Self-Diagnosing Your PhD or Postdoc: Assess for Success

BY: THOMAS R COUGHLIN, PHD

Note from the authors: This article explains the roots of specific systemic problems that can exist in a PhD or postdoctoral position. The information has been gathered from first-hand experiences, colleague testimonials, and research into academic programs.

Throughout your PhD and postdoctoral (postdoc) appointment, it’s vital to check the pulse of your progress. At some point in the process, you will get the question from peers, friends, or family, of “So, how’s it all going?” Many people will not understand what it takes to do a PhD or postdoc and many friends in “industry” will not truly understand the way it works. So to answer the question, of “how’s it all going?”, you will first, have to know where you are going and then, know if what you’re currently doing is getting you there. So let’s talk about how to know, “how’s it all going?”

The position (PhD or postdoc) can be broken down into 3 main areas:

1. Your Environment,
2. Your Advisor, and
3. Your Project.

In addition, to being able to know currently how it is going, identifying, understanding each area of your position (PhD or postdoc) will empower you to proactively solve or mitigate unhealthy situations that you might be in. In the below Figure, we depict a quick analysis of The Right Stuff and The Wrong Stuff for these 3 main areas. Take a look to see what you have and then continue below for an in-depth understanding.

1. Diagnosing Your Environment

The environment consists of several factors: including your university, advisor, lab members, funding to the lab, lab capabilities and equipment, and the general feel or atmosphere of the different labs or facility. The root of what makes a good or bad environment is dependent on multiple factors. Does the advisor have tenure, and how much pressure is the advisor under from the University, are two questions that can be helpful in determining the situation you are in.

University and Advisor

High pressure from the university on advisors to produce grants and make the university money equals stressed-out researchers under pressure to produce. Similarly, if the advisor does not have tenure and the tenure necessities of the University are very high, the professor will likely be under a great deal of pressure to produce quality publications, obtain grant funding, and build a strong research profile. Of course, if the advisor is more latent in their career or not as motivated to do research, this will affect the general environment.

Medical Institutions

Certain Universities are under greater restrictions to produce. In medical universities the professors’ pay can come 50% from grants and 50% from the academic institution. Tenure needs can be very high for these professors.

Teaching Institutions

In academic institutions, the university can fund the professors at 75% and have 25% of their salaries come from overhead on grants. This can create a more stable position for the professor as typically, these institutions’ professors are not under as much pressure to produce grants or research, because they are expected to teach more.

These different environments put more focus on different aspects of the professor’s production capabilities. They are either asked to produce more research and their job depends more on this (medical institution) or they are asked to focus more on teaching and research enabling a more academic environment. Both environments are good. Medical institutions can be more focused on translating basic science to clinical products and offer different insights and experiences than an academic institution can.

Lab Members

Lab members impact the general environment. A toxic lab environment can be created from uncertain researchers that are unsure of their given situation. This can manifest into many problems, including some pretty nasty extremes. Knowing your in a toxic lab environment can be understood over time and by also diagnosing another person’s situation, in the same manner you’d look at your own.

UnTenured Advisors 

Obtaining tenure is a difficult process that differs from institution to institution. The work to obtain tenure can be insurmountable and in some cases it actually is insurmountable.

Working in a lab where a professor is seeking tenure has positives and drawbacks. Untenured professors offers many positives. They are usually hard working. With that, they are usually very reliant on a PhD student or postdoc. They will be very motivated to build a great research program and a position in an untenured faculty lab will give a breadth of experience unmatched in other positions.

PhD candidates should recognize there are always unknowns lurking in their programs.  A professor’s opportunity to obtain tenure  could be ended forcing him to relocate to another university or possibly leave the country for another opportunity.  You may need to move with him as funding could have been transferred. This could mean starting over in a new lab in order to remain at the institution.

Other unforeseen drawbacks might include a trickle down of stress originating from high tenure demands of the department or your professor. Usually this type of stress can be managed with open communication between lab partners and your support system. If the stress in unmanageable, you may have to make a choice, put your nose to the grindstone and do good, consistent research or leave the position. Sometimes difficult circumstances can greatly affect all aspects of your life. If you are in a difficult situation, all you can do is do good research and be consistent. I was recently speaking to a student who described a lab where the hourly week climbed from 45 hours to 60 hours, plus weekends. The professor was pleased with the amount of work, but the lab’s atmosphere was toxic.  Students were in stiff competition to produce papers and get their names out there to the research community. Only the most rigid students were able to keep this schedule. For the rest it was a recipe for burnout. In an ill-managed lab, a professor’s approach and attitude in this situation can really make or break it. They should be working harder than anyone else and wanting it to succeed more than anyone else.

2. Diagnosing Your Advisor

No, I don’t mean to actually diagnose your advisor.

However, note: not every advisor will understand or try to understand their lab’s environment. I have spoken to fellow PhD students regarding their advisors.  They spoke of low moral and felt their research was crawling toward a dead end. The advisor was so immersed in getting and maintaining his grant status, he had little time to look in on research or advise.  One student spoke of spending two years working on stem cell separation project without ever receiving feedback on his lack of progress.  In the end, this student received his PhD and chose a different career.

If your advisor is good at getting grants, good at maintaining structure and a schedule in the lab, good at communication, he or she will be able to shield students from some of the obstacles discussed. Yet, keep in mind, having an advisor who cares is really the key component.  Your experience should not mirror a “puppy mill,” where degrees are pumped out without care for learning. Nor should it be one that sets students against students or has you working 70 hours a week. A caring advisor will discuss your future as if it’s his own.

You should enter into this critical year with your eyes wide open. Your advisor’s attitude will reflect directly on the lab’s attitude. The advisor’s ability to see their students as potential collaborators rather than only workers will enable a positive environment. Similarly, the advisor’s ability to empower students to do research will help them become scientists/engineers/self-starters. Empowered students are happy ones.

Obviously, the opposite of an empowering mentor is the controlling advisor. This advisor be so busy they only care about outcomes, they are under so much pressure that they look over your shoulder, or they are distrustful of your work and they subject you to a “search and frisk,” where you and your work are analyzed and micromanaged. However, keep in mind, this situation can be better than the “hands off” approach where students find themselves at the coffee bar four hours a day then out to lunch.

3. Diagnosing Your Project

The project you will work on will stem from the situation you are in. Funding for a project will be the main determinant for a good project. Throughout the lifetime of a PhD or postdoc, the professor’s success will largely depend on their funding. New untenured professors are given generous start-up packages to construct research programs, so they will be capable of carrying out research without funding, but eventually will need to solidify some source of funding for their research.

Having a funded project will give it direction and will also enable a clear publication plan. As the best laid plans, often go awry, the research will always take unexpected turns, even on a funded path, but a funded project will enable more stability.

An untenured professor may not have grants yet and are more than likely carving out a research niche and are working to produce preliminary data for grants. Sometimes, the first task for these PhD students or postdocs will be to write a review paper in order to identify themselves in the new field, and start to garner a public association within a given research field.

A wise student of an untenured advisor would benefit from learning as much as possible about the topic in order to aim to function as a collaborator with the professor rather than a student.

There is another type of project – the inherited project. This is a project that as you started your PhD, you were given a project to finish from a previous graduate student. These can be huge positives if it is looked at as such, but due diligence should be done to finish this project and move onto something new, or identify a new direction to spin off from the project.

The uninteresting project; this project is in a direction that seems exhausted and is not affecting the world. These projects should be avoided at all costs. This can lead to depression and be a difficult situation to be in. The research of your PhD should be exciting.

In Summary

The PhD and postdoc experience can be some of the greatest and most full of learning years of your life. You can’t just walk into an experience expecting it to be great. You have to do your best to make it that way.

If you’re ready to start considering your next career option, we suggest taking a look at our Step-by-Step PhD Career Exploration Guide.

In addition, there are so many great resources out there for looking at your PhD/postdocs. And we plan to include testimonials here at PhD Source. 

Here is one of our favorite articles that should help diagnose your PhD before you jump into a postdoc. The article is published on Next Scientist and is titled, How To Know If You Should Leave Academia … Before Wasting Years In Postdocs.”

At PhD Source, we want to deliver the most help possible! If this article was helpful or related to you in a particular way, please reach out via email or leave a comment below! 

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