fact, you could even ask for their advice on your predicament (that's orthogonal to suggesting collaboration).

  • Explore opportunities for funding. While this requires collaboration with a more well-established academic figure, you should still give it a try. In fact, it might be an opportunity to bypass your own mentor if s/he is not interested in helping, by talking to the more senior / most senior people in the lab. If you manage to secure funding, that would almost be like getting students; it would mean your lab and even your mentor would be more committed to promoting the research you're doing; and it's an important thing to have on your CV.

Note: These suggestions are not comprehensive and are not in any particular order.

  • Thanks @einpokulam. These comments are helpful. I was wondering if putting these efforts in this lab are worthy, given the non-inclusive nature of the team. – kris Jul 21 '17 at 16:55
  • @kris: That is something I would not presume to speculate about without knowing you and/or the lab personally. – einpoklum Jul 21 '17 at 18:01

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