The other night, while hon and I were having our usual heart to heart conversation (as part of his therapy), I mentioned that I’d talked to an outreach and postdoc issues person at school. This person was a tremendous resource to have when I was a student. The great contributions of her position were made even clearer when I moved to Canada and took up a postdoc and was like a chicken without its head while trying to get everything sorted out, from my ID to my status (or lack of it) as an employee, to getting keys and access to buildings and instruments, etc. At the time, my postdoc institution was just getting started on having a point person for not only grad students but postdocs, and also getting a postdoc office in place and a postdoc group. Before I joined the lab, I found the beginnings of a postdoc group and their postings on some obscure corner of the University’s site. There, I read about some of the issues and difficulties that the postdocs were experiencing, along with things to know before and after the move to postdoc town, and a few other tidbits, like getting a social insurance card, provincial healthcare, etc. To put it in context, my postdoc boss had no idea whether or not I qualified for provincial health insurance (I did, after a short waiting period), whether I’d be issued a social insurance number (I was), or where the office for dispensing lab keys was located (in their defense, the place had changed and no one other than the lab manager had been able to locate it).
That’s when it dawned on me how important it is to have dedicated people in the university to help postdocs navigate those waters. I remember feeling so lost and I had to go to 15 different places, but there was no order to do things and more than once I found myself going to the key office without the paperwork, or trying to pay by cheque when it was only cash, or the other way around. My boss had no idea because there was no centralized effort to tell him what to do and most of the people in the lab were locals, so he had no frame of reference to guide me through.
The other topic the outreach lady and I talked about was how much I was still frustrated by my postdoc. It’s been almost 3 years since I left. I had decent success in my first job out of the postdoc, and that landed me where I am today, managing a lab. I can’t complain. In fact, I don’t. I’ve been extremely lucky, or blessed, by all the moves I’ve made since I left my postdoc. Somehow I’ve always have food on my table, even when I was so stressed out and thought I wouldn’t make it to the end of month. Even when it seemed as if all the cards were stacked against me, I made it by some miracle or coincidence.
But even after all that, I was still frustrated by my postdoc. Sometimes I think back and realize how miserable and depressed I was. I can’t understand how I kept going. Many times, even with what I considered a good paycheque, even with the ability to have money to go on a small vacation (or at least a trip to Niagara), I was so very miserable. I think back and can’t understand what kept me afloat. Because I hated it all. I hated my lab, my boss, myself. Myself more than everyone. I had no mercy for myself after making what seemed like the worst mistake of my life. I could see no point to having done a postdoc.
I mentioned this to honey and he reminded me (as he always does), that things happen for a reason. Perhaps the resilience I had during my two years in postdoc hell were necessary, not only for my own growth, but for the series of other postdocs and grad students that have reached out during and after that time. He reminded me of the somewhat mentori-ish role I’ve had for a few of the readers that find me while doing a google search for ‘frustrated postdoc’ or ‘I have my postdoc’ or ‘living with a lab bully’ and a few other terms. I posted what I did to move to Ontario and not have my stuff confiscated at the border (little chance of that happening). I wrote about taxes and the lists of things to know and do when you’ve landed said postdoc.
Every time I see those terms my heart breaks. My heart breaks because I know what it feels like to be there. To feel trapped and the ensuing depression. I’ve been very fortunate mentor-wise. My PhD boss was really good, and while I hated postdoc lab, my PD boss was a good person. My NYC boss was a hardass, but the people under him (which I saw and interacted with more than with the boss) were (are) excellent. My current overlords are pretty neat too (which is one of the reasons to take on this job). But I know that not everyone is that fortunate. That I’ve been privileged to have pretty standard circumstances, no major deaths in the family, decent health, a husband with a flexible schedule that has allowed us to be together, or at least have good communication when we haven’t been able to live together. I’ve been privileged to speak the language and not have to learn a new one, to live within the same hemisphere as a family, to call as needed, without long distance charges. But other can’t, others don’t have it like I did. Others have vindictive bosses, or more than one lab bully, or bosses that leave them hanging after getting a cushy position elsewhere. And in a small way, I hope I’ve been a mentor, even if online.
I hope that having me post my frustrations with my postdoc, my failing the qual in grad school, my road to getting out of the postdoc and into a semi-academic environment, my dealings with people and labs, and instruments, serves in a very small way to help keep some of you afloat, the same way that other did (and still do) for me. I know that I don’t have juicy things to write anymore about hating my lab or being frustrated at my mentor. But, knowing that others are still searching for help is a good enough reason to keep the blog alive, even if my writing is not as eloquent or as interesting as it used to.
Thanks for staying in touch and know that others have gone through similar situations and made it out, and thrived, even after being in labs that weren’t an obvious success in our CVs. Because there are lessons to learned and shared for those in the early stages of their careers.