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Choosing the Right Postdoc


Dear CareerDoctor,

I have recently been awarded a PhD from a British university and have since relocated abroad. Upon arriving in my new country, I was lucky enough to secure a 1-year postdoc position in a lab working in my 'dream' research field. However, although my PI is well-respected, the lab is very much underfunded (to the extent that I've had to pay my own way to conferences), and as I was only given a 1-year contract, I've spent nearly two-thirds of my time writing research grants, so far with little success. This of course has drastically reduced the amount of time I've been able to spend getting publications out, something I know is vital for a young postdoc (which in turn has compounded the problem of not getting any grants!)

I now have a potential offer to go and work in another, well-funded lab in the same field; however, I have been warned off the PI by two current postdocs who are very unhappy there due to poor supervision. They are both desperate to leave.

So, should I stay in a poorly funded lab, keep on writing grants, and struggle to find time for doing science, or should I move to a lab that is well-funded but a rather 'unhappy' working environment? Another option is to change fields, but I spent my PhD working in a field where my heart didn't lay, and I am reluctant to do that again. I also have a number of contacts with good, well-funded US labs, but moving countries again so soon seems a bit drastic!

Would you be able to help me weigh up my options and outline what the ideal situation would be for a young postdoc to be in?



Dear Sarah,

After recommending the importance of finding out about potential supervisors as well as potential projects in my last column, it is highly appropriate to consider your dilemma. That is, what to do when you hear negative reports about a supervisor but you still feel that the scientific opportunities and potential cachet of working with a "high-flier" should perhaps take precedence over whether you actually think you can get on with them!

From your message it seems clear that you want to remain in the field you are working in and don't want to move countries again. Assuming that these factors are the ones which you prefer not to compromise on, I'm going to focus on the other element of your question--do you stay where you are and hope things "come good", or do you move to a successful lab and risk working for someone who is a poor supervisor?

Postdoc supervision different from PhD supervision

My first instinct would be to learn more about the exact nature of the "poor supervision" that the postdocs you've talked to have experienced. The relationship between a supervisor and postdoc is very different to that of a PhD student. If both of these postdocs had a high level of support as PhD students, they may not have shifted their expectations on moving to a new group and new role. Most supervisors view postdocs as research professionals who have learnt "how" to do research by completing a PhD. You should have received substantial input and guidance during your PhD but now are ready to take ownership of your research and work independently; even taking on responsibilities for guiding research students (and even other postdocs) on a day-to-day basis.

If indeed you are working for someone with these expectations, they may get impatient (or worse) when you ask them questions about your research project because they expect you to work these things out for yourself. In turn you may decide that it is easier to work without their guidance if you are only going to be humiliated every time you ask for it, and the relationship will begin to break down.

If you don't spend time establishing where responsibilities lie early on in the project, or confront these issues as they emerge, the situation can become very demoralising for the postdoc (who feels unfairly criticised) and frustrating for the supervisor (who may be concerned about the postdoc's ability to do independent research). That is why I'd want to find out why the two postdocs are so unhappy--could this lack of understanding be at the heart of their problems?

There is another big factor in any relationship--the way in which each of us reacts to other people. There are fundamental differences in the way that people supervise and like to be supervised. Some of us need to know that we are on the right track, that our efforts are noticed and appreciated; so as supervisors, these people are more likely to offer praise and to be interested in how individuals are feeling about their work.

Alternatively, other supervisors are more focussed on problems and will try to help people to be more effective by pointing out things that are wrong. They'll assume that the postdoc is aware of what they are doing well, so there's no need to waste time on this--instead they will highlight mistakes, often fairly bluntly!

Ideally, the guidance that the supervisor gives is naturally in tune with the needs of the postdoc, or the supervisor will appreciate that there are differences in the ways people need to be guided, and take them into account. However, this is actually rare--and not just in academia. It is not particularly easy to manage or be managed by individuals very different to us. In order to help you work more effectively wherever you decide to continue your career, I'd suggest you try to learn a little bit more about the environment in which you feel the most comfortable and where you perform best.

Simple test to highlight motivations

Easier said than done, and in fact psychologists have been long studying just how differently individuals perceive motivating and (de-motivating) factors. One study I would like to highlight in particular is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which can help you determine what your natural way of reacting to people and situations is. There is a simple questionnaire available on the BBC Web site which uses more everyday language or you can look at Team Technology for further explanation or simply learn more about each of the types. I'm quite a fan of MBTI and use it frequently when I work with groups and individuals both to understand them and help them understand others, but some people find the jargon a big turn-off and feel it pigeonholes people.

One way or the other, it is really worth thinking about what motivates and encourages you in a work scenario. This should help you to choose a supervisor who, in the ideal case, will naturally give you the most effective type of guidance. Or at least you will know better how to react, as you will understand how a critical supervisor will affect you--the realisation that it isn't personal can often be enough to make criticism bearable! Likewise it may help you to offer positive feedback to others if you have a more critical manner and to understand why they need what you think is unnecessary reassurance.

Now, let's take the worst-case scenario and say that this supervisor really (let's be blunt) isn't a very nice person to work with, independently of any misunderstanding. I'd then try to broaden your research on the prospective supervisor--with a little detective work you might be able to work out where former postdocs have gone from this group (look at the authors on not-so-recent publications for clues). If former postdocs are tending to remain in academia and are successful, do the long-term benefits outweigh the short-term stress of working for someone like that? Of course, if they all drop out because their names are left off papers, their contributions are never credited, and they all suffer from crippling stress, then your decision should be fairly clear.

I'd also like to look at your current situation again. By implication, your current supervisor appears to be someone that you do get on with, so I'll assume that you have discussed your progression with her. If she feels that writing grant proposals is more useful than writing papers, then I loathe to contradict her, but you already suspect that without new results and publications, you are chasing funds without much hope of securing them.

Are there alternative grants schemes that you can apply for which are aimed at early-stage researchers without substantial publication records? Can you contact the research councils or funding bodies directly and get some honest feedback about what to do next? They are the experts on the grant review process, so they should be able to tell you what they find in successful applications. If you simply don't have enough publications, you have to stop wasting time and start getting papers into the pipeline.

To summarise, your dilemma is a very personal one. Only you can guess how you will be affected by working for someone who could be a "poor supervisor" for you, whether that means they are elusive and unhelpful, quick to criticise, slow to give positive feedback, or simply a difficult person. If you feel that with a year's postdoctoral experience, most of which has been spent developing your own ideas, you are ready to manage your own research with minimal input, then working in a group with "poor supervision" may not have much impact on you. In a short time you may build up enough publications to secure the funding which will enable you to return to your current group.

However, if "poor" supervision turns out to mean no publications and no prospects, then learn from the mistakes of others and direct your efforts into producing the papers which will change your grant writing fortunes and enable you to remain in a group where you seem to be happy.

All the best with your career,

The CareerDoctor