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Lack of confidence as a postdoc

  1. Oct 27, 2008 #1
    For those of you who have had postdocs, how much did you expect of them when they first arrived? Did you expect them to already know a lot?

    I just started my first postdoc and I'm finding I'm really lacking confidence, and I'm starting to feel really isolated.

    The reason is, compared to when I was doing a PhD, I don't have people who I feel it is okay to ask stupid questions with, and since I'm starting in a reasonable different area, I'd feel like most of my questions might be stupid.

    As a PhD student, I had my fellow-PhD students who were all in the same boat, and so I could ask them. Also, I didn't mind admitting my ignorance to my advisor (at least a little bit) because as a student it felt acceptable not to know things.

    Now as a postdoc I feel like there's an expectation on me to know things, so I'm afraid to ask beginner-type questions. Everyone else seems smarter and more knowledgable, and I don't even know why - they just seem like physicists - whereas I still feel like a student. I get nervous around people at the best of times anyway. So feeling inferior makes talking with my colleagues nerve-racking.

    Has any of you had experience with postdocs asking really ignorant questions? Did it make you wish you'd never hired them? Or do you think it is okay?
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 27, 2008 #2


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    Having a PhD doesn't mean that you'll know more about everything, even more than people who have spent several years in that field (like the PhD students and postdocs in your new lab). C'mon, that's crazy. Having a PhD means that you're certified and able to become an expert in a new field by doing research, looking at the literature, and asking the right questions. So... ask the right questions! Your colleagues will appreciate your excitement and dedication.
  4. Oct 27, 2008 #3
    Thanks for answering my question. Of course, I didn't mean I felt like I was expected to know about everything. I just feel like maybe I should know more than I do. My anxiety comes and goes so hopefully it'll go away eventually.
  5. Oct 27, 2008 #4


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    Did you not work hard in your Phd?
  6. Oct 28, 2008 #5

    Andy Resnick

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    You didn't say how closely your postdoc project is related to your dissertation topic. That makes a difference, obviously.

    As far as asking stupid questions, my own experience in asking incredibly stupid questions on a near-daily basis is that it's an insight on the person you are asking- if the person is contemptuously dismissive, chances are they are more ignorant than I am. If the person sees it as a teaching/learning opportunity, chances are they are extremely good at what they do.
  7. Oct 28, 2008 #6
    Maybe not! But I really enjoyed doing my PhD so it never felt like work. I worked all kinds of part-time jobs when I was doing my bachelors degree (sometimes 3 concurrently) so when I was doing my PhD and got a stipend it always felt like I was on a holiday.
  8. Oct 28, 2008 #7
    I think my postdoc project is very closely related to my thesis project in terms of ideas, but it's in a different discipline. So I have trouble understanding what other people around me are doing and I have a different set of background knowledge.

    It makes me feel better that you think you ask stupid questions too.
  9. Oct 28, 2008 #8
    Are there any other fellow postdocs working with you? Maybe you could develop the same type of camaraderie with fellow postdocs like you did with fellow grad students. Anyway, hang in there, I'm sure things will get easier.
  10. Oct 28, 2008 #9


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    I think that starting any project new will be accompanies with at least a little ignorance - especially when you're coming into something that other people are already working on. You have to learn new jargon, get familiar with the relevant references, develop new skills for solving problems particular to that area, learn what approaches others have tried that haven't been published because they don't work, on top of getting used to a new environment and learning how to best interact with coworkers. All of these are independent of your PhD experience - no matter how hard you worked or how much of a genius you are.

    I know that asking questions can be uncomfortable, but unfortunately, the longer you go without asking them, the worse that lack of knowledge will get. And really, if you've already earned a PhD and you have a question, its very likely a good question that deserves to be asked.
  11. Oct 29, 2008 #10


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    The whole point of doing a post-doc is that you don't learn everything you need to know when you get your Ph.D.

    People start out post-docs at quite a variety of levels, and often this is due to how related the post-doc is to their dissertation topic, or if it's something fairly new.

    There is a learning curve in every new lab, even if you're doing things you've done before, the new lab might have different protocols they prefer for one reason or another. So, it's always a good idea to ask questions whenever you have them.

    My approach with post-docs (and how my post-doc mentor trained me) is to start out in the beginning with frequent meetings, perhaps once a week for an hour. This is the time to sit down and outline the projects they're working on, what they need to accomplish that week, who else needs to be involved in it, and address questions they have, discuss the theory of the project, even read journal articles together to get them up to speed on the subject. As a post-doc gets the hang of things, those meetings get shifted from bringing them up to speed on an existing project to working toward developing a new project that will be theirs to own (i.e., something they can take with them when they leave to start a faculty position). And, when they've really developed independence in running their own projects and really don't need a mentor that much anymore, those weekly meetings either become less frequent, or get shifted to include a grad student or undergrad student who the post-doc is responsible for supervising, so that the final stage of the post-doc experience is to learn to supervise others and become a good mentor themselves.

    This is not the way every post-doc works though. Everyone has their own mentoring styles. I just felt that I had a particularly good post-doc mentor who had a long track-record of "producing" strong scientists coming from his lab who have wound up leaders in the field (my experience was near the end of his career), so of all the mentoring styles I've encountered, his is the one I chose to adopt.

    So, yes, as Choppy mentioned, if you already have a Ph.D., chances are if you need to ask a question, it's a good question.

    Another thing that probably is worth noting is that one problem a lot of post-docs experience is a feeling of isolation. You're no longer a student, so aren't off to classes where there is some amount of socialization with other students, you're not faculty, so not out at faculty meetings, or teaching classes, you basically only see the people in your lab all day and don't have much reason to go anywhere else. Some universities or departments will have post-doc associations of some sort or another to help post-docs feel more included as part of the university and combat that isolation, but these are fairly rare. I'd suggest taking a little time now, early in your post-doctoral experience, to find out who the other post-docs in your department are, and invite them to do social activities with you so you get to know one another and don't get isolated.
  12. Nov 2, 2008 #11

    I just wanted to say thanks to everyone that replied.

    Moonbear was right about the isolation. My work is purely theoretical, so I don't really talk to anyone some days except at lunchtime, etc. I was having trouble even remembering what day it is. But I've started going to all the seminars around, even the ones where I don't know half the words in the title, and I'm finding that helps.

    I guess it's okay to ask questions then... I will try to not get too nervous.
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