Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Postdoc personalities

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.


sunshine said...

nice classification :)..
work-a-holics escpecially drive me crazy.. in any field.. shudn't they be in re-hab?

Anonymous said...

The irrevocably depressed sounds like the character of Marvin (Depressed Robot) from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Anonymous said...

Post docs should not exist.
They are too scared to go to the real world and face real competitions and real work.

After a PhD, they still don't have enough conviction to be faculty. Pfshh.. Anything you do as a post doc, you can do as junior faculty, perhaps better.

The system likes them cos they are highly qualified CHEAPASS labour which has no clue about its own worth.

These are grown up babies that are highly skilled at some specific task but really pretty dysfunctional otherwise.

In other words, Losers. with a PhD.

Shilpa said...

Nice classification. Having worked with postdocs during my masters I can identify these types.

I was going to stop but I just saw the offensive comment by anonymous about postdocs. I beg to differ. Postdocs do a postdoc because they want to become teachers/researchers in a University and not many good universities will take you with no postdoc experience right out of school so please stop judging them and give them some respect for what they have achieved in life. Getting a PhD is no joke, they slog for 5-6 years and churn out papers and work on a small income to get where they are. A little respect would do you a world of good, arrogance brings you down.

Sunil said...

sunshine....i know a few who could be in rehab. Or at least, need to take a long vacation :-)

maduraiveeran.....I actually was thinking of Marvin when I wrote that section of this post. That is exactly whom I think of when I see some of these guys. And they're just as paranoid as well.

Anon....thanks for your kind words, and for calling me a loser.
I don't think you'll care about this.....but you might even be surprised to know that most postdocs don't want to or like being postdocs. At least in the basic sciences, a postdoc (or two) is REQUIRED before you are even considered worthy of a junior faculty position. There just aren't that many faculty positions out there. And it is just as hard in industry, where it is very hard to get a job. It shouldn't be that way (and it wasn't so even 20 years ago), but that's how it is.

Shilpa.....thanks. At least someone out there who isn't a phd sees how it can be.

Nandini Vishwanath said...

LOL Came here through Desipundit. My husband is a post-doc. In something scientific and does not worry about publications at all. Sometimes I wonder ;)

Sunil said...

nandini......hmm, I wonder too :)
He's either incredibly prolific (and so doesn't need to worry about publications), or doesn't care at all about his work, or he's one of those rare individuals who has reached scientific tranquility... a nirvana of sorts.

Anonymous said...

After a PhD, they still don't have enough conviction to be faculty.

Yeah, if only they had "conviction", they'd just reach out and pluck one of the many faculty positions available to freshly minted PhDs. Dude, you are either the dumbest fuck ever, or the lamest troll ever.

BTW, I'm here via Coturnix's Praxis carnival.

postdoc way of life said...

good classification.

i work with a "paper snob" who paid 4000 bucks to publish and worked blindly for 1 year without any result later.

Sunil said...

physioprof......i'm a long time lurker on your blog (I've never commented), so i'm delighted to see you here. I think anon would be the lamest troll ever :-)

postdoc way of life.....postdocs have a way of life? And i truly am sorry for that paper snob, and hope you survive working with him/her. 4000 bucks to publish what????

convergence said...

Through various search terms on many independent occasions I came across your blog and thought it might be worth saying Hi. The stuff you comment on cab be found everywhere.

After 20 years I got so fed up with these issues I wrote a book - see below.

I have been in basic research for over 20 years and it has too often disappointed me how all too easily genuinely talented people slip through the academic cracks never to be heard of again. Indeed as a result of both my own frustrations over the last 20 years or so and observating similar struggles of so many other people, I wrote a book about these and other issues (Convergence...go to

Whereas there are legitmate "glass ceiling" arguments I feel these dont go deep enough into the problem that affects all young would-be scientists (even those a little more seasoned).

At the most basic level, my novel Convergence is about 4 postdocs who face a constant battle to get their feet on the next rung of the academic ladder. There are typical roadblocks that will be familar to all postdocs. However, at a deeper level I ask why is it that there are some who no matter how impoverished intellectually or how bankrupted in sincerity they may be, they always seem to do well while those that possess clear scientific intellect and an abundance of sincerity do so poorly.

Sometimes people need to see the precise manner by which such biases occur, indeed some need to see it blow by agonizing blow, for the penny to drop. How can such otherwise smart people not see they've had their pockets picked?

Really it's a mind set, that it just never occurs to some that you can't just be academically smart or sincere about why you're into research. Without critical networking skills all that potential is lost. In the end such people end up cycling thorugh one postdoc position after another and then disappear without a trace.

The book asks so many questions about the dynamics of the academic community, but ultimately I try to provide food for thought with 4 cautionary tales for those wanting to pursue a career in the biomedical sciences.

As stated, after reading your blog, I thought I'd take a gamble and contact you. I've gotten very frustrated with agents, publishers, online directories and various other "resources" that are supposed to direct traffic to new books or authors. So I thought by contacting you, I might at least take a more direct route to alerting the core audience my novel tagets that my website exists.

Thank you for taking the time to read this response.


Sunita Subramanian said...

hey sunil..this is your sub junior from anna..:-).... i recently started my postdoc in Spain (Madrid) at the cancer research institute... i think your blogs are extremely insightful and entertaining..will see to it that i stick around happy people who radiate hope and positivity as much as possible so i don't turn into a manic depressive postdoc myself..:-)