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Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

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Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Claudio R. » Sun Jan 25, 2015 1:28 pm

Hi all,

This is a complex situation regarding choosing a postdoc in UK or USA. I would very much appreciate to hear your experiences and get some constructive feedback. Thanks a lot!

My situation is:

I just recently obtained my PhD last year and have one first author publication in a good journal.
I have taken a 4.5 year postdoc in London at a very large (40+) and well-funded group to find the lab had a toxic environment where I am not very comfortable in (5 postdocs have quit in the past 6 months). After 8 months here, just by chance, I received an offer to do a postdoc in Harvard in a middle size (+12) group. I would initially get a 2 years contract and depending of progress a further 2 years as a postdoc and then instructor. This is a group I was interested in joining but at the time they didn’t have any funding to employ me.

My current lab is very translational, publishing in mostly low impact factor clinical journal and some high impact factor ones every couple of years. The lab in Boston seems to publish several ones a year on basic biology with higher impact factor. While the head of my current laboratory may be more known, the group leader at Harvard is also known and the group seems more productive.

I have spoken to postdocs that have left my current laboratory and some said they wished they had left as soon as they felt this was not for them instead of staying 2-3 years there to see how things go. In addition, only 2 postdocs out of 8 that have left the lab in the last 2 years has gone into pursue an academic career.
I do not want to make a big career mistake and therefore I seek the experience and wisdom of other researchers.

I have been in the lab for 8 months now. I feel I am not wasting my time as I am learning new techniques and developing new cell lines that will be very useful for the lab. Since I have been asked to join the other lab by the end of this year. My potential plan is to work ridiculously hard this year in my current lab (in case I choose to join the other lab), so I can leave the project in a very good position for whoever postdoc replaces me. This way I am hoping I will not burn any bridges with my current boss and that he will consider me for middle author papers when the time comes, as I am collaborating throughout the lab.

My questions are:

1. Will my boss get annoyed for potentially quitting after 1.5 years instead of going through the 4.5 years? Is there anyone with experience in these matters?

2. Do you think labs in Boston and NY are more productive? (E.g. more chances of getting middle authors while you work on your first author papers?). Are there more chances for career progress there? I have seen a couple of friends leaving to the USA and they have done very well. It seems doing a postdoc in the USA opens you a lot of doors when you come back to Europe.

3. Does being promoted to an Instructor status open your possibilities to become an assistant professor? Basically does it bring you closer to become an independent principal investigator? Does instructor sort of equals to a fellowship here?

4. Should I just stay in my current laboratory and try to make the most of it? I know that with all the funding and workforce I may be able to publish a good high impact factor paper during my time here but I feel papers it is not everything. I think a boss that cares about the career progression of hi postdocs may have a huge impact in your career.


Hope all is well with you and hope I am not taking too much of your time.

Best Wishes,

Claudio
Claudio R.
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby P.C. » Sun Jan 25, 2015 2:45 pm

At this point in your career you must have some advisors, friends , collegues who can better serve you in offering such specific and nuanced advise.

From my small point of view , it is silly to think that you can get answers to such questions from strangers.

Seek advice within your circle of family, references, friends, and collegues.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education" - Mark Twain
P.C.
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby PG » Mon Jan 26, 2015 5:59 am

I did an attempt on answering at least a couple of your questions.

1) will your boss be annoyed if you leave early? Maybe, but if he becomes annoyed does it matter? If multiple postdocs have left the laboratory you are not alone. Bad bosses exist in academia and in industry. If you move to a new laboratory, is productive in that laboratory and get good references I dont think that having this relatively short unsuccessful postdoc will do any major damage.
2) I would assume that this is dependent on the individual PI rather than the location
3) no idea
4) your PI and his network can have a big impact on your career. Publishing papers is important but as you say not everything. Also if you are unhappy it tends to hurt your work performance which may decrease the probability of getting that paper. However you have a limited number of possibilities to move to another laboratory. If you make this move you need to make the next position work. One short unsuccessful postdoc can be mitigated by a second successful postdoc but having several short postdoc periods in different laboratories with potentially not great references will hurt.
PG
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby H.L.F. » Mon Jan 26, 2015 10:23 am

How soon do you need to reply to the Harvard lab? Could you talk to postdocs there to see how the lab atmosphere is? It could also be good to know how the funding atmosphere there is. If they didn't have the funds to hire you a few months back, do they now have the money to fund an ambitious new project? Or will everything have to be on the cheap?
I would look at the Harvard group's past publication record in Pub med, find postdocs from their older papers (say 2-6 years old) then see where they are now? Some labs seem to be PI factories, or have a good number of alums in industry, while other labs end up producing former postdocs who leave research all together. This is not always correlated with the productivity or quality of the science in law lab. It's probably some combination between the lab atmosphere and the PIs contacts, but something to consider before choosing your postdoc.
H.L.F.
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Craig B. » Mon Jan 26, 2015 10:46 am

I agree with P.C.that you should try and find some friends or colleagues who you can speak more freely about the situation with. Regarding your questions:

1) I wouldn't be surprised if your PI was annoyed or almost immediately forgot about you. You'll be the 6th postdoc to leave the lab in a relatively short amount of time.

2) It's not about the location but about the productivity of the lab and your own productivity.

3) Some institutions on the US have a cap on the amount of time you can be employed as a postdoc. Instructor is one of a couple of titles that can be given out to individuals who have been in a group long enough that they no longer qualify to be a postdoc. I can't say what specific effect getting to that point would have on your career other than that I'd assume you'll be looking for an assistant professor position by then.

4) Having a good mentor that cares about your career progression can have a huge effect on your career, as you say. Up to you to decide if you can make the most of your current position (or if you want to).

The last thing I will say is that if you switch to this new lab it is probably best to assume you will get nothing out of your previous lab that isn't finished already. If you don't have publications in press or published when you leave, don't assume you'll get some middle authorship by passing your cell lines off to another postdoc. Maybe someone will pick up your work and you'll get appropriate credit for it, but you can't count on that.
Craig B.
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Claudio R. » Tue Jan 27, 2015 11:13 am

Hi PG,

Thanks a lot for your feedback.
1+4) I am just trying to play it as safe as possible. My gut tells me that if I apply to another lab after the one in Boston and they see that I previously worked for a big name, they may want a reference from them. But as you say, as long as I do very well on my next postdoc I should be OK.


PG wrote:I did an attempt on answering at least a couple of your questions.

1) will your boss be annoyed if you leave early? Maybe, but if he becomes annoyed does it matter? If multiple postdocs have left the laboratory you are not alone. Bad bosses exist in academia and in industry. If you move to a new laboratory, is productive in that laboratory and get good references I dont think that having this relatively short unsuccessful postdoc will do any major damage.
2) I would assume that this is dependent on the individual PI rather than the location
3) no idea
4) your PI and his network can have a big impact on your career. Publishing papers is important but as you say not everything. Also if you are unhappy it tends to hurt your work performance which may decrease the probability of getting that paper. However you have a limited number of possibilities to move to another laboratory. If you make this move you need to make the next position work. One short unsuccessful postdoc can be mitigated by a second successful postdoc but having several short postdoc periods in different laboratories with potentially not great references will hurt.
Claudio R.
 
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jan 25, 2015 8:46 am

Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Claudio R. » Tue Jan 27, 2015 11:37 am

Hi H.L.F, thank you for your help.

They seem flexible but they said this year. I suggested end of the year and they seem fine with this.
I am planning to reach out to previous members of that lab as you suggested. However, I did this for my current lab and still ended in this position. When I reached some of the previous members of my current lab they were all very polite and nothing was negative. Then within 6 months I found everyone is always complaining and then several of them quit. It is probably best to talk in person as I don’t think they will write what is in their minds on paper. Perhaps visiting the lab and the surrounding area for a week would give me a good idea of the situation. Perhaps I could ask if I could shadow a postdoc for a day or two, however I do not know if this is something people do (do you know?).
It is a very good question. When I applied a year ago, three RO1 were finishing without replacement. Now funding is better but he says that they need to apply for further funding. Three papers are getting finished soon so I think this may help to attract further funding. On an unrelated note, I was thinking to perhaps propose to apply for a fellowship with them to ensure funding and career progression? Maybe we find something we are both interested in? Is this common to do?
You are right on the PI factories. My laboratory it’s the exact opposite most people leave to do unrelated stuff or non-academic science. It did worried me at first but I thought that it could be just a coincidence. My gut tells me that you have to find the right lab with the right atmosphere, it is not only about you. I think there a lots of excellent postdocs that do not get far because of the wrong place and wrong atmosphere. There is a lot of luck involved and I am just trying to increase my chances as much as possible.

H.L.F. wrote:How soon do you need to reply to the Harvard lab? Could you talk to postdocs there to see how the lab atmosphere is? It could also be good to know how the funding atmosphere there is. If they didn't have the funds to hire you a few months back, do they now have the money to fund an ambitious new project? Or will everything have to be on the cheap?
I would look at the Harvard group's past publication record in Pub med, find postdocs from their older papers (say 2-6 years old) then see where they are now? Some labs seem to be PI factories, or have a good number of alums in industry, while other labs end up producing former postdocs who leave research all together. This is not always correlated with the productivity or quality of the science in law lab. It's probably some combination between the lab atmosphere and the PIs contacts, but something to consider before choosing your postdoc.
Claudio R.
 
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jan 25, 2015 8:46 am

Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Claudio R. » Tue Jan 27, 2015 11:55 am

Hi Craig B. Thanks for the help!


This is the first thing I did. I have reasons for asking to other fellow scientists. My previous lab was very small and I was the senior in it. Previous PhDs that left went back to their home countries in Asia and did not know how things works in the USA, neither did my PI. While I have colleagues in the UK I guess some of my questions are more directed to those that have worked in both UK and USA or that are very experienced as most of my colleagues are junior postdocs or clinicians.

3) For what you say it sounds that an instructor is not much career progression. Could it be seen as a bad think? (e.g. you have not been successful enough to secure a permanent position?)

4) I had a bad feeling about this but I am still shocked. My previous PI actually asked me for my new details so he can make sure that when they publish they add me to the paper as I did a few experiments for a college in the lab. I think it is very bad if after working hard for almost two years they just brush you off under the carpet like you were never there.


Craig B. wrote:I agree with P.C.that you should try and find some friends or colleagues who you can speak more freely about the situation with. Regarding your questions:

1) I wouldn't be surprised if your PI was annoyed or almost immediately forgot about you. You'll be the 6th postdoc to leave the lab in a relatively short amount of time.

2) It's not about the location but about the productivity of the lab and your own productivity.

3) Some institutions on the US have a cap on the amount of time you can be employed as a postdoc. Instructor is one of a couple of titles that can be given out to individuals who have been in a group long enough that they no longer qualify to be a postdoc. I can't say what specific effect getting to that point would have on your career other than that I'd assume you'll be looking for an assistant professor position by then.

4) Having a good mentor that cares about your career progression can have a huge effect on your career, as you say. Up to you to decide if you can make the most of your current position (or if you want to).

The last thing I will say is that if you switch to this new lab it is probably best to assume you will get nothing out of your previous lab that isn't finished already. If you don't have publications in press or published when you leave, don't assume you'll get some middle authorship by passing your cell lines off to another postdoc. Maybe someone will pick up your work and you'll get appropriate credit for it, but you can't count on that.
Claudio R.
 
Posts: 5
Joined: Sun Jan 25, 2015 8:46 am

Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby Craig B. » Tue Jan 27, 2015 3:06 pm

Claudio-

Definitely reach out to people in the US lab. A visit would be a great idea. At the very least try and get people on the phone--people are generally going to be reluctant to say negative things and are even more reluctant to put them in writing. It's also good if you can track down former lab members and see what they're doing now and what their experience in the lab was like.

Finding an independent fellowship is a good idea and a good way to demonstrate your ability to attract funding. Even if you do get a fellowship, be sure the lab has enough resources to do the science you want to do, since a lot of fellowships are only stipend support.

On the instructor issue, lots of people postdoc for longer than the "traditional" 3 years. I don't think that you being an instructor for year 5 or 6 would negatively impact your chances securing an academic position if you're productive. I have heard of some bias by hiring committees against individuals who spend even longer times (say beyond 5 or 6 years) as postdocs.

The other thing for you to consider (if you haven't already) are your visa options should you come to the country. Would you bring a family? Would your visa require you to return to your home country after X years?

Claudio R. wrote:4) I had a bad feeling about this but I am still shocked. My previous PI actually asked me for my new details so he can make sure that when they publish they add me to the paper as I did a few experiments for a college in the lab. I think it is very bad if after working hard for almost two years they just brush you off under the carpet like you were never there.


I don't want to come across like I was saying that your old PI would maliciously keep you from getting credit where it's deserved (although it could happen). I think the bigger issue is that there's no guarantee that someone will pick up your work once you're gone. Lots of people I know (myself included) have left one or more fairly complete stories in a previous lab unpublished because of moving on to the next step of their career.
Craig B.
 
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Re: Help! I do not want to ruin my career progression.

Postby L. B. Gage » Wed Feb 04, 2015 6:11 pm

Claudio,

First of all, congratulations on the Harvard offer!
I understand your hesitation, but I think you will have to make a tough decision here. You cannot make everyone happy and you cannot depend on the PIs to guide your career, let alone decide your productivity. Sooner or later we are bound to cut that umbilical cord on our path to independence.

As stated earlier, it is highly likely that you will not get credited for your work should you decide to leave your current institution. If you are leaning towards Boston and it seems like you are, I would not sit around and wait till the end of year. I would move now and get on with my new work as soon as possible. The new lab sounds very reasonable given the PI's reputation and his productivity level. 2 years is a good amount of time. Anything can happen during this time.


Good Luck!
L. B. Gage
 
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