The Four Horsemen of the Postdocalypse
The Four Horsemen of the Postdocalypse
Contributed by Michelle | August 2013
Image courtesy of Matchack
These are four pitfalls you can fall into during your postdoc that will bring a state of frustration, alienation, and, ultimately, failure down around your ears.
2) Unrealistic expectations
The horsemen are brothers: they are very closely related and feed off of each other, acting in synergy during the progression toward a final, spectacular meltdown—THE POSTDOCALYPSE.
Is this you? (I have literally seen this scenario play out—the resulting lack of productivity led to the postdoc being asked to leave.) You’ve just finished grad school and joined a new lab. As the new postdoc, you want to make a good impression on everyone. You’re not a grad student anymore: you’ve got three more letters after your name, so therefore you know more than Joe Technician or Jane Grad Student. As they patiently try to show you the ropes of the lab, you act like you already understand everything (you’ll read a lot of papers and get yourself up to speed later—nobody has to know that you’re not a super-genius). Worse yet, you make comments like “well, in my lab at OXFORD, we did it this way.” Lab personnel will naturally assume that you do not need their help—or conclude that you’re an arrogant [insert expletive] and avoid you like the plague.
It’s important to remember that a postdoc is a traineeship: an opportunity to learn new ideas and techniques, and to gain experience that will help to mold you—the newly minted Ph.D.—into an independent investigator. In no way are you expected to be independent or know everything from the outset. YOU NEED HELP. With that in mind, humble yourself and realize that the technician who has been around for X years knows a lot more about the lab (and probably the area of research in general) than you do. View everyone in the lab as a potential source of information and technical help—and make them your allies.
2) Unrealistic expectations
Maybe this scenario hits closer to home (I fell into this one!): It’s been three months—you should have the hang of this by now and be well on your way to your first paper. However, you’re completely lost and afraid that, if you ask for help, your colleagues and advisor will discover that you’ve fooled everyone (even your Ph.D. committee!) and that, underneath it all, you’re actually stupid.
Unfortunately, this feeling can be a self-fulfilling prophecy: the cycle continues on, much like a perpetual motion machine, until you are so far behind that your advisor begins to think that hiring you was a bad decision.
By not asking for help, you are being stupid.
Okay, I didn’t wait for three months—but it was at least one, and I was also suffering from “my-boss-is-so-busy-that-I-shouldn’t-bother-him-with-this-stuff” syndrome. So how did mustering the courage to speak to my advisor work for me? “You should have come to me sooner,” he [fairly] said, BUT he realized that I needed more training/help and, since he himself was unfamiliar with the technique, he actually brought in an expert.
Go to your advisor—RIGHT AWAY—if you’re feeling lost. If you are pro-active and meet with your advisor immediately after being hired, you will discuss (i.e., make sure you do!) what realistic goals you should be shooting for and identify milestones along the way so that you both know that your progress is satisfactory. Then, if you’re not meeting those milestones in what you feel is an appropriate time, you can circle back and discuss the obstacles you’re encountering. Better yet, maybe you will fill out and discuss an Individual Development Plan  with your advisor, which will essentially provide a roadmap of what is expected of you and how best your advisor can mentor you.
This can really be a symptom of the previous two pitfalls. If you have been perceived as an arrogant know-it-all, then you have most likely alienated the other members of the lab. You will have to eat some crow and admit that you didn’t know as much as you thought you did. Then ask Joe Technician and Jane Grad Student for help. On the other hand, if you’ve unrealistically decided that everyone thinks you should know your stuff by now, you likely duck for cover if you see your labmates or your advisor walking down the hall, since you don’t want to have to explain your lack of data.
Head this off by meeting with your advisor often, and from the beginning.
That being said, plan ahead for what you are going to say. Advisors like to see that you are using your problem-solving skills. If you are having difficulties, explain troubleshooting strategies you’ve tried, and what you plan to try next—then ask for your advisor’s input. Always demonstrate that you have given a lot of thought to the problem and have come up with ways to address it, not, “I don’t know what to do” [flings self dramatically into chair and throws hands in the air].
Reach out to your peers. Realize that even though the person across the hall is in neurophysiology while you’re in molecular biology, you may be utilizing some of the very same techniques. Set up a regular discussion with other postdocs and grad students in your building—maybe a monthly brown-bag lunch, round-robin style, where one or a few people discuss data, new papers, textbook chapters, problems, troubleshooting, difficulties, frustrations, etc. The advice and ideas that you can mine from this type of interchange is invaluable.
If you have fallen into any or all of the previous pitfalls, this rider is already saddled up and in the gate.
You are plagued by feelings of isolation. You haven’t been able to make anything work, and your frustration may be giving way to resentment. Maybe you’re giving up, and not working as hard as you should to fix the problems…maybe even surfing the web on the sly? Applying to the odd job posting?
It’s inevitable that your advisor is going to come looking for data, and the longer you procrastinate, the worse it will get. Rip off the Band-Aid and meet with him or her now, get the help you need, then meet with your advisor consistently—with data in hand. Ask to be scheduled to present new data once a month for your lab’s meetings: this gives you a firm deadline that you will run up against on a monthly basis and should help motivate you to stay on track.
Even if you’re doing everything right, you may still be endangered by Non-Productivity. For example, let’s say you are doing an aging study on a particular animal model. It could be months before your animals are ready for experimentation. What can you be doing in the meantime to be productive? Are there other animals that you can work with to hone your skills with the technique, maybe even gathering control data, or “proof-of-principle” preliminary data? Could you use the data to write an abstract for a national meeting? These are questions that you should address with your advisor.
To sum up: the common thread running throughout this post—the Horsemen’s bane, if you will—is COMMUNICATION. When you don’t do it, badness ensues.
If you’re a new postdoc, then hopefully you will see this post and avoid the frustration I’ve described above.
If you’re a few years in, it’s a much tougher situation because you may already be halfway to Postdocalypse Now. It’s time to have a frank conversation with your advisor, and again, you will have to eat some crow. If it’s gotten this far, realize that you are as much to blame—if not more—than your advisor. The conversation might start out something like this: “I have realized over the last few months that I have not been as productive in this postdoc as I need to be, and I have some thoughts on how to get back on track. I’d like to get your input.” Notice how positive that is? You’ve acknowledged that there’s a problem, and you’re taking charge and turning it around. A conversation like this will go a long way toward rebuilding your (undoubtedly strained) relationship with your advisor.
As a final tip, I encourage you to join your university’s postdoctoral association. Go to the events and reach out to other postdocs. You will inevitably find one who is or has been in a similar situation to yours. Find out what they did to make it better, and remember that you are not alone.
 Fuhrmann, C., J.A. Hobin, B. Lindstaedt, and P.S. Clifford. Individual Development Plan. Science Careers. myidp.sciencecareers.org.