Post doc woes

A friend came to me last week seeking not so  much advice as absolution. She’s a  mid-career faculty with funding and a small lab (her choice, she also has a family). She has a problem postdoc (2 years in the lab). She knew the postdoc was marginal  when she started. It was a case of use it or lose it money (someone else’s grant) that had a lot of flexibility (the someone was being generous to the young collaborative colleague), and it was at an odd time of year (late fall), so she took a gamble on this postdoc.

The postdoc has made a number of bad choices. Now five years post-degree, she has only 4-5 first/single authored pubs. My friend keeps saying to the postdoc “publish, publish, publish”. The postdoc works slowly, too slowly my friend says. Takes too much time off. [Note to young people managing labs: if you don’t insist on managing or keeping track of trainee hours in the beginning, but productivity, you can’t complain about time taken off, as long as the productivity is there].

But, my friend agrees that the postdoc is a good lab member.  She is good at training new people, willing to help, and does excellent work.The trouble is that the postdoc really thinks that she knows better. She’s picked her own project (in the mentor’s view, not a good thing as it was risky, and didn’t necessarily have followup funding) and it has mostly failed.

Now the funding is coming to an end. Postdoc wants to spend last 4-5 months writing grants and jobs. Mentor doesn’t care too much what postdoc does at this point, but tried to tell the postdoc that post doc’s CV is not competitive for either grants or jobs without more pubs.

I think the postdoc is near the end of the road, and just can’t cope and understand what went wrong. My friend just wants to let go, rather than scramble for money for this person. Friend said to post-doc: do what you want, and just took the loss. I don’t think the friend should give an open trainee position to this postdoc, but look for someone better.

This is just another version of a question that has been asked many times, and answered for many situations: what is the mentor’s responsibility to the trainee? When is ok to say, I’ll write letters, but not grants for you?

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3 thoughts on “Post doc woes

  1. If the post-doc is now 5 years out and presumably in their 2nd post-doc (since they’ve only been with your friend for 2 years), it’s time for some introspection on the part of the post-doc. I definitely think your friend did the right thing in letting pd go, but it might be a solid mentoring move to help the pd to really see what went wrong, and to brainstorm/network (if possible) some other paths besides academic jobs/grants, if those things are not in the cards.

    And since you brought it up, what are your thoughts on managing time in lab vs. managing productivity? Still something I’m thinking about as my lab works out its growing pains.

  2. Introspection only works if one is open to listening and understanding. Time management of trainees is worthy of its own post.

  3. Above a certain threshold, productivity and nights/weekends in lab do not correlate. People just get in the habit of living in (and wasting time) in the lab. Postdocs usually have a contract that specifies vacation time, but also some official joke of weekly hours (something like 37.5). So, as a PI, it is hypocritical to quote rules about vacation time while expecting (rightly) hours far exceeding the contract…in effect using the parts of the agreement that benefit you but ignoring those that “favor” the trainee.

    Ultimately, however, it’s the postdoc’s career… she has to feel like she is working for herself, not you, because if they are just working for you, why not put in the minimum? It’s not like we get overtime. If the postdoc won’t take career ownership, yeah, it’s time for them to go.

    The flip side of this is that for productive postdocs you need to just let go and allow them manage their own time. I definitely take more than 2 weeks a year off (what our contract says) and won’t take any shit about it.

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