Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Now that I have to do this all over again

I'm on the job market again. This first post-doc has been largely unhappy, unproductive and overall miserable. It's partly me, mostly the boss ;), and over all just "not the right fit". But if there's one thing life has taught me, it is the importance of getting out of a bad situation earlier than later. So I decided its best to cut my losses and leave, rather than get into a comfortable non-productive zone or kill myself trying too hard to make it work.

How did I go wrong in picking this place? What am I doing this time round to make sure it won't happen again?

Well, there are no guarantees. But to ensure that my next stint is a happier one, I have decided to pay attention to the following

1) DO Not get carried away by glamour. I did when I picked this place.

2) Do not start off with two high risk projects. Plan such that one project is in my area of expertise, the other can be a discovery/broadening horizons/learning new techniques experience.

3) Find a mentor I'll like. I knew there were personality "quirks" about bossman before I joined this place. I thought I could "deal" with it. Clearly, I couldn't. I found it very difficult to go up to him and get help mostly because I couldn't stand him and worse, couldn't trust him. Even though he was of little help the few times I did reach out, not going to him often enough has definitely hurt me. Moral of story: the smallest whiff of negativity, difficult personality, etc. should be a blaring sign to keep away. Call it paranoia, but there are enough nice people out there to have to settle to work with a difficult person.

4) Be really incisive an finding out if past experiments (even if they have been published by the lab..its time to wake up and smell the coffee..) have been reproduced by others. I spent a year chasing something I was told was "done by others"..when I have finally come to learn, piece by piece, that nobody could ever get this exact experiment to work, besides that one successful attempt that got published. Definitely not a good choice for my first project.

5) Find out what a lab technician's responsibilities are. I always thought that they were responsible for overall upkeep of lab and making sure things run smoothly. It is not always the case. Often, especially in mid-size to big labs, they have full blown projects of their own, and the lab running smoothly depends on collective effort of all. Which often translates to empty cartons when you go to reach in for that pack of tubes or plates, and a few conscientious people doing all the grunt work. If you're one of those, bitterness sets in soon.

6) Just for me, I need to pick small labs. 3 to 5 people. Thats what works for me.

7) A relatively young mentor, still in the ascending phase of his/her career. They are motivated, and your interests are important to them. Avoid places with a clear revolving door policy and rapid turnover rate.

8) How do I ensure the decent personality bit? I am networking with old pals from my masters in India..or friends of friends..orkut and facebook to the rescue. Trying to find links to the labs I am applying. Writing to at least 3 people, preferably post-docs on the lab alumni list asking them if they'd recommend the lab, and about their experiences. [I did that when I joined here too, except I just heard back from one and it was a very positive reco]. If they have nothing positive to say besides "the lab is well funded", you know there can be issues.

9) Reach out to the people I know are looking out for me. I'm heading homewards now. Ph.DAdvisor and my old professors from lutom have been really supportive. Ph.D Adv has been forthcoming with suggestions of people I should write to who she knows will make good mentors..and I have a good reputation in my Ph.D field that make me a prize candidate there.

9) Work back my confidence and a positive attitude before I go interview again. The reassuring part is that people are remarkably understanding about a post-doc not working out. In my case, bossman also has a reputation of sorts so people that know him seem even less surprised about my situation.

10) I have learned a great deal out of this experience. Very important lessons and I think my first taste of real-world life. Its taken a good many weeks of depression, self-doubt, self-flogging, dissection and all that good stuff, but I have now come to believe its happened for a very good reason. Onward and Upward!

11) The market is tight right now. I have sent out over 60 applications, to labs all over, and heard back from a handful. (I started in October). But that is the name of the game. Another friend sent out a 100. And heard back from a few, and found a great position eventually. So there.


Abi said...

Sympathies, TGFI. It's a pity that you had to learn these lessons the hard way. I thank you for sharing them with us. This takes a certain courage, which you evidently possess in abundance.

I applaud you for your strategic thinking and for your decision to "cut my losses", quit, and start anew. I think this is the right way go.

I wish you all the best in your job search.

phatichar said...

Hang in there...remember your previous post?

bhakit said...

Best luck in your search. I hope things work out for you.


sepulchritude said...

Check out the 4th comment to my latest post.

sd said...

Hey TGFI, best of luck with the job search.

Rachna said...

Yes, need to hang in. I am also on the job market- and its 10 times worse in my field!
Sent out 50- not heard from a single one :(
Got close to a collapse yesterday night...
But nice reading this post!

ggop said...

TGFI - good advice for budding post docs. It applies to any new grad really.

The job market is tight so I often wonder if it forces new grads take up any job for the sake of visa status (OPT/H1) and get stuck in a rut.

bongopondit said...

It is great that you realized the need to get out early on. (If only I had read this after the first year of my post-doc !)

Anyhow, really good points in this post as usual, and while personal, are quite generally applicable for most people looking for postdoc jobs.

Thought I should add my $0.02 and dish out some unsolicited advice/suggestions on some of the points :P

#3) This is a tough one. Your future mentor could be real nice to you during the interview and hide whatever personality deficiencies he/she has (I am not saying they will do it intentionally, it may just happen that way). As you mention later, networking will be the best bet to figure out the day-t0-day personality quirks.
Also, from the experience of most PhD/postdoc friends, I have come to believe that there is no 'perfect mentor', or at least, the chance of getting a perfect mentor is minuscule. So keep an open mind, and figure out which personality traits you are comfortable with and expect some deficiencies in other aspects.

#7) Just remember that a young mentor will be apt to push you much harder as well and sometimes may think more about their tenure than your well-being. And they are a bit of a risk when it comes to the academic job search (which I imagine from an earlier post, you don't want anyway).

Other than that, try going to a few big conferences (if you can before leaving this postdoc) - ASCB, Neuroscience, Biophys etc - these are good places for job hunting/networking. Most of them also have good workshops on resume and cover-letter writing etc.

Best of luck with your search.
I will add to the chorus of the market being pretty tight at the moment. But labs are getting funded, so I guess we have to be a bit patient.

Perhaps we should set-up a 'like-mined' blogger's job-search network as well!

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

Thanks for your nice words. I hope that things look up from now.

yes. and yes, i do. :)

thanks. how's grad school treating you? :)

jeez you're funny.

thanks dude.

yes..keep at it. all the best.

i think whatever choice we make, we do get stuck in the h1 rut, because we can't get out of it, hence can't just walk away from a sucky situation. I have experienced the worst kind of desperation past few weeks- hating my workplace and refreshing my e-mail every minute to see if anyone responded to my applications. and finding none. Until i made peace with the fact that packing up and going back to india was a lot better than staying in a place i was so unhappy. When I could make that break, it felt a lot better.

your point about pre-tenured profs being too pushy is a good one. i'll keep that in mind.
will try and see if i can get into a conference too. thanks very much for all those tips. :)

yeah, i think a bloggers network is a great idea.(.if only i weren't so protective about my identity..) :)

aequo animo said...

Good Morning!!! ;)
All the best :)

bhakit said...

Thanks. I am trudging along.


milieu said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on what went wrong. Good Luck for the future!
As someone who is nearing the begining of the end of his PhD, I am going thru somewhat similar situation. You still have a great PhD work with you!

tgfi said...

good morning to you too! :) thanks.

all the best!

Good luck with the phd.

Animesh said...

As a postdoc who is 6 months into it, I deeply appreciate your comment. If nothing, it will jolt me into working harder :).

Best of luck with your hunt. As they say at USC -- fight on!

rayshma said...

oh boy!
all the VERY best! i have a hubby who's graduating this dec.. and he's been sending out job apps too.. i hear u.
and i hope things are sorted out soon :)

Anonymous said...

gf, been there and done exactly what you are doing. not only did i have a screwed up postdoc - i got scooped by someone in my own lab! but I also got handed in my notice by my spouse. coming home to India was THE smartest choice. something about all the masses of people here and talking in your own tongue makes life feel less messy. You may want to consider doing a postdoc in india - there's more money here than you would imagine and gizillion fellowships for which you don't need US residency or citizenship! Good luck.

The_Girl_From_Ipanema said...

Animesh, Rayshma,
thanks. :)

thanks for leaving a comment and sharing your experience. That sounds terribly rough and its great that you got out of sucky situations instead of hanging on to living abroad. Its worth nothing, definitely not loss of mental peace. Happy trails.

Anonymous said...

I am in the same situation... well it's a bit different, because my supervisor decided after 1 month that he wanted to replace me... and never gave me any feedback about my performance before that. He never tried to follow up on my project (I was expected to reach out to him) and wasn't showing me experiments until I asked or he was upset about me being bored in the lab. Don't want to give names to not get in trouble (I'm looking to be transferred to another lab in the same institute, and also ouside) but I really wanted to, to tell you what lab to avoid.
On topic : we are 3 in the lab and my supervisor is rather young, so what works for TGFI didn't work for me.