Postdoc impostor syndrome .... lol

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Hi everyone,

I know I haven't posted much over the last year and I don't think I even have a question. I just needed to rant somewhere.

I finally submitted my thesis last January and passed with minor corrections in March. Prior to that I had suspended my PhD to do a postdoc level projects based on my PhD (timelines got messy due to COVID) and had 7 months of funding for another postdoc after submitting. Both were with my PhD supervisor and at the same uni but several grants fell through. Fortunately I managed to get a 2 year postdoc position at a small prestigious research institute in the UK that started in November last year. It is in the middle of nowhere but it is a great project that will give me fantastic experience. I had a successful PhD with several first name publications with decent postdocs and so I thought I could fill this position easily. However things are just not working.

My PhD was a multi-disciplinary mess and this postdoc is firmly focused on one of the disciplines. Though it seems like they are interested in the other half of PhD research, which I think is one of the reasons they hired me. The project itself is a very "lets try random stuff" to push the boundaries and see if anything works. It is high risk research though we should be able to resurrect data out of it regardless. My role is the first work package and is to get representative samples for other people in the group. Yet my positive control conditions are not working! I restarted the positive control for the third time this week (trials are a month long) and it still is not working. Yet a couple of the high risk conditions are actually performing well ?!? The positive control conditions are the optimised settings from a prior project with same equipment, so it should work yet I get zero response. I am unfamiliar to their equipment/set-up but it is similar to what I used before but I can not figure what I am doing wrong. The fact some of the actual conditions are working far better than expected is more puzzling.

I am voicing my concerns to other people in the group and they are mirroring them back to me as "what do you think we should do?". I have no clue but I can't say that to them, so I bumble out some ideas and they just agree with me. I have realised I am the only person on the project that knows my role and for the first time in my career I have no technical support or guidance. I could tell them complete gibberish and they would agree with me. The person who worked on the prior project to mine (and developed the positive controls) has left and so I am completely left to myself. I feel that if the controls are not working, it is a methodology issue on my part but I am struggling working it out. Experiments not working has happened before but I always had the ability to talk with someone to bounce ideas of or double check things. I am getting stuck inside my own head to the extent I am stressing myself out with the experimental paranoia.

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I know I should talk with my PI but I am finding his management style a complete culture shock. I was my PhD supervisors first PhD student and so she was very hands on, also before that my industry bosses were micro managers. My new PI and line manager is a name brand professor who has no technical experience in my discipline but the project fits nicely into his wider field. Getting any face time with him is difficult and I am probably talking with him once a month outside fortnightly group meetings. Emails from him are short replies focusing on small points or agreeing with what I said. He understands my issues are part of research but expresses the opinion that it worked for the previous post-doc so it should work for me. I feel he wants someone that is self sufficient and at the minute I don't feel that self-sufficient.

I know what I have just written is most likely impostor syndrome and/or issues settling into a new environment. I know I only started 4 months ago and this is normal teething issues. Though knowing that doesn't really help sometimes. Yet posting this somewhere is somewhat cathartic and making me realise I need to book a few days off.

Thanks for reading

TLDR; Impostor syndrome doesn't disappear when you finish your PhD - it haunts you forever ; ^ )



Your current Prof's hands off attitude is the norm. As a postdoc, you are expected to be a completely independent researcher with little input from the Prof. You propose ideas, carry out the study and publish, using the brand name prof to ensure a smoother publication process. With more publications, you apply for grants after grants and repeat the cycle until you hopefully get tenured. The prof is usually very busy with management to be bothered by actual technical science.

Hands on prof who actually cares about intellectual discussions and professional dev of postdocs is exceptionally rare. Your imposter syndrome may be masking a far more important matter - your emotional and professional needs are not being met.

Unfortunately this toxic work environment is prevalent in academia. Have a think if this lab and importantly if this career path is right for you. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind to suit your current needs and I think mental health is important.