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Postdoc going wrong after good PhD, how to get out


User: Leay - 25 October 2020 00:10

Hi all,

I got my PhD in April, soon after which I started my postdoc. I am in the USA and I do research in an engineering field.
My PhD went great and I have a good publication record. I first authored about 30% of the papers published by my group during the last 4 years, even if 6 PhD students were in the lab during my presence there.
I ended up doing a postdoc in a very well known institution in the US. When I was offered the position, they presented me an exciting project, apparently the perfect position given my research interests and background (mathematical modeling and computational fluid dynamics in particular). Also, my salary is much higher than the average postdoc. That looked perfect.
Now, six months after I was hired, I am recognizing that none of the mathematical modeling they promised is really there. My assignment is actually consisting in debugging a pre-existing code, documenting the corrections I make, providing feedbacks. Issues usually consist in wrong variable names, typos and other similar bugs, so there isn’t anything really scientific in what I am doing. No particular expertise is required as all I am doing just spending my days looking at a screen and catching bugs. Of course, there is no perspective to publish anything of this, neither I am growing or learning something. Realistically, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future. I even tried to propose some some new developments which I think may benefit the project, but I was just told not to distract from what the sponsor is paying for, as this activity is ‘‘more about application, rather then development’’. As I have said, this is not what they sold me when they first offered the position.
While it may be acceptable that I don’t have a work to submit six month after I started, what is worrying me is that I can’t even see any perspective for publishable results. There is no goal to aim to, besides this sort of technical consulting I am doing right now.
On the long run, spending two two years like this is just going to compromise my (good, up to now) CV and publication record. Getting a better salary now is not worth putting at risk my future chances to stay in research, especially if I won’t get a permanent position here and I will have to switch workplaces.

Here come my questions:

1) Do you think I am overthinking or is this a real concern?
2) While I sure have the credentials to find some other places, I don’t know how this may be seen by potential employers. Should I wait for some offers (unlikely to happen as it can be seen online that I am currently employed, and in any case it’s not that I can hide it)? Or should I actively look for something new (I am worried that wanting to leave an ongoing project will be seen negatively)? In other words, how to get out from a situation that is likely to hurt my future career?

User: rewt - 27 October 2020 00:45

It sounds like you have a programming job and not a post-doc. It is only a concern if you want to continue in academia, if so there is no shame in leaving. Be honest with your supervisor that you are looking for a more research active post-doc and it is also okay to say that in an interview.

User: Leay - 29 October 2020 01:13

Thank you rewt. I think that it may harm me if I look an industry job as well, as it is extremely trivial programming - albeit long and tedious.

User: abababa - 30 October 2020 00:52

Partly this is the 'shock' every postdoc gets after a PhD. What was a passionate (ideally), self-centered approach to research inevitable has to become a job, with all the boilerplate work that entails.

However, if you want to progress in academia, this shouldn't be your sole remit, and something you will need to push against. You want to get, as quickly as possible, to a position where you're proposing work you want to do and angling for the funding to do it. What you don't want to end up as is a technical developer paid 50% of an industry salary.

Rewt is absolutely right (as is usually the case!); this doesn't sound disastrous but the strategic thing to do is care less about the bug catching (not your project - who cares if a few slip through, unless they invalidate research you're co-authoring), and focus on identifying funding streams, or your own independent research leading to publication. This will be hard, if, as most computer scientists, you're happier with your head down in code than accepting proposal rejections for subjective reasons, or getting out networking (as much as covid permits!).

If there's one thing I learned in my own PhD>postdoc transition is that the biggest difference is that nobody will tell you what to do, other than the immediate work. It's (ostensibly) your own freedom outside of doing the mandatory grind - which with personal hindsight I recommend to keep to the bare minimum - that you need to use to shape your own research career. This does not come naturally after doing a PhD in which you're basically on one project, focused, and getting feedback around it. But unless the situation is absolutely terrible (in which case move), you'd hope your manager would be open to 'I want to write a grant on x, can you give me some support?', or 'I have a great idea for some independent research...'.

User: sciencephd - 30 October 2020 01:15

I think you need to get out of this shithole as soon as possible! This PI tricked you, and later they will probably continue to do harm to you. The sooner you get out of there, the better you will protect yourself from further harm.
And you don't need to hide anything from any potential PI when you look for a new position. It's not your fault, so just tell them the truth. Once you tell them the true reason behind your move, they'll see you're a true scientist and an ambitious young researcher.

User: Leay - 31 October 2020 01:53

Abababa, I am not a computer scientist actually. My expertise is developing mathematical models for physics and engineering applications, making them work with proper numerical methods and validating then. Coding is functional to this, but I wouldn’t call myself a programmer. If they want to maintain/fixing a code, there are probably tons of better candidates.

I only wrote one proposal in my PhD, but I can say I loved every minute of those years, including networking (I was always looking forward to the next meeting or conference), reviewer/editorial duties, addressing reviews, mentoring students, proposing my own ideas and demonstrating their value.

In my present position I have none of those responsibilities, besides that I am still a reviewer and an editor (not editor in chief, I edit some special issues related to my field). My workplace - a govt lab - policy is just incompatible with proposing my own projects or finding resources. At most, I can publish without affiliation and without having access to any resources - not even CPU time on the cluster - besides my personal computer. I was aware of these limitations beforehand, but I was also expecting that I would get publications from my ‘’official’‘ activity. Looks like my group is much more business than science focused, and getting this code ready for commercial use is their top priority, which I was unfortunately unaware of when I signed.





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