Did I just get dumped?

May 05 2011 Published by under academia, jr faculty, tenure-track OTJT

I got along well with my postdoc advisor. We worked well together, and he was very supportive of me as a trainee. When I started in the lab, we talked about my goal was to land a TT job. I started up a couple of new projects in the lab, and we agreed that I would take these with me when I left. Years passed, I wrote papers and fellowships, blah blah blah. I don't know if I would say my PD advisor was The Best Mentor, but I really think that I got what I needed out of the relationship. Then I went on the job market, and managed to wriggle into a position as an Assistant Professor. YAY!

And THIS is when my relationship with pd adviser started to get weird. All of the sudden, it became very difficult for me to have a normal conversation with PD advisor. When we chat, I keep getting the feeling that he is being very guarded. I asked him what was going on, and he basically said that he felt like I needed "some space". He seems to think that having too much interaction with my pd advisor will make it seem that I am not Independent.

To be clear: I am not trying to maintain collaborations with my old lab. But one thing that I have found is that being a new Asst. Prof can be a little...well...lonely. My colleagues are actually great, and I talk with them a lot. But no one has the same insight and background for talking about my specific research like my old pd advisor. And, though I am building my own group, right now there are times when I really miss the scientific interactions that I was used to as a postdoc. In short, I just don't understand how having a conversation with my pd advisor every 6-8 weeks is impeding my quest for Independence.

It has been exceedingly difficult for me to get him to sit down and submit the last couple of papers I have been working on. We finally got one submitted, but it was like pulling teeth. Even more than usual, I am NOT looking forward to dealing with the reviews. I have another manuscript in progress that I am also sort of dreading. This is a project that I started in PD lab, but most (60-75%) of the work was done in my own lab by my students. I will be senior and/or corresponding author, but since pd advisor will still be an author (I assume), there is the real possibility that he could make the whole thing a little more painful. Or at least slower.

And then, a few weeks ago I went to the same Conference as a new student in pd's lab. In the course of this meeting, it became clear that my pd advisor was continuing to work on one of the projects that we had agreed I would take with me for my own lab. I was floored. I am apparently now competing with my old pd advisor 🙁 I really did NOT see that coming. My colleague friends around here have advised me that I should pretty much quit talking to my old advisor, to reduce the likelihood that I get "scooped". AAAARGH!

So, WTF? I'm still trying to figure out exactly what is going on. Is this a normal "birth pang" of starting up a new lab?


EDIT: I had to add this, sent to me on the twitter by @kzelnio 🙂

36 responses so far

  • Are there previous postdocs from this lab who've gone onto tenure-track positions? They may have insight into how their relationships with this mentor changed at that point.

    I've known of this sort of change in behavior and relationship at the point of separation. One advisor of whom I'm aware treated grad students who were defending and leaving as the partner in a rather acrimonious divorce. And I've also heard of these tensions between grad school advisors or pd advisors and newly minted assistant professors. I'm not sure what you can do except to try to maintain professionalism throughout. I'd ask candidly about that other project that was supposed to have been yours. If your old advisor prevaricates, then do exactly what your colleagues suggest and maintain a safe--but professional--distance.

    Good luck with it all, and enjoy your current position.

  • Dr 27 says:

    Totally blows. I'm so sorry. I honestly can't offer any insight other than talking point blank about how you feel and how things are going and that you'd love to have a wonderful, long lasting relationship with him and that you had talked about who was going to take what projects and see where both stand.

    I don't anticipate maintaining any sort of regular contact with my PD advisor. But when I left my PhD lab my mentor had a tear or two streaming down the face and I was so touched. I keep in regular contact until a collaborator we worked with took my results, cut them in half, added his own and put his name as the 1st author in what was suppossed to be my second 1st author paper. I'm still 1st author ... co-author I mean. All (and this is pure speculation), because stupid ass PD who's the 1st in line "needed" the publication to help in his securing a TT position. I was so mad. I stayed in my PhD lab 6 more months than what I had originally planned to process the data and include a perfectly manicured manuscript which was one of my thesis chapters. My PhD mentor said that we'd stay in regular contact when later that year the paper was to be worked on for submission including some of the data that we suggested they collect. When I got the manuscript it was completely redone and looked nothing like the chapter I'd left behind. Then surprise, surprise, I see his name in front of mine. Long story short, I talked my PhD PI into "asking" if they could add the footnote saying we were equally contributing authors, although when you see the paper, it's mostly his. Whatever. The paper is still listed on my CV, I want nothing to do with it. But it is a blemish somewhat as people think I only have 1 true 1st author publication when it wasn't supposed to be like that.

    Anyways, a month before all this unfolded I was asked to write a letter to recommend my PI for full tenure. I wrote a beautiful 2-page letter which had me in tears.

    But ever since the paper incident, and although after that I thought my relationship with the PhD PI was great every time I write, even if it's just to say hi and not ask for anything, I'm met with a cold reply. Nothing bad, just cold and short. I know my PhD PI was/is a very private person, but you'd think that someone who appeared to be so touched on my last day would be a bit "warmer" .... especially since nothing I'm doing even remotely touches what I left behind. And I always knew I'd never be able to take a project from the lab with me, even if I wanted to.

    What stroke me the most is that I was/am in contact with past students and postdocs from the lab, one of which recently left for a shiny TT position himself. There was a vacancy in my PhD lab which would have served well for me to transition out of my postdoc and into a technical/staff role. And you'd think that after writing an email to my PhD boss telling them that I was desperately looking for a job, the boss would casually mention it ... but no. Nothing. I wrote 3 times, giving updates and not necesarily asking directly, but giving hints that I had good memories of my time with them and that I wanted to return to my beloved former field.

    Nothing. I was advised to apply once I saw the posting (which I did see, multiple times) ... but honestly, after being met with a cold shoulder (or what I thought it was) I had/have no intention of even considering applying.

    I don't know what it was. Maybe the boss was pissed that I didn't stay longer, or that I "fought" to get my name in its rightful place in that paper, or maybe I was writing too much or something. But I honestly think that my relationship was hurt, and my respect and appreciation too ... and no matter what, it's never going to be the same. And that sucks.

    I'm so sorry and I hope you can get this sorted out soon. Sorry for the long rant.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    Holy Crap! So Sorry that you are going through this. I wonder as funding is getting tighter and tighter if this is going to become all too common. I haven't gone through this myself (yet-it's still really early; plenty of time for shitty shenanigans), but at least one person of the new hire bunch (there are about 3 of us) is going through something similar. He has limited contact with his former PD advisor. His advisor was at least straightforward about working on the same project and I am not convinced that their pre-position talks were very extensive. My advise would be to listen to your new colleagues. They want you to succeed. However, you have papers you need out the door-which means that you will have to interact with your old advisor on some level. But I would put strict boundaries up on what kinds of details you give in those conversations....maybe sleep with one eye open......What an asshole!

  • becca says:

    Ick!! You have my sympathy, it sounds awful.

    I don't have the necessary perspective to say if it's 'normal', but I've heard the same basic scenario many times- with the most common cause being at least partial miscommunication.

    Of course it's also possible (and it sounds like this may be true in your particular case, based on your old advisor's funny behavior) that pd said one thing and doesn't want to go by it now (i.e. fickle).
    Maybe pd thought this project wasn't as great as it turned out, maybe pd has funding for this but not funding elsewhere and this was the only way to get new student, maybe new student has no clue how to carve out a niche and pd didn't tell their thesis committee that this would be a bad long term project and both pd and new student feel stuck with it (not that I'm projecting based on what happened with my project, no not at all).
    Or maybe pd didn't change hir mind, but is just a lying selfish jerk. I wouldn't assume that without further info, but people can be that way.

    You probably need to talk with them more, and explicitly about this issue. It'll probably be awkward as all get out. Good luck.

  • Dr. O says:

    Argh, I just started having heart palpitations for you...I can only imagine the stress that this is causing. 🙁 I can sort of understand a mentor's concerns for "cutting the cord," so to speak, and developing independence. But this sounds very odd, indeed. And if he really is working on your old project, after stating that you could have it (he even had to make that clear to your NIH study group for your K award, amiright?), is just low.

    It sounds like you have a good support network where you are now, and communicating with them is crucial right now. I would also consider talking with your PhD advisor for advice. No matter what, I would start thinking up some solid directions that you could send your research in, just in case your PD mentor is moving into your territory. Keeping that parachute available might be your safest option right now.


    • gerty-z says:

      I'm not sure that the NIH could enforce the "no compete" clause in the K99 thing, even if they wanted to.

      • DrLizzyMoore says:

        This is true. But it might hurt future trainees. My understanding is that study sections look at the track record of the mentor..ie do they truly give over said project or not.

  • no insight, only to say that it really really sucks ass

  • GMP says:

    I didn't do a postdoc, but I can share my experience with my PhD advisor. He was and remains a great mentor. I try not to bug him too much, but I do when I need to. He turned 70 now so I think he enjoys being an old fart and dispensing advice, but honestly I don't know if we would have this relationship if he were 20 years younger and not winding down. Besides, he also runs hot and cold, and I cannot tell what it correlates with. Probably has little to do with me.

    Even if we forget for a minute that you may actually be in competition with your PD advisor right now, I think that our advisors are more important to us than we to them; you are one of many people who went through your PD advisor's lab and you may not be very special to him (I am not trying to sound like a bitch here), so he really may not particularly care to remain a part of your life and career. Now that I am an advisor, I can tell you that emotional investment in the well-being of your advisees can be extremely draining, to the point that there is not enough of your energy left for your own family. Therefore, I think you have to distance yourself to a significant degree from your advisees, and really cut them loose once they are done. Perhaps that's what he's trying to do.

    About having someone work on your project, that's a murky area. I don't think you can a priori expect him to do or not do any particular project, although it would be a decent thing to do for him to stop working on the same stuff that you hope to build your lab on. Still, you cannot a priori expect it.

    I recommend being direct -- perhaps via email (I know people say these things are best in person, but I love email because talking in person makes me feel ambushed and I cannot compose the response I would if I had some time). Tell him that you value his mentorship and would like to keep ties in place, but that he doesn't seem comfortable with it and you are wondering what the reasons are. Bring up competition explicitly. Invite a chat over the phone... If he ignores you, that's your cue.

    I know being let down not-so-easily by your former advisor is a bit heartbreaking, but I think it is to a great extent natural. You will find other mentors around you and in your scientific community, just give it a bit of time.

    • Dr 27 says:

      GMP, I hadn't thought of things that way ... but I know that my PhD PI is going through some major changed in the lab structure, so although PI seemed warm and eager to stay in touch, it may not be the right time, and seeing as PI is a very private person, it makes some sense now. Yes, PIs are more important to us than us to them, especially once we're off on our own. Thanks for the insight.

      For GertyZ, I think GMP's advice is spot on, re: email and chat. I've found that sometimes I write better than how I talk and explain things, so this would be a first avenue to try. If indeed you get the cold shoulder, then that's an indication that probably all you could do, on your part, has been done. Best of luck!

    • gerty-z says:

      GMP-this may very well be what is going on. And, I agree there is no a priori reason he would not compete with me. Except that we had several previous conversations and agreements would indicate that he would not.

  • gerty-z says:

    Thanks for all the perspective! I sense that the main nugget here so far is that I should have some direct interactions with PD advisor. This was actually my first instinct, too (I may have witheld some info from the original post :)) I have actually had now 2 different direct conversations with PD advisor where I brought these things up. Here is what I can tell you:

    1. PD advisor does not currently have funding for any of my projects. And claims he is not going to write a grant about them.

    2. PD advisor recognizes that he promised to give me "space" on this project...and also realizes that his new labbie is encroaching. He now claims this is just a "difficult situation" that he isn't sure what to do about it. After all, he doesn't want to hamstring Stu. Surely I can understand that, right?? (he seems less concerned that he is undercutting me at this point)

    3. There have been a few other folks that left his lab and went onto their own gig. In general he gives alumni 3-4 years without competing with them. This was a stated policy when I spoke to him about it several years ago, and is what I observed in practice.

    • gerty-z says:

      And yes, these conversations were awkward as hell.

    • DrLizzyMoore says:

      Stu? Who gives a shitte about Stu? (Okay grad students, you are very important in the lab, but I must say the following.) He's a grad student--and let me clarify by saying, as a grad student you need to pick a productive doable project, because you want papers and a dissertation. But none of this goes with you, ever. After grad school you head off to a post-doc where you make your career-defining project choices. In the scheme of projects and career development: I would say a burgeoning tenure track faculty member trumps the Stus of the lab every flipping time!

      • gerty-z says:

        well obvs I agree...but, it turns out Stu is there now and I'm not 🙁

        • drugmonkey says:

          He's being a cheese weasel. Stop talking to that lab about that project, get it out, done.

        • drugmonkey says:

          And btw, it is perfectly acceptable training to say "yeah, student, you are getting close to territory I agreed to avoid w/ prior trainee. We need to either go another way or make this an open collaboration. Here's her phone number"

          • gerty-z says:

            PD advisor claims he is looking out for me by NOT collaborating. Again, with the independence. But I tend to agree with you. Especially as I have been repeatedly told by the folks around here that (as long as I was senior author) such a collaboration would not be held against me.

          • Dr. O says:

            Agreed with DrugMonkey on this one, too. My old grad advisor was extremely protective of postdoc projects. If a grad student got close, even years after the PD left, she would sit down and have a talk with Stu about not treading in that area. PD trumped Stu every time. If he doesn't want to collaborate, then he needs to tell Stu to back off.

          • GMP says:

            Dunno about maintaining formal collaboration with PD advisor...

            This may be a field-specific issue (physical science field here), but I was told explicitly by multiple people that all ties to previous advisor should be severed in the first year or two on the tenure track; in other words, even if I were the lead senior author on all collaborative papers with former advisor, they would be counted only sort of -- i.e. they would look bad, like I can't really work on my own. So my advisor and I agreed that after a certain paper in year 1 we would no longer publish together. In that sense, at least from my perspective, PD advisor is doing you a favor (forcefully cutting you off).

            However, competing with you is certainly not to your benefit... How does he explain, in the context of doing you favors, the fact that he is now competing with/possibly scooping you? (Is he facing some funding woes or something else that would make him act like this out of desperation?)

          • gerty-z says:

            GMP: I think that discouraging collaborating with old PI thing can be very institution specific. Here it is not a big deal (as long as you have something that is your own). And yes, competing with me is certainly not in my best interest. Unfortunately, it has been made pretty clear to me that the new student's interests trump mine. PD advisor has a habit of having "favorites". Though we always got along, I was not one of the golden children. I'm told Stu is the Next Big Thing.

          • I think PD advisor is being a jerk about it--it should be YOUR decision about collaborating if he is interested. He is clearly not and instead of being honest about his decision to allow Stu to complete with you, he is trying to make himself not sound like an asshat by "looking out for your interests". PD advisor is NOT in your new department at your new school, and is no longer your advisor. You should stop discussing this project with him now that he has shown you he can't be trusted.

            Yes, it sucks. I have had this happen to me with past collaborators. It is sanity saving (and helpful to your career) to just buckle down and do your work independently of your former colleagues. It is unlikely you are doing the same EXACT stuff, so just focus on your work, and don't help PD advisor out with free advice.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    I can't speak to the competition between your projects, but your postdoc mentor may be doing you a favor by distancing herself from you and forcing you to form science-bonds elsewhere.

  • Dr. Sneetch says:

    Don't quit talking to your old mentor but be very guarded (easier said than done). Go ahead and scoop the student if you can and then graciously offer to include studen't name as the last author. It's a rat-race isn't it.

  • Sabah_lab says:

    Unfortunately sounds like your pd pi is snagging your ideas, likely more so than just what you know about. Perhaps this is why the relationship is strained and distance is increasingly being established. Know that in time you will find new colleagues to interact with at the level which you seek, and new ideas will emerge; so pucker up and stay positive!

  • Namnezia says:

    I think he feels guilty for competing with you and is thus avoiding you.

    When I started my lab there were three others from my postdoc lab starting their own labs. We all decided (including my postdoc mentor) to have yearly meetings to discuss our progress and projects to make sure no one was competing. This was very helpful. Now its not as much of an issue since everyone has diverged in their interests, but we're still pretty open and collaborate if we can. Except for one of the former postdocs who became quite paranoid, but that's another story... I have found myself in situations in which I am competing with my former PI, but she's quite open about the projects so we try to avoid scoopage.

    • gerty-z says:

      this sounds like a fantastic plan! I feel like there is plenty of science to go around. I would much rather work together and avoid scoopage, so everyone can win, than to compete.

  • CoR says:

    This is an interesting problem G-Z. When I worked for my PD advisor I was lucky to see him every 6 weeks. I often saw him much less, and we talked about science probably every 3, but sometimes 6 months? As a result it's sink or swim in his lab. A lot of freedom -- enough to hang yourself with a rope, as the saying went. He's always kept us at arm's length, every single one of us, but I rather liked it after my PhD experience.

    We prob talk every 3 months or so now that I'm out of the lab. I miss my PD advisor sometimes on a personal level, we're not really friends, but his insights are spot-on.

    Losing people is sad, I completely understand.

  • Isis the Scientist says:

    Do not use the name of the cheese weasel in vain. He uses his powers only for good and for cheese.

  • gerty-z says:

    Thanks everyone, for the super comments. This is a thing that I know will fuck with me for a while, and I really appreciate all the support.

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