A little bit bitch and a little bit buddhist always at the intersection of biology, gender, race, and culture. This blog documents my experience as a Canadian postdoc living and working in the United States. I can't promise to be PG13. In fact I promise not to be PG13.
My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.
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I am having an amazing time working as a visiting postdoc at BigEasternU. It has made me appreciate what I need as a postdoc to thrive. The biggest factor is the nature of the PI.
My supervisor, RedBull, like many supervisors, has strengths and limitations. But one of her biggest limitations is that she is greedy. She wants data and papers, yesterday. When we talk, her interest isn't in talking about the data, the design of the experiment or even ideas - it's what are my goals and when will I have accomplished a. b. and c. On the one hand I can understand why some trainees need that kind of structure. And it can depend on the project. I, think, however, that I have shown I am productive. I don't need to be monitored every day. Writing progress reports every week is really a big waste of a postdoc's time. In the eight month period as her postdoc, I have collected enough data for a manuscript. But even with the data collection I have completed, it amounts to only half a manuscript. This is because of the nature of the work, it's all in the analysis. The type of data I work with requires more than a t-test and can take anywhere between 2-6 months depending on your skill level. And while there is a lot of pre-packaged software, that software is limiting because it often it is designed for model organisms and very specific types of questions. I don't work with a model organism and the questions I ask are different because of the discipline. This means that learning to write your own computer code is a really excellent way to complement and tailor your analysis. But unless you've hired a postdoc with those specific skills, then result are not immediate. It requires patience, as a PI .
And maybe RedBull's "greedy" nature comes from having a billion demands in her life. And her constant worry about funding. As her postdoc, however, I don't feel excited by focusing on ridiculous and unrealistic goals. I think expecting a postdoc to have a manuscript by the end of their first year in your lab is crazy, especially when said postdoc has spent an enormous chunk of her time training undergrads and when she was hired didn't come with the above-mentioned analysis skills. It's not that I don't enjoy a challenge or learning new things, but I don't feel very good about myself if the expectations are I should have something done in a two months when even those with the skills take 6 months. This mentoring style is the quickest way to drive out someone away. Back in RedBull's lab that's exactly what happened, I found myself becoming more and more disillusioned with the academic environment. And you know, it doesn't take much to get me excited. All I need is a chance to talk about the process of science, the data and what it might mean.
I have found that being at BigEasternU, that my love of science has been renewed and I have regrown a healthy respect for the academic environment. I had forgotten what it was like to just talk science with someone who was curious and appreciative about the subtlies of science. Dr.Add'EmUp was like that. We used to sit in his office just exchanging ideas or telling each other about the papers we'd read. Here, the PI of the lab at BigEasternU, ElectricPotential, is exactly like Dr.Add'EmUp in that he is truly interested in talking about the science. He gets very excited when I've shown him unusual results and his excitement is infectious. I have been working at least 10-12 hrs a day here and I love it. ElectricPotential spends time talking with his students with respect and ease always focusing on experimental design or conceptual ideas to help them along. And he's often in the lab until 6pm talking science or expressing excitement about data, as does the rest of his lab. The lab is a dynamic place.
To be fair, RedBull did send me to this lab, knowing that I could benefit from being in this environment. She is incredibly smart and has some interesting ideas, and unlike ElectricPotential she isn't in the lab until 6pm because she has a small child. I'm glad that she leads a life where her priorities are not just science. But I think that her mentoring style is driving a wedge between her and her mentees.
Thankfully, I am here at BigEasternU for a little while longer and I'm hoping that when I return home I can remember that academia can be a dynamic and exciting place to do science and not just a structured workshop for the greedy and narcisstic who can't remember how to put their meat pants on in the morning.
So tell me folks, what's your supervisor like? And if you are a supervisor, how do you think your underlings view you?
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I've been mostly lucky. I'd say that my two best mentors were one who was a summer research mentor (during an internship) and my grad school boss. The summer mentor was very engaged in my success and even after almost 10 years have passed since I met him I ocassionally send him a note and see how he's doing. He's a well established mentor who was doing research mainly for fun, he was doing classic RNA research and through him I learned about the technique I would eventually use in grad school. He was even reference in one of my books, by full name and all and didn't even tell me until I pointed it out!
My grad school mentor would stay for hours talking and designing experiments and approaches to solve the unique needs of our lab. Much like in your postdoc, we had to write our own code, or at least tweak it, for our very specific needs and I'd give it a shot and if I got stuck my mentor was there to push me harder and give a hand when needed. We could talk for a long time about mentoring, mentoring styles and how I could take it to the next level. Sometimes we'd talk for 2, 3 hours straight everyday. It was exhausting at times, especially when I was writing my thesis and I wanted to be done.
My postdoc mentor was good, but had tons of people, and though you could walk into his office and be there for hours on end, he could give you the impression, sometimes, that he wasn't as engaged as you would have liked him to be. Distant, that's the word. But still, I could have fared worse.
My grad school mentor was a lot like RedBull, but my current boss is more like ElectricPotential. Personally, I think being respectful and supportive is the best route because it keeps morale up and it makes people want to work hard to produce good results. It seems like the majority of labs I've encountered have a "RedBull" mentality though.
Honestly, I would currently have to go in the middle, with the Selfishly Curious advisor. On his pet topics, he's very curious, and we have fantastic conversations. On the other hand, he also will expect data in unreasonable time frames for projects that our lab is doing mostly because they seemed more fundable than his real interests. Unfortunately, most of the last year or so has been Selfish, with only occassional bits of Curious.
Excellent topic, especially as I am currently hunting for a new PI :)
My PhD advisor was extremely patient and supportive. She was also very hands-on and someone I could go to when having technical issues. However, I generated a lot of data that amounted to nothing because I lacked direction when it came to putting together a publishable manuscript. My PhD advisor was not publication-orientated enough to give me structure, and as a result I ended up doing a lot of random experiments that most likely will never get included in anything.
My postdoc advisor on the other hand was someone who really did not want to hear about any “issues”. However, when I produced data or ideas he was all about advising or helping me collect what I needed to publish something. More importantly, he taught me how to spend my precious time wisely. I developed from a headless chicken attempting every experiment that might be worthwhile into someone more focused.
Not everyone got on with my postdoc mentor, and I believe it is because he only had time for those who were self-led and took the initiative. I was never afraid to ask questions or assert my opinion, and I really did enjoy talking to someone who simply enjoyed talking about the science. He just was not in the habit of baby-sitting postdocs, and I could respect that.
I believe now I can forge a working relationship with anyone who is secure in their position and able to respect me as a developing scientist. However, I won’t stand to be treated like a technician or a trainee. I shy away from new PIs because they tend to be the worst for it, but for grad students new PIs can provide the attention and technical expertise that more established ones cannot.