Life in science isn’t a bed of roses, and being a postdoc is hard enough as it is. So it is important to keep one’s spirit up, particularly during the long phases of hard work without successful (read “publishable”) results. As in any other workplace though, your general contentment level is influenced by the people around you, especially your peers. Postdocs come in all shapes, sizes and characters, but there are a few character types you want to avoid hanging out with (even if you are one of them), in order to remain sane and content. Surprisingly, like most normal people, postdocs too fit into some characteristic groups (including those you want to avoid). So here are some of the classes of postdocs whom I do my best to avoid (and hope never to become).
The arrogant prick: Unfortunately, this class of postdoc isn’t too uncommon.
This class has two subtypes, (a) the “publication snob” and (b) the “research snob”. The publication snob is the person who thinks anything published in journals other than Cell, Science or Nature is worthless, and tells you exactly how worthless it is every time you see them. This is even if you have just published a very nice piece of work in a “lesser” journal, and (s)he knows about it. Yet, worse than journal snobs are research snobs. These people think the only interesting/important/cool/spectacular research in the world is being done in their lab, and more importantly is being done by them. Everyone else is just wasting taxpayer resources and chemicals. The research snob talks to you with a condescending sneer, and feigns politeness when you talk to him/her about your work, pretending to listen, and then shrugging in a knowing manner while asking you what the big deal is. There is only one person worse than a research snob. That person is a journal AND research snob, and, unfortunately, there are plenty of those as well.
The radiator of negativity™: This class of postdoc must be avoided at all costs. If you see one of them, turn and run the other way. If they see you turning and running, pretend you have forgotten something or have to get back to an experiment (use a timer), and still run. Because, if you spend any time conversing with them, they will effortlessly leave you suicidal. These people ooze out negativity, making everything around them miserable even if you’ve been feeling perfectly happy before seeing them. Here’s a hypothetical sample conversation with a radiator of negativity™.
“Hey, what’s up? Things going well? How’s research and the job search?”
“Not really. I’m stuck working on some papers for publication”
“Isn’t that good?”
“No. They aren’t going to be Cell papers, which means they won’t get me a job, which means I’ve wasted the past five years. This area of research has no future.”
Now you get defensive and worried and say “That’s not really true, is it? You can do good work that isn’t published in Cell and still find a job”, and wonder about that postdoc’s area of research (which you think is pretty hot).
“Not really. Even if the work is good, it doesn’t matter. The system sucks, and there aren’t any jobs out there. Anyway, no one here helps you get a job. What’s the use of working for a famous PI if I can’t find a job. But they don’t help you find a job at all.” moans Negativity, thus in one single stroke making you feel your work is useless, hate your chosen job, your research area, your boss, your institution and also filling your mind with dark thoughts for the future. You are convinced that there is no future and you should have become that doctor your parents always wanted you to be. Meanwhile, Mr/Ms. Negativity walks away without the slightest hint that those words have left your mind in a maelstrom.
The irrevocably depressed: This class of postdoc is only a little better than the radiator of negativity. This person has a naturally depressive personality, and is him/herself easily depressed. It hasn’t helped his/her cause that the past 3 years of ceaseless toil have yielded poor rewards. Which means this person is perennially suicidal. A conversation with this person will be something like this:
“Hey, what’s up? How’s work?”
Deep sigh. “It’s tough. This project isn’t going anywhere. But the boss wants this work done right now. But what’s the use of doing this? It’ll get me nowhere. It’s too late for me now. I don’t know what I’ll do. I can never get a job.” Pause. Another deep sigh. “But you’re ok. You are still young.”
You are left feeling absolutely terrible for that person, and then panic sets in as you start worrying about yourself.
The insane workaholic: This class of postdoc is pure intimidation. This postdoc works 16 hour days seven days a week, juggling 6 experiments every day. His/her eyes are bleary, with dark circles around them. You don’t know when (or if) he/she eats or sleeps. Wears the same sweatshirt almost everyday. One day he/she mentions to you that his/her weekend was very relaxing. It was the first weekend in three years that this person had taken off.
And you wonder if that is what’s needed in order to succeed. Is life as a successful scientist really that hard?
There’s plenty of pressure as it is in being a postdoc. There’s no need to be in any of these classes, making every one around you unhappy. Some people hate happy campers, and wonder how some people can remain reasonably happy always, through ups and downs at work. But I love them, and wish more postdocs were like that. A dash of positivity, a little bit of humility, the ability to laugh off mistakes, and finding time to relax. Just give me enough of that and the postdoc life will remain a lot of fun.