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waveringpostdoc

Advice on (possibly) quitting a postdoc

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Hello all. I need some advice on whether I should consider quitting my postdoc. I finished my PhD early this year in the life sciences and am now about six months into my postdoc. It’s a good position at a prestigious institution, and my biggest issues aren’t with the job itself, but I’m seriously considering quitting. The biggest reason is, frankly, I really dislike the city I’m in, and am not acclimating well. At risk of giving away more info about myself than I’d like, let’s just say I didn’t fully appreciate how loud, crowded, expensive, and socially inhospitable my new city would be. Perhaps it’s just homesickness, but I also think there’s a real possibility that it’d be very difficult for me to be happy here.

On the work side of things: I don’t dislike the research, but my PI’s personality is the diametrical opposite of mine (and of what I’m used to). He’s very knowledgeable and amicable, but is extremely extroverted and kind of “stream of consciousness” in his thinking, rather than organized and systematic. So if I go to him with an issue in my research, he’ll usually have an off the cuff suggestion, “try this,…”, but  not with helping to formulate a more thorough ‘game plan.’ I kind of feel like I’m twisting in the wind, possibly wasting my time on wild goose chases, wondering if what is supposed to be a 3 or 4 year postdoc will become 5 or 6 years. I’m also pretty sure (or am hoping at least)  I would have decent prospects at finding a job in industry, even if not in my exact field, since, though I’m technically in the life sciences, my education and research has been quantitative, so I have some quantitative skills and am proficient in a couple programming languages. The prospect of immediately making significantly higher salary in a cheaper, more pleasant city vs. spending another 5 or 6 years making postdoc wages here is pretty tempting. I’m trying to take everything into consideration though and make a rational decision.

I guess I should get to the question(s): how bad would it be career-wise if I quit by postdoc early, especially this early? Does it look better (or worse) to wait till I have been here at least a year before jumping ship? Would I likely need a reference letter down the road from my PI? And would asking for a reference from a PI for a postdoc I quit be problematic? How unusual is it for this to happen? If I applied to different jobs, what would I even do for my job talk? Use material from my thesis defense, or from my work in my current lab, or both? I’m struggling with this decision on a lot of levels.

My current plan of action is to make a sort of last ditch effort to make my life work here while also looking for possible positions in a city I used to live in (I liked it there so I can at least avoid the problem of ending up in a city I can’t stand). That of course raises another question: would it be appropriate for me to do in person interviews before even telling them of my intentions? If anyone has made this sort of ‘unplanned transition’ before, any advice on how to do it would be greatly appreciated.

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On 1/6/2020 at 12:08 PM, waveringpostdoc said:

I guess I should get to the question(s): how bad would it be career-wise if I quit by postdoc early, especially this early? Does it look better (or worse) to wait till I have been here at least a year before jumping ship? Would I likely need a reference letter down the road from my PI? And would asking for a reference from a PI for a postdoc I quit be problematic? How unusual is it for this to happen? If I applied to different jobs, what would I even do for my job talk? Use material from my thesis defense, or from my work in my current lab, or both? I’m struggling with this decision on a lot of levels.

My current plan of action is to make a sort of last ditch effort to make my life work here while also looking for possible positions in a city I used to live in (I liked it there so I can at least avoid the problem of ending up in a city I can’t stand). That of course raises another question: would it be appropriate for me to do in person interviews before even telling them of my intentions? If anyone has made this sort of ‘unplanned transition’ before, any advice on how to do it would be greatly appreciated.

I am nearly 2 years into my postdoc and hope I may be of help.

I would say 6 months is a very short time in research. I am also in life sciences and I haven't produced any great results until very recently. It would be ideal to get some publications before you quit. Your CV would look much better. It's still helpful to have publications when you apply for jobs in industry. They would most likely want to hear about both your PhD and postdoc. 

It would also be easier to navigate the reference letter issue with your PI. PIs can be very upset if you leave without producing anything, as they invested funding on you and funding is tight. Other than personality, your PI may think that you are capable of driving your own research as a postdoc, so he would not lay out a game plan in details. Why not do one yourself and go through with him? Then you can fill the gaps with his advice. 

Your current plan of action is great. You don't usually end up in your dream job right away. Try to make the most of your current position and move on to the next. You could apply to jobs in your preferred city while working on your current project. You could request for a phone or skype interview if it's difficult for you to travel there. 

All the best! 

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Kinda late to chime in -- hopefully this post will find it helpful to some.

I'm 2.5 years into my postdoc (in life science or medical science or whatever you find molecular and cell biology relevant), including a lab switch after my 1st year (and remain in the same institution). I'd say that there's little to no reason to continue to do a postdoc in an environment that you dislike. You are a PhD degree holder, an adult. I expected that all these experience that you have had are good reasons to make you feel what you stated. So, I would argue that unless you have a strong desire to stay in academia (i.e. be a TT assistant prof), there's no reason to continue in your current lab.

Now, whether there are merits to do a postdoc or not -- it highly depends on what's your non-academic career goal(s). Being in one of the biggest biotech industries in the States AND went through a job search prior to my current appointment -- there are definitely positions that don't need postdoc experience. Unless you are looking at the biggest possible companies such as Genentech, publication is not a necessity neither. What you do want (aside from connections) - are the skills that you need for a particular type of positions. Even within "Scientist" title, different companies obviously looking for different skill sets, but they can generally be categorized into 3 groups, based on my observation (in my field) and experience (and I'm only talking about wet lab-based techniques). Don't worry, sometimes you will be asked to explain how a particular technique/experiment work, sometimes, in your job talk, you are expected to briefly talked about how you use certain/several skill sets that required for the position that you applied for. In other words, having a publication helps, but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll have a strong CV per se. You can definitely get a job with just 1 year postdoc experience and no publications, so don't let how your CV looks (without a paper) bogged down.

If you intend to go into private sector of the same field (i.e. life science / biotech / biopharma / pharma as opposed to pure tech), you do want to have a talk with your PI regarding your reference (again, after postdoc, unless you are staying in academia, your reference will just be a phone call [more likely] or a e-mail [less likely]). And, if necessary, consider having a second person (i.e. a different PI) as a referee that may address your relationship with your current PI, and about your job search. As for job talk, I got my offers by only talking about my work in grad school and nothing about my postdoc (although I prepared for it).

Finally, you really need to think about what positions do you want to go for after this postdoc, because if it won't be in the same field (e.g. tech as programmer/engineer), then none of these things matters and what you should really do is to build your portfolio / get your bootcamp certificate / and network with those who can give you a referral.

HTH.

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On 1/6/2020 at 5:08 AM, waveringpostdoc said:

I don’t dislike the research, but my PI’s personality is the diametrical opposite of mine (and of what I’m used to). He’s very knowledgeable and amicable, but is extremely extroverted and kind of “stream of consciousness” in his thinking, rather than organized and systematic. So if I go to him with an issue in my research, he’ll usually have an off the cuff suggestion, “try this,…”, but  not with helping to formulate a more thorough ‘game plan.’ I kind of feel like I’m twisting in the wind, possibly wasting my time on wild goose chases, wondering if what is supposed to be a 3 or 4 year postdoc will become 5 or 6 years.

It sounds like your doctoral PI was such that you didn't have to learn certain lessons, and now you're learning this the hard way. You need to consciously work at managing your PI. That's going to involve a lot more prep going into meetings. You also have to take more agency here. Remember, you are yourself an expert! You don't need to follow up on every suggestion. You can ask more specific questions that, taken together, make up a game plan.

Another way to say this is that talks with a supervisor, in academia or outside of it, aren't like reading a game's how-to guide. They're actually a mini-game that you need to become adept at winning.. 

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