Monday, March 6, 2017

on challenging your post doctoral mentor

When I interviewed at my now postdoc lab, I was told by my mentor and lab personnel that he was good at getting grants. When I pointedly asked if he was good at helping his students and postdocs get grants, the answers I got were more along the lines of "he is invested in our future and is good at helping us and being available."

At the time, I did not recognize this as a misdirection.

In my 6 months, I have been preparing to apply for 3 fellowships, all of which are specific to first-year postdocs. This preparation includes some confidence in my own grant writing skills: I was particularly well trained in graduate school, I have a good track record, I am good at it.

In my postdoc, this self-knowledge has seemed to fly out the window. There is something to be said for waiting to challenge your boss and colleagues until you understand their approaches and methods. All labs have a different style, all lab PI's do things a bit differently. And so, I initially questioned but did not challenge my boss, even though his input on my fellowship proposals seemed wildly inappropriate for the fellowship goals:
We had a brief meeting after I showed him my first draft, and he made suggestions about the experimental approach that I thought were very extravagant and outside the goals of the fellowship. When I asked whether he thought this would be problematic for reviewers, he said, "absolutely not. Reviewers should be able to look at the track record of our lab and conclude that we are obviously equipped to do whatever we propose." That is paraphrasing, of course, but it was a huge red flag. Nevertheless, I believed that my mentor simply did things differently and it had obviously worked for him. For him. And I chose to go with it and compromise out of trust because he is my mentor.
Only weeks later did I learn that although my mentor may be good at getting his own grants, he has a terrible track record of helping his students and postdocs get grants. Seconds after learning this I realized that I should have challenged him earlier on; it might have made all of the difference if I had just pushed back harder. I beat myself up for days, simultaneously trying to rescue my grant proposal without totally discarding my mentor's input. This was the end of my career, I thought. He has sabotaged me. I have sabotaged myself.

I made my first deadline. The other two are coming up in two weeks. If I somehow manage to get them submitted in acceptable form it will be no small miracle.

As I navigate several situations like this with my post doctoral advisor, the most important thing that I am learning is that putting trust in your mentor or boss is not a weakness. It is their job to rise to the occasion of leadership. Caution as you learn to understand your mentor's personality, communication style and ego is not a weakness -- just the opposite, it reflects your propensity to learn and adapt. And should you lose out on an opportunity during this learning period, before you are prepared to straight-up disagree, be kind to yourself. There will be other -- although, perhaps different -- opportunities.

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