resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

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resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby S. Wurtenburg » Mon Sep 30, 2013 5:27 pm

I apologize for how long this post is, but I thought it was necessary to completely explain the background and what's going through my mind.

I'm seven months shy from completing my second year of a postdoc that had a rocky beginning. While I made several regrettable mistakes that took time to correct, the projects were difficult and exploratory in nature. Only one project is showing some progress and I believe that because of this minor progress, my PI renewed my contract for another year despite being abusively critical every time I had a meeting with him.

Recently, my PI had agreed and sent out several recommendation letters to competitive fellowships/training program. He voiced some reservation but did state that his letter would not be negative. While I'm waiting to hear back from the programs, I realized that I no longer desire a life at the bench, and have explored the possibility of seeking employment elsewhere. In the meantime, I've not made progress on my project, and my relationship with my PI continues to sour. I feel incapacitated by his demeaning comments and can no longer fully function in the lab - I work 11 hours a day but get only 4 hours worth of work done.

I have considered resigning several times and use that time away from work to fully focus on a new career path. I realize by doing this, the bridge would be burned between my advisor and I, and I'm afraid he would take additional action that would destroy any chances I had for the fellowship and possibly even employment outside of research. I don't see the benefits of sticking things out other than avoiding an extremely uncomfortable conversation with my PI about resigning. I feel terrible at having him write the letters and then resign shortly afterwards, but at the same time I feel like I'm wasting research dollars by staying.
S. Wurtenburg
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby PG » Tue Oct 01, 2013 3:25 am

My first suggestion would be to take a vacation. First aim at forgetting everything about your postdoc for a few days and then once you have gotten some rest you can start thinking about your current situation, your future career goals and what options you have to move towards them.

Second, when you get back my advice would be to try to spend less time in the lab. I always recomend people to go for quality above quantitiy but also know that this is not viewed as acceptable in all laboratories. I personally believe that you will produce more high quality research by working less then 11 hours / day in the lab. Having the energy to think about science and about the work you are doing is important and that can be done outside the laboratory as well.

I would also suggest discussing with your current PI about focusing your research efforts. State that you feel that you are not making the progress you want and suggest for example to focus on certain aspects that are more likely to generate publications in the not so far away future. Maybe you should focus all your efforts on that one project that is moving forward?

Leaving is of course an option and if you leave for another position it might even be the preferred option but leaving without having another position to go to, without any publications and with a potentially very negative PI is going to make it more difficult to find another position.
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby Kathy F » Tue Oct 01, 2013 6:13 am

Don't leave unless you have something else to go to! You are employed, and in a postdoc, which is not a bad place to be. You can turn this around.

Your PI has renewed your contract, so they must see something positive in your work, or you would be out the door, right? Difficult projects (even simple projects) always have twists and turns and blind alleys, that's the very nature of research. If that one project is looking OK, then meet with your advisor and talk, very frankly, about the best way to take it forward.

Also please realise that there is you, as a person, and then there is your work, as a thing. You are not your work, but you're taking research failure to mean that you as a person have failed, and that's not a good idea. Can you expand more on how your advisor is "abusively critical"? Are they criticizing you, or your work? if the former, it needs to stop , if it's the latter, you need to listen and use it.

PG is right - take a break, take some time off, then go back in the lab on shorter days with a defined plan and be productive. 11 hours a day is not going to help you - I've said this before on here but the most efficient lab workers I knew were those who had outside commitments which made them have to leave on time.
Kathy F
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby S. Wurtenburg » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:33 pm

I appreciate the comments and great advice thus far. I'd like to emphasize that my intention is not to outline all the evil things my P.I. has said. Rather, I'd like to know whether I'm breaching any ethical boundaries if I apply for and accept a job (in theory) after my P.I. took the time to write recommendation letters for another fellowship. I'm worried that I would leave the impression that I took advantage of my P.I. by taking a job before my contract ends without producing a single publication. I know I wasn't clear in my first post.

Separating me as a person from my job has been difficult for me. I appreciate Kathy for pointing that out.
S. Wurtenburg
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby P.C. » Tue Oct 01, 2013 1:50 pm

PIs gain an insidious psychological hold over graduate students and post docs.. way more than the meager future and real time pay they give them...
Find in your institution outside council. They sometimes call it EAP.
PIs are trained to be abusive and exploitive.
Once a former post doc gets graduated to a TT professor, they become corrupted by petty power and the need for their own selfish survival.
They are forced to accept a system based on exploitation. When they get to the professor level, they get money, promotion, adolation and praise for how much outside money they can bring and how many students and post docs they can exploit. It is a system that has lost its way, lost ethics and morality.
That is the nature of most of academia. It is a corrupt academic pyramid scheme. Get out if you can.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby RGM » Tue Oct 01, 2013 4:32 pm

I wouldn't leave your postdoc unless you had another job offer already. The world economy is terrible in general.
"Some men see things as they are and say why, I dream things that never were and say why not"
"If you think research is expensive, try disease." - Mary Lasker
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby PG » Wed Oct 02, 2013 3:49 am

If you actually are offered another position I dont see a problem with leaving despite the fact that you PI wrote those letters. Writing letters is a part of exploring your possibilities and your PI should help with that. Especially for someone that has a temporary position such as a postdoc I dont see leaving as something unethical.

What you usually want to avoid is to leave immediately after accepting something else. If those letters result in that you are offered a fellowship and you accept it then you have commited to spend at least some time doing the work.
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Stay, play the game, get recommendations

Postby P.C. » Wed Oct 02, 2013 1:04 pm

Stay employed and play the game. Do whatever it takes to swallow the bitter pill. Do not burn any bridges. You are hostage to the whim and the letter writing and recommendation of the holder of your contract of indentured servitude.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby M. Adley » Wed Oct 02, 2013 6:52 pm

I was in a very similar situation where I was putting in the hours and the effort but getting little return in terms of publishable results. With one pseudo-promising project, my PI renewed my contract just like yours. I also realized I didn't want to be at the bench but didn't want to just drop a project and waste PI dollars. Regarding the ethics of leaving, I'd ask these questions:

1) Is there anyone in lab who can take over your project? If you train them, you wouldn't be leaving your PI hanging, there'd be a chance for getting something out of your postdoc, and you'd be relieved from being in an environment you hate.

2) Just how much progress is being made? In one line you said "minor progress" and in another you said "I've not made progress". If you're not making progress, I'd say you're helping the PI by saving him dollars. It sounds like you might have already given up, in which case I'd say staying is unethical, even if the PI wrote letters.

I can understand everybody else's advice on keeping a job because the market is bad right now. I can also understand, however, wanting to leave a place so badly that I'd be willing to risk it. With that in mind, I'd ask other questions (practical as opposed to ethical) to help decide whether leaving now is a good choice:

3) Is it maybe you being super-critical of yourself? It might be that you feel like such a failure that you take everything the PI says to heart. If it's you putting yourself down internally, maybe there's no need to leave quite yet.

4) What field are you thinking of switching to if it's outside of research? Some fields have opportunities for you to beef up your resume without being a full-blown employee. This could potentially fill up the gap in your resume caused by quitting. For instance, I wanted to switch from research to med/tech writing. With no true experience, I submitted articles to things totally unrelated to science and got interviewers' interests because they saw that I liked to write in general (I was actually told this by companies).

5) Do you have an outside source of financial support? If you have a significant other willing to help you out with money, I'd consider leaving and taking coursework related to whichever field you want to switch to. This could make you a stronger candidate in a different field when you have, as PG emphasized, no publications and a potentially negative PI. Again, interviewers repeatedly mentioned my classes in interviews, saying it showed I was being proactive.

Hope this helps. If nothing else, I hope you can find comfort knowing that your work situation isn't unique and others are struggling just like you.
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Re: resigning from a failed postdoc without a job offer

Postby ADM » Fri Oct 04, 2013 3:30 pm

This may sounds coming from a angry postdoc but I would pitch in my 2 cents. I had worked with 3 PIs and think that there are only few who think about their postdocs/students (luckily I had one).
We somehow feel obliged that the PI is giving us a job but that should not be the case since this is what the agencies are paying them the grant for. They need hard working people like you to test their hypotheses. And sometime, it might be the hypothesis and not effort which is needs a second thought. The PI helping you apply for for fellowship is also helping himself career wise and money wise. So in my view it wont be unethical (unless there is a legal obligation I believe) if you plan on leaving at junction.
I would also recommend what others have already "get something in hand before leaving postdoc".
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