The Plight of the Post-Doc


No crying in science, part 2

OK, so obviously there is a lot of crying in science. It's just that whenever I try to come up with a title for a blog post all I can think of are pop culture references, and with "crying" as a theme it's either Tom Hanks' famous line from A League of Their Own--which I've never actually seen, but which is a sort-of reference itself, I think (though calling Virginia Woolf "pop culture" may be ill-advised)--or The Crying Game,   so.

Where was I?

Oh yes, running out of my PI's office in tears. Now, there are some ladies out there who look really pretty when they're crying, like delicate, weeping flowers, but I am not one of those ladies. My eyes puff up like crazy and get thoroughly bloodshot--physiologic responses that take ages to restore themselves.  If I were a damsel in distress, the knights would probably run away in disgust.

While I was waiting for the transformation back to recognizable human to occur, I emailed my graduate advisor; I was still too embarrassed to tell Famous Dude.  I told her the long, sordid story, asking her advice on the whole situation.  It was a rare feeling for me, but at that moment, I just wanted someone to tell me what to do.

My grad advisor is amazing. She got back to me in 20 minutes with names of people she knew who she thought might be good for a short post-doc, and lots of words of encouragement. And not warm squishy "poor baby" encouragement--she knows better than that. She wrote, "Inhibit that stress response and think of all the opportunities that interest you. [Learning] a new method could lead more easily to a job! Let me know what happens--DO NOT GIVE UP!!"

That helped, because my initial instinct was to write to Famous Dude something along the lines of, "I'm soooooooo sorry, but we didn't get the grant. If you think there's any way you could consider the possibility of maybe having me in the lab anyway, I would be eternally grateful!"  Instead, I realized that I had to write to Famous Dude with confidence and with purpose, not humility and desperation.  I said (and I'm paraphrasing, here), look, bad news re: the Foundation.  But this is a good grant, and I think it could be re-purposed for this new R21 FOA I just read about.  I want to write this grant with you as a co-investigator--I think we'd have a very good chance of getting funded. What do you say?

Famous Dude is not sure if he can support me without the Foundation money, and seemed perplexed by the comments from the Foundation review.  One point of issue seemed to be that the Foundation wasn't clear on what Famous Dude's role was in all of this, and they were worried that I didn't necessarily have all the support I needed to carry out the studies I'd proposed.  After emailing back and forth over the course of an hour, we decided that it might be a good idea for Famous Dude to send the Foundation a letter to clarify his full support.

Within 15 minutes I was Bcc'd on this letter, and again, the floodgates opened wide.  This letter, from this man who owes me nothing, was incredible--four solid paragraphs on his commitment to the project, and, more notably, his dedication to my career development.  He called me "an outstanding young scientist" with whom he has "long been impressed," among other nice things.

Between this and my grad advisor's correspondance, I was completely overcome with emotion.  To know, at this time when I am feeling my absolute lowest, that there are people out there who firmly believe in me and are ready and willing to go to bat for me...well, it is more than I felt I deserved.

Unfortunately, Famous Dude's letter fell upon deaf ears. The Foundation sent a brief and dismissive reply, with no indication that resubmission might be possible.  Fuckers.

So, where are we now?

Best case scenario, Famous Dude does his fall budget and is able to find funds for me.  We apply for the R21, get it, and live happily ever after.  This won't be known for at least another month, though, and I can't just sit around making no other plans.  So in the meantime, I need to start looking for another lab for a (hopefully short) second post-doc.  There are several concerns I have about this:

1. I feel like from a career standpoint, if you're going to do a 2nd post-doc, there has to be a real point to it.  In other words, I think I should go somewhere I can learn a brand new technique.  However,

2.  I'm expensive.  I've now had over 5 years of post-doc experience.  Are people going to be willing to hire someone who's not only pricey, but needs to be trained as well? I'd imagine that if someone were going to shell out the dough for an experienced post-doc, they'd want that person because she would be bringing a well-honed skill set to the lab.

3.  I talked to one of our new faculty about possibly joining his lab.  He uses some very cool techniques that would be great for me to learn and his interests broadly overlap with mine, so it seems like a good fit.  He agreed, but he doesn't have enough money.  He also made the interesting point that if I plan on applying for funding, I shouldn't be with a new faculty member like him, I need to be with someone like Famous Dude.  Given how ecstatic my K99 reviewers were over my "Environment" (all 1s!), I think he's probably right.

I'd love all your thoughts and advice, here. I feel like I'm teetering on the edge of either doing something awesome or completely blowing it--like expat postdoc notes in the comments of the last post, I don't want to take any old shitty position.  However, I do need to pay my rent--as you might imagine, living in NY on a post-doc's salary does not allow one to save much of a cushion for times like these.

Finally, thanks again to everyone who commented and sent nice messages--on the blog, twitter, or via email--I'm so grateful to have such a caring and supportive group of readers!


Julie @ Bunsen Burner Bakery said...

I can't speak for everywhere, but I know my university loves to bring in senior post-docs with a different skill set. We do absolutely no yeast work whatsoever in our lab. None. We are taking on a senior post-doc who is hoping to transition to junior faculty while he is here (I think 7 years of postdoc experience so far)... and he is a yeast guy. PI is hoping some of his knowledge of purification will transition over to our non-yest systems, and his different knowledge set will look at things in a unique fashion and hopefully come up with some ideas that we have overlooked.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

It is really not a good idea from the standpoint of your future tenure-track prospects to do a very short post-doc as some sort of stopgap and then another fuller post-doc position. Also, it is not a good idea to take another post-doc position doing the same stuff you are doing now. So what you need to be looking for is a second post-doc position that is going to last long enough to provide substantial training and publications, as well as provide very different opportunities compared to your current post-doc: either technique, model system, or subject matter.

Prof-like Substance said...

What CPP said. Hang in there and think hard about a good transition before jumping to anything, even though it is scary.

Becca said...

Thanks guys! Just to clarify, by "short" post-doc I meant ~2 years, with the idea that it would be my last. If I don't have a TT job after another post-doc, I'd say it's time to find something else to do.

CPP, what you're saying is exactly what my concern above is--is finding a post-doc that will give me training in a new technique/subject/model incompatible with how "old" and expensive I am?

Anonymous said...

I think considering the environment issue you brought up is also a good idea. It's not clear to me how important this might be in the future, but it certainly could matter.

Without knowing much about what you do, is there a lab out there where you could apply a new technique/model system (as CPP and PLS are suggesting) to your current project? Also, would your current mentor be willing to let you further elaborate on the project from a new environment, as part of a collaboration? Just some ideas to think on.

pinus said...

From a young PI standpoint, I don't want somebody who just wants to come for a year or two, biding their time before they leave. Mostly because it takes a few months to spool up and get things working.

However, if a good senior person came along, and was interested in learning something, and spending some time in the lab (more than a year or two), and brought something to the table that we didn't have (be it some sort of technical experience, or just a different way of looking at things) I would be interested...and if I had money to burn and they had good refs, I would be very interested, as I understand how damn hard it is to get a TT position. This definitely can be a downer, as you have to delay independence for a bit and put your head to the grindstone, but I think it can also work out well...think of it as a launching point perhaps?

MRW said...

Not basing this on anything, but one way to get around the moving into a new area while being expensive because of experience might be to seek out a lab that's trying to get into the area you're currently working in. That way, you'd still be doing some work in your current area, and you'd be training others in your current area - both of which would help justify your cost - but you'd also be surrounded by people in a different area, and could learn the area from them.

prodigal academic said...

I agree with CPP that you don't want a stopgap position now. In my field, standard postdocs are 2 to 3 years, so 2 years doesn't seem short to me. I don't think anyone would begrudge you leaving a postdoc for a TT position, no matter how short it was!

I also don't think you are necessarily pricing yourself out of a job, though you may need to move without a raise for right now. Don't sell yourself short--you should be paid commensurate with your abilities and experience. There are definitely labs that would value an experienced scientist (even one being trained in something new) and have money to pay for it.

Hang in there and don't make a move out of fear if you can avoid it.

expat postdoc said...

A few quick things...

1. Do NOT take the easy position. Like I stated in my last post, this is THE time to think and plan. Do NOT rush into another position.

2. I wouldn't get TOO excited about the ENVIRONMENT aspect of the grant. Look at the correlations between environment and overall priority score here:

I know it's a K99/R00 and not an R01 ... therefore environment may play a larger role. But, don't overestimate it.

Good luck!

expat postdoc said...

Sorry, just noticed that you "quoted me" ... thanks :)

Also, over here it's really expensive ... think 1500-2000USD for a 300sq ft studio. Personally, I've seen people really "slum it" while making hard career transitions ... all possessions in storage and sleeping with friends, in the department (showers and lockers are usual for people) and in the basement of really famous dude (finished basement of course).

But, the number one priority has to be getting a good position and everything else is expendable (at least in the short-term ... three months or so).

Good luck.

Odyssey said...

CPP, what you're saying is exactly what my concern above is--is finding a post-doc that will give me training in a new technique/subject/model incompatible with how "old" and expensive I am?

Not at all. Your main asset is that you are an experienced research scientist. You should be able to pick up new techniques/models etc. rapidly. More importantly you would bring experience, critical thought and a new perspective into the lab.

expat postdoc said...

like Odyssey said ... you are NOT the sum of your parts. if you've trained correctly, you should be able to learn/present/interpret data faster than a new postdoc and after 5 years ... you should be able to do it pretty damn close to the best PIs in your field.

even if you carry a 30% premium, you're still a bargain and a new PI "should" be thankful to have you.

penny pinching by PIs is ridiculous and only hurts themselves in the long-run.

Anonymous said...

Let me second the previous comment. For the right person with appropriate track record, I'd pay a 100% premium.

Unknown said...

Can't offer advice... Only moral support. I'm waiting for a reply for a proposal on postdoc position, in a new field as well, with my current contract sunning out in at the end of the year. Talk about rent- I hear you!
And I'd like to think that experienced postdocs will end up saving money in the end.. So hang in there and good luck.

Candid Engineer said...

Sorry, I've been away and missed all of this. Hugs and love to you! Really sucks that your grant was not funded. But of course the best idea is to move forward with what you've been given.

Agree with others that you need to do something new in this next postdoc, or else people will wonder why you're doing it at all. Can you seek out well-established labs that work in a tangentially related area to what you do now?

Email me if you need anything. xoxo.

Dr. Cynicism said...

My motto tends to be "There ALWAYS crying in science" or "It's not science unless there are BUCKETS of anguish-born tears generated by all the ear piercing crying that takes place in this career." I like the latter, but it was too big to fit on a t-shirt.

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