MentorDoctor: Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Dear MentorDoctor:

I am currently a minority postdoc at an institution in the Midwest , but I'm seriously considering leaving academic research to look for a job in industry. Why? Because my graduate and postgraduate experiences have been dreadful. I earned my Ph.D. in microbiology at an HBCU [historically black college or university], but my adviser refused to publish my manuscripts because she was incensed at my decision to postdoc with a Caucasian PI (her words). Now, my postdoc adviser, who is an M.D., won't let me forget that I don't have any articles. On top of that, he is a terrible mentor: He provides no guidance, distrusts my training and knowledge, and seems to only like data that fit his hypothesis. I'm at the point that I just don't care about research anymore. What are your thoughts?


Just Don't Care

Mark Castanares, Graduate Student
Department of Pharmacology
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine

Mark Castanares:

I am sorry to hear that your past experiences have been negative. But, if I were you, I would give it one more shot. I don’t think your past experiences are a good reason to leave the academic setting. Being in the Midwest makes it even more difficult, since there aren’t many minorities around you who can relate to what you are going through. Don’t let your current adviser talk you down. Use it as motivation to prove him wrong and show him that you have a good scientific background and were trained well.

If you decide to leave that particular lab, try looking for a new postdoc. In searching for another position, I would openly discuss your past experience with your new boss and make it clear that you do not want to end up in the same situation. After the second postdoc, if you think academic research really isn't for you, then industry is an alternative. But, step back and evaluate what your long-term goals are. There are many benefits as well as drawbacks to a job in industry. Good luck.

Isabella Finkelstein, Ph.D.
Professor of Biological Sciences
Department of Biological Sciences
Clark Atlanta University

Isabella Finkelstein:

Pursing the Ph.D. often presents obstacles. It is unfortunate that your Ph.D. mentor took the attitude that she did, but you have to look at your ultimate goal. Do not let other people make that decision for you. I would make several suggestions.

1. If the postdoctoral position you are in is not working for you, perhaps you should look for another position.

2. While looking for another position, have a talk with your current mentor. Acknowledge to him that it is unfortunate that you do not have a publication. Therefore, it becomes even more imperative that you are able publish while in his lab.

3. Perhaps members of your doctoral committee can speak with your doctorate mentor and convince her of the importance of publishing your data for both of you.

4. Investigate all avenues before making a move. Industry is a viable option for many Ph.D.s.

Good luck.

Thomas Landefeld, Ph.D.
Professor of Biology
College of Natural and Behavioral Sciences
California State University-Dominguez Hills

Thomas Landefeld:

You need to assess realistically where you are in your training and whether leaving now is your last (only) option. Unquestionably, your experience has been dreadful and perhaps made worse by the fact that it has been at both a minority school (i.e., HBCU) and, I am guessing, a majority institution. Still, by leaving now, you will most likely come away with very little, including no publications, which is the true measured value of a postdoc position. Nevertheless, if the situation is as bad as it appears--little chance if any of getting enough involved in a project to get a publication, or even being a co-author--then perhaps you should start looking for another research position.

There are several viable options, so you don't have to only look at industry; not all academic postdoc positions are fraught with the same issues that you have experienced. Many former scientists have found success and fulfillment in teaching (high school and college), science writing, and consulting, among other areas. Whatever your interests, follow your heart to a satisfying career.

Finally, do not let these experiences take away from the fact that you have accomplished much and can accomplish much more. Look around you and think of your high school, college, and graduate school classmates who have not made it to this stage. Hang in there. Whatever route you choose, it will get better.

The GrantDoctor:

There are so few African-, Hispanic-, and Native Americans in academic science that many scientific elders, especially in the minority community, hate to see a talented young scientist escape. But we all must remember that what is best for the scientific community--to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce, especially in academia--isn't necessarily what's best for the community's individual minority members. Like too many young scientists of all cultures and ethnicities, you've been treated badly by members of the scientific community. I, for one, will not ask you to make more sacrifices for the benefit of science.

Diversity issues aside, scientists who work in academia often look down upon industry as a poor second choice. But talk to a few scientists who have chosen to work in industry, and you're likely to hear just as much enthusiasm for their chosen economic sector; although some miss the freedom of inquiry that academia allows, most enjoy industry's superior pay, excellent scientific and professional opportunities, and more consistent professionalism. Industrial science is no paradise--there's no such thing as a perfect job--but it's unlikely that your professional experience in industry will be as bad as your experience in academia has been.

But don't assume that a transition to industry will be easy. First, you have to work in a field with industrial employment opportunities. Second, even industry will review your academic credentials, so you will still be called upon to explain the absence of scholarly publications on your CV, or, better, to earn some publications before you leave for industry. If you choose to pursue an industrial career, remember to take advantage of the excellent resources that Science's Next Wave provides.

Good luck.

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