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Independent thinking, critical thinking and analytical mind: how much can we expect from a post-doc?


Gabriella Panuccio
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Gabriella Panuccio

How to interact with a post-doc who is showing difficulties and low performance beyond any expectations? I have difficulties interacting with this person, who is showing slow learning, reasoning difficulties and is also extremely emotional. Mentoring is very important for me and I would like to help this post-doc improve and be ready for another lab.

This is going to be a long post, so, please, bear with me.

As some of you already know, I have recently started my new adventure as PI and, when searching for a post-doc to join my new lab, I had asked the community for advice on how to identify the right candidate for the role. I have received many very useful inputs, but nonetheless I am now facing what I sincerely didn’t hope for: my post-doc is way below any expectations, and it’s not a matter of competences, but a matter of reasoning capability. This really goes beyond any unexpected and didn’t emerge at all during my interview with the candidate, nor among referees. Basically, a BSc would do better. I’ll call this person X for the sake of privacy.

X was recommended by trusted colleagues, so I personally made contact with X. The interview was very open and honest about competences, gaps, aspirations, relations with past PhD supervisor and experimental procedures X was not going to be comfortable with. X also showed a good degree of humility and eagerness to learn, and seemed to have a good level of maturity in understanding gaps and training objectives. I had decided to invest in X for one year and personally train X from the basics of my field and see where this was going to take us.
Unfortunately, the performance of X has been very deluding. I accept and fully understand the difficulties of having to deal with something (almost) completely new, but I can’t understand the complete lack of proactive mindset, problem-solving skills (even in very basic things) and of ability of observation in a post-doc. Not to mention that X took 1 month to analyze one experiment that would require one full-time day of work.

For 4 months now I have trained X in everything needed to become independent. Usually, for these basic simple experiments, my past BSc and MSc have become independent in less than a month and brought the first results in around 3-6 months (depending on personal aptitude). Initially, I was very enthusiastic of X, although I could spot a slow learning curve. I realized I needed to dedicate more time and patience to X, and that was OK with me. Like I wrote, everyone is different and some people learn faster than others. But now, I am basically micromanaging X. Even when it comes to verifying experimental conditions or call technical support, X is totally lost and at a stall. I need to provide step-by-step instructions and set clear deadlines for X to show some action. Due to this, there has been no progress so far, while I am now convinced I am investing too much energy on this.
Also, like I wrote at the beginning, X is very emotional, to a point that I have difficulties telling things to help improve, because my suggestions are taken as personal critique aimed at putting pressure, cornering and belittling (this is very bad).

I wanted to talk to X openly about these issues, in order to help X go back on track, but eventually today we happened to reach there while talking about experimental issues; and eventually X started crying when I tried to help asking X to reason about a basic math operation (7x8). This also makes me reason if X doesn’t suffer with post-traumatic stress disorder, also in light of what X tells me about the PhD experience.

I would have never imagined I’d come across a difficult person such as X, showing extreme emotional reactions, learning issues, little reasoning, little observation spirit and poor critical thinking, poor intuition and no analytical mind. All these aspects together have never emerged during the selection process, but only emerged when I started giving more independence to X. These issues are a tough bottleneck in the progress of my project and unfortunately, I believe that they can hardly be improved in a short time-frame as required by my project.

I wish I could help X, but I just don’t have the resources to do so. I feel very sad, because mentoring is very important to me, but the most I could offer X today is that I keep providing my help to achieve publication of one simple paper that is already written and only needs a few more experiments as required by reviewers. Today, we agreed that, apart for my close day-by-day help, I would re-assess the progress in independent thinking after the summer and eventually decide whether to renew the appointment. X seemed to be more motivated than discouraged. This way, if things keep not working, X will have 4 months to relocate and I’ll have enough time to choose a more suited post-doc. However, like I wrote, I honestly doubt I’m going to witness a surprising radical change in all of the above independence-related skills. The most I may achieve, in my opinion, is help X get ready for another post-doc in a less demanding and non fast-paced lab.

I apologize for the long novel, but this thing is really taking a lot of my mental energy, as I am very sad I can’t do more for X, I have really done everything in my power to help.
But maybe some of you have dealt with a similar situation and can spot flaws or things left undone in my approach?

@iratrofimov you were so helpful back in the day and you have the right background to help me help my post-doc. I hope you will poke in.

Thanks for your help, whoever you are :slight_smile:

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Wael Mohamed

Hi Gabry…Thanks for sharing this…It happens to me to some extent…How about cultural discrepancy? X is from the same cultural as you and others in Lab?..Thx

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Gabriella Panuccio

Thanks @wmy107 for getting back to me. Sorry to hear that there are such situations in your lab as well. I am reading about many PIs with the same issue. Some are upset, some others, like me, are worried for the student and for the project progress.

My lab is quite homogeneous in terms of culture. X was born in my same country, but was raised in another western country and is bilingual. I understand that bilingual children may have a slower learning start than non-bilingual ones and that teaching methods vary across education systems. I try to take this into account, as much as I can, although I am not a know-everything person, so I admit I may have my limits in understanding certain obstacles.
I always ask more details about what is not clear and the reasoning the student is pursuing to reach the conclusion that a certain thing seems odd rather than normal.
I’m fine with this, it helps student develop a better understanding of what we do in the lab and strengthen their analytical thinking, while I improve my teaching and coaching skills.

Unfortunately, like I wrote, I’m really afraid that X has personal issues that he/she is not aware of or is maybe hiding from me because afraid I would lay him/her off. It seems to me that something has happened in the past, because, like I wrote, X has an overly strong emotional temper and it’s very difficult for me to fine-tune my words in order to get around what I have identified as triggers for such emotional outbursts. At times it becomes a huge effort, not because I am a crude person, actually, I am very accommodating; rather, because X is extremely susceptible. Looks like a borderline personalty disorder. If that was the case, I’d be OK with it, but if only I knew, I could talk openly with X and work together on a coping strategy.

Nowadays, depression, anxiety and other mood and personality disorders are quite common in the lab. I am not digressing here why many PhD students and post-docs experience anxiety and depression, but the point is that these people are entitled to pursuing their studies and their career, following their aspirations, and it’s our moral responsibility to help them cope with their psychological issues. As supervisors and mentors, we are responsible for the well-being of our students. Here, I feel completely disarmed.

Having agreed with X that we would re-update after the summer (another month or so of work), I think that if X doesn’t show any improvement in independent thinking, I might opt for a downshifting and assign an easier project to X, something that X is more comfortable with. I will also have to assign to another student the project initially assigned to X and I hope this will not be taken bad, as I am really trying to help X finish this post-doctoral year with one paper, since X doesn’t have any publication out of the PhD.

Could this be a good way of handling the issue?

Edited to add: I am seriously thinking of talking to our work doctor to get advice. Should I? Or would this start a long and winding journey with possible negative implications for both X and I?

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Could you assign a smart undergraduate to work with X? And speaking with a therapist is not a bad idea-- this situation is upsetting you as well as X.

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Gabriella Panuccio

@MChaiken thanks for your suggestion and for your empathetic words.

I have thought of assigning my prospective PhD student to X, but the PhD academic year will officially start in November. I also thought of anticipating the timing of my PhD student joining the lab by offering an internship, but, given the bureaucracy required and the summertime, the PhD student won’t be able to start before October. X’s appointment will end in January, so I hope that, despite Christmas holidays, my PhD student will be able to help X wrap up at least the simple manuscript I have assigned. On the other hand, since the PhD student must be trained in some aspects, I don’t confide that X is confident enough with the topics and also I wouldn’t like this to put more stress on X. Let’s see.

Regarding the psychotherapist, my husband recommends that I keep a low profile at work for the time being. If things are not handled with the appropriate care, X might take this very bad and I expect everything at this point, given the overly emotional reactivity I have already witnessed several times. More than once, X became a little aggressive and increased the tone of his/her voice to warn me to be careful with my wording as if I were being offensive or harassing him/her or putting pressure to corner him/her (I swear I was not, my colleague and co-PI of the lab supports my view). My husband thinks X is manipulative and I should minimize my direct interactions with X. But I can’t stay still and do nothing to help my student. I feel morally obligated to help.

Maybe the doctor assigned to my workplace is not the best person to talk to in the first place; I should probably go speak to a private professional outside the work environment and eventually take the courage to out this situation with those responsible for personnel health.
What would you do in my place? Go to the work doctor or see a specialist outside the work environment as first action?

Thank you again.

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Hi Gabry,

I don’t envy you this problem! If you talk to someone to get help in figuring out how to handle it, I’d go outside the workplace. But later, as a separate move, you might actually cover yourself by mentioning the problem to an appropriate person at work— that conversation would need to be more strategic and less personal.

Look for a graceful way not to extend X’s postdoc!

But I’m not very good at dealing with this kind of thing. The advice is based on what I think I probably should have done rather than on what worked!

Good luck!

MarthaLeah

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Gabriella Panuccio

@MChaiken thanks again for your supportive words and your suggestion. And yes, I don’t envy myself either, given that this is my first year as a PI and starting with this challenge is not a soft start. Luckily for X, I am a very empathetic person and I understand this kind of issues; another PI would have probably killed X (I know very nasty ones, unfortunately).

Thanks for emphasizing this, I tend to become personal when I am personally involved in this kind of issues. I think that reaching out to the work doctor should be a strategic move to help X and protect myself and my lab members at the same time.

This is indeed another issue. And you got it right, I can’t lay X off before the end of the contract (unless there is verbal/physical aggression, research misconduct, aggressiveness against animals…), but I can choose not to extend the contract. In the contract, it is implicit that it will not be renewed, unless, following positive evaluation, I notify the HR in due time (say 2 months ahead). I could simply rely on this, but it’s definitely not my style, and I need to give the opportunity for improvement or at least inform the person in due time to allow finding a new position.
The graceful way is in how I will finally tell X that I am not renewing. For the time being, to motivate X and show my support, like I wrote, we have agreed that we will re-assess independent thinking and proactive mindset after the summer. But I have already told X that it is very unlikely that I extend the contract, because this project is too demanding and poses too much stress on X than X can tolerate (i.e., I am not renewing for good).

I’ll keep you all posted. I think these situations are an important learning experience and they may happen regardless of how meticulous we are in selecting students.

Thank you again :slight_smile:

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How disappointing. X doesn’t appreciate this golden opportunity and I would fully support you find a diplomatic way to move X to another lab and you find a post-doc worthy of working with you. Life is far too short to spend time having a guilt complex because of another person’s inability to function. Not everyone was meant to be a productive scientist like yourself. I have had a similar situation and the person was just impossible and frankly afraid of her own ability to perform as an investigator. She fell to the peer pressure of the other technicians and remained a permanent technician rather than advancing to a lecturer level. You have given it your all. X will get a publication and move on and you will continue to excel with the new post doc. Best of luck keep us updated:
:grinning:

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Get an outside Doctor’s advice. You have a wise husband, I was threatened by a student and his family and it is not a very nice situation. Somehow I survived.
Take care

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Gabriella Panuccio

@Jaadeja how scary!!! That’s exactly what we are smelling here. I’d better avoid. It’s one of those situations when you might end up being in trouble for having tried to help.

Thanks for the encouraging and flattering words in the previous message :slight_smile:

What an experience!

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Gabriella Panuccio

Just a quick update. I have finally managed to speak with X PhD supervisor and the situation is 1000x worse that I could ever expect from the most pessimistic perspective :frowning:

Supervisor’s words: “Get rid of X as fast as you can!”. Oh my… The supervisor also confirmed issues with mood swings, including anger, and that X had gotten into the habit of speaking with the ombudsperson, although to no avail. And we both agreed that X is not made for Science. They even didn’t want to award X with a PhD title and in my opinion they should have followed their beliefs. Because the Institution where X comes from is very prestigious and the PhD supervisor is an acclaimed scientist (when I heard X was in that lab, I said wow). As bad as a student may be, if such a lab agrees to confer the title of PhD to a student, I am expecting at least a bare minimum of knowledge and skills. This is what tricked me.

I feel naive and stupid to have fallen into the trap of a graduate. I let myself and my judgement be influenced by my past experience with a nasty supervisor (long story) and I decided I wanted to give X an opportunity. Because of this, I didn’t even call X PhD supervisor, because I knew I was going to obtain bad references and X was very convincing during the interview. And the good opinion of a colleague of mine who knows X was very convincing. So I thought that was just a case of interpersonal issues with the PhD supervisor. Lesson number 1 learned: never let your emotions and past experience influence your judgement. This sounds obvious, but…

I have also spoken with some of my trusted collaborators and I was advised not to speak to the HR for the time being nor to go speak with the colleague who referred X to me.

But I can’t let X sacrifice more animals in the name of nothing, so I’ll have to make an offer to X. Given that the most relevant references are from the PhD supervisor and the post-doc supervisor (me), I intend to propose that my help will consist of not terminating the contract (bad for the CV) but letting X resign. If X resigns, my list of negative things will not keep growing and X might still have chances of finding another job (I wrote ‘might’). In case X insists in staying until the end of the contract, I will have to open Pandora’s box and speak to the animal facility manager and the HR.
I hope this experience will also push X to seek help from a professional.

Do you think this could be a good way of negotiating a win-win solution?

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  • 1 month later...
Gabriella Panuccio

My student has resigned today. X told the HR that the lab life is too demanding and that my project requires competences that he/she would need more time to master. Eventually we have managed to find a win-win solution altogether around the table.

I felt touched when I said good-bye to X and I wish X the best in life. I hugged X and gave a pack on the shoulder saying "Courage!"

Most of all, I sincerely hope that X will be able one day to develop a more positive attitude and a good stress-coping ability.

All is well what ends well 🙂

Edited by Gabriella Panuccio
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Gabriella Panuccio
11 minutes ago, Andrew Chen said:

I'm glad that you were able to reach an amicable resolution!! 😁

Me too 🙂

Thanks everyone for your precious help.

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