Working Life

Lessons from a postdoc gone wrong

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Science  18 Jan 2019:
Vol. 363, Issue 6424, pp. 314
DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6424.314

I sat hunched over my computer screen, analyzing data, when a university administrator walked into our lab and handed out a series of sealed envelopes. Puzzled, I opened the letter addressed to me: “It has become necessary for the University to effect a layoff of your position as a Postdoctoral Scholar.” In silence, my labmates opened their own letters, all of which said essentially the same thing. I knew that our lab was under investigation, but I had no inkling that my job was in jeopardy, so the news came as a huge shock. My mind raced from concerns about my personal finances—“How will I pay rent?”—to questions about my future in science: “How will we finish our experiments? Will this mark the end of my research career?”


Three years earlier, I had started my postdoc brimming with enthusiasm, excited to work for a brilliant scientist on a project that, we hoped, would help people with hearing loss—a group that includes me. My enthusiasm was short-lived. Almost as soon as I arrived, it became clear that the lab had problems. For one, my supervisor had been receiving animal care violation warnings for the lab's work with mice for years. They continued to pile up during my tenure, at times forcing us to suspend our experiments. Eventually, our funding was cut off entirely and the lab was shut down.

I ended up digging out of the mess and moving on to a second postdoc. Now I'm back to doing research that I love in a functional lab, and I'm glad I persevered. But looking back, I wish I hadn't sunk so much time into my first postdoc lab. I should have quit and moved on much sooner. For others who may be in similar situations, here are tips to avoid drowning with a sinking ship.

DO NOT BE BLINDED BY PASSION. Enthusiasm and drive are key ingredients for scientific careers. However, they can be problematic when they prevent you from seeing warning signs clearly. My intense desire to find treatments to reverse hearing loss led me to mistakenly write off serious lab issues as small bumps in the road. Had I been more objective, I would have realized that those “bumps” were actually major obstacles.

TAKE PERSONNEL DYNAMICS SERIOUSLY. Collaboration and teamwork are essential in science; you can't function as an island. Blinded by passion, I disregarded the lack of honest communication with my supervisor about the problems in our lab. In retrospect, that was an obvious warning sign.

DO NOT BE TRAPPED BY FEAR. I fretted that if I didn't publish anything from my postdoc, no one would hire me. That's one reason I stuck with my ill-fated lab. But the concern turned out to be unfounded. Finding a new position after I was laid off wasn't easy, but I survived by being transparent about what happened and pushing forward with confidence. One thing that helped me move past my postdoc mess was looking back at my past successes to remind myself that I am a good scientist.

FOCUS ON YOURSELF. Pointing fingers is easy, but burning bridges—and wasting energy on casting blame—won't help you move forward. When problems arise, don't engage in pointless battles. Instead, take stock of your situation and decide what's best for you. Write down the pros and cons of your job; examine your career goals; and talk to your trusted mentors, colleagues, friends, and family. Along the way, be open to the possibility that it may be best to quit.

DO NOT WAIT FOR THE LAST STRIKE. Don't waste time in a bad environment. During my 3 years in my first postdoc lab, there were many times when I should have quit, but instead I hung on, hoping the situation would improve. Your life is not a game. Don't wait for strike three.

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