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The most important lesson I learnt from my postdoc career up until now is that there is no best lab nor best mentor in the world, but there is the best match to the individual postdoc.
Struggling and decision making
It was a very hard decision for a junior postdoc like me to hit the stop button early in the career. Especially, since I only had been at my job for a year or so. It was my first full-time job after graduate school, and I was extremely grateful to my mentor for offering me the job. My project was interesting and had a lot of mystery for me to solve. And I liked working on it.
Life as a postdoc is quite intense, especially for international postdocs with strong nostalgia. Sometimes I just wanted to sneak away for a while from my busy lab work and enjoy my hobbies, just like I had done when I was a PhD student back in my hometown-Shanghai, China. However, this wasn’t possible anymore. Every day I was working at the bench. I was told by my PI of what to do and I seldom had time to read literature, which I think is detrimental to critical thinking and in creating ideas. Developing the ability to have independent critical thinking is very crucial for a scientist, but the reality sometimes turns out to be quite the opposite.
The postdoc position is meant to be the period when an early-career scientist can embark deeper into scientific discovery, but I quickly found myself reading more papers regarding how to improve my technical skills than on actual scientific discoveries within my field. Passive learning and being inculcated with ideas were not for me. Instead, I wanted to get more training on developing ideas and being independent for the future. The reality was however quite contrary to my dream postdoc life.
There were times I was determined to stay and finish my projects but there were also times I wanted to quit as soon as possible. I talked to my friends and families for advice on what to do. They were all very supportive and helped me to consider the pros and cons. As a result, I chose to continue my work, but as time passed by I tried to imagine my life for the next few years. Was it still possible for me to realize the initial dream I had when I started graduate school several years ago? I began to think about my physical and mental life in the long run. Eventually, I decided to quit regardless of the effort I had made and even the life-risking challenges I took in the past months.
To quit in the middle of my project would mean no support for my potential grant. Writing a grant for oneself and getting one is crucial to a postdoc if you want to continue your career in academia. The grant – if you get it – will not only serve as a shiny spot in your C.V. and also when you are job hunting for faculty. Hence, think deep before you make the final decision.
Eventually, I knocked at the door that would quit my first postdoc job and send me into uncharted territory.
I cannot guarantee my current postdoc lab best fits me or it is the ONE. Although I found a new lab to continue my postdoc pretty quickly, there is no guarantee it will be the best for me in the end. Regrets happens and who knows how it will feel further down the line. At the same time, I miss the intensive work during lockdown at my old lab.
I do believe there is no best lab or best mentor in the world. Nevertheless, maybe there is a best match to individual postdoc. One must be aware that it takes time and effort to explore and to find the right one. While I was learning a lot already when I was searching for postdoc position after I got my PhD, there is still more to be learnt now and in the future. As the saying goes, it’s never too old to learn. Now my working environment is totally different, and my science lifestyle changes a lot. I’m still adjusting myself hoping to work my life goal out in my new lab.
A decision to leave is always hard to make, especially at the beginning of a postdoc career when trying to get to know the project, the resources, the people within a lab and outside, and all the connections of course. To quit a postdoc position within two years risks sending a signal of not being able to keep a job. But in the end, you must be honest to yourself and if you feel that the job does not meet up to your life goals, you may as well give it up early and look for something better. This may entail that your planned first-author paper turns out to be your co-first-author or second author or even worse, but this is a sacrifice you will have to make. Looking for a new job during the pandemic was extremely hard with many restrictions and rules. For international scholars, VISA and travel ban issues have been – and still are – serious obstacles to the academic career. But there is always some hope as long as you keep trying.
You can always ask for advice from close friends and supervisors of the employer university or institute, and then make a pros and cons list including short-term benefits and long-term. And do not forget to include your own physical and mental health into the list, since your health is the most dominant of all. Papers, awards and positions are all meaningless without well-being.
I was lucky enough to find an open position within my university with my expertise matching the lab. Hence, never hesitate to pause your career. It’s never too late to quit if the lab or environment doesn’t work. It is the long-term benefit that is the most important and the one you need to focus on.
1. Doing both COVID-19 and non-COVID research simultaneously during lockdown. https://ecrcommunity.plos.org/2021/03/20/doing-both-covid-19-and-non-covid-research-simultaneously-during-lockdown/
2. Is it a transition or a continuation? From PhD student to Postdoc. https://ecrcommunity.plos.org/2020/04/03/is-it-a-transition-or-a-continuation-from-phd-student-to-postdoc/