How do I stop asking for help?
October 9, 2014 5:57 PM   Subscribe

I have my first post doc job and am feeling out of my depth most of the time. I also don't have much supervision and can easily panic with problems that I don't know how to solve. I keep reaching out to my former PhD advisor that has given clear signs that he doesn't want to help anymore. Help me stop.

I get it. It's not his job to do my job. He has never said that he doesn't want to help but he is not answering half of my e-mails. I probably e-mail him once every few weeks. At the time of sending out an e-mail, I full well know that there is a good chance that he won't reply. Yet I do it anyway because at that moment I feel that any chance for him to reply and help is better than nothing.

Then later when he doesn't reply I feel awful (why am I not taking the hint to stop?) and I also feel awful for needing to ask for help in the first place. Little time that I spend with my current supervisor, I don't ask for help much because I want to leave a good impression and I also don't want to reveal how much I don't know. As bad as I feel about this, I care much more about what my current supervisor thinks of me than my former one.

I know this is not a good way to cope. Any advice how to stop hassling my former advisor but also deal with panicky, "feeling out of my depth" feelings?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (21 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
when I find myself opening that email window to send off a panicky note to my manager I stop and ask myself "what is she likely to say?" and then do that instead.
posted by fingersandtoes at 6:02 PM on October 9, 2014 [11 favorites]

Research? Google? Send letters to someone else in your field? Ask previous boss for the name of a friend in his/her network who can also give advice? Buy a book? Take a class?
posted by quincunx at 6:04 PM on October 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I also don't want to reveal how much I don't know

This is a major problem. You need to be honest. Postdoc experience is meant to increase your knowledge. I think asking your present supervisor for advice, with a humble attitude and willingness to learn will be your best option. Trying to hide stuff will only lead to bigger problems later on.
posted by exogenous at 6:07 PM on October 9, 2014 [25 favorites]

Talk to your supervisor. They don't expect you to know everything-- it's a new lab, and you're probably doing similar, but not exactly the same things as you did in grad school--, and asking for help when you need it is far, far better than not asking for help and messing something up. They know you don't know everything; that's why you're doing a postdoc.

If you're scared of looking like you don't know what you're doing, when you ask for help, explain everything you *do* know, and everything you did to try and figure out what to do. ("So, I'm not quite sure how you want me to do this statistical analysis; I looked around on Stack Exchange, and it *seems* like I should do this, but I'm not quite sure if that's the case.") And actually sitting down and figuring that out might help you find the answer to the problem yourself- convince yourself that you've done everything you can to solve the problem on your own, and you just stumble on the answer.

Also, are there any other post-docs or grad students doing similar things in your lab ? They're also a resource you can tap into, and they're probably having similar "impostor syndrome" feelings.
posted by damayanti at 6:08 PM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

(Consider the possibility that your old PI is not answering because they don't know the answer and are getting impostery feeling whenever you write to them. And for what it's worth, I *never* had a single reply to an email from my PI after I graduated. Consider a 50% response a blessing.)

In both a postdoc and a new job, you're expected to have lots of questions. If there are other grad students or post docs in the lab, start by asking them. Ask yourself what your old PI would do. Read lots. Sit in on classes in the new topic, if applicable. Talk to people who work at the core facilities, we are awesome and don't bite. Look into what resources there are for staff and use them. And feel free to pm me if you need another set of science eyes for something, research postdocs are in a tough situation and I feel for you guys.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:51 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Be independent enough that the most advice you are asking anyone for is choices from alternatives you present them with. That way you have demonstrably done the heavy lifting yourself to get to a point of indecision and most importantly, explored both paths so you understand the implications of the decisions.
posted by srboisvert at 6:55 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

I'd like to point out that writing out the emails seems to still have some value to you-- perhaps it helps you formulate your thoughts more clearly when you are trying to articulate them to somebody else. Reflecting is generally a good thing! Perhaps you could write out the emails and choose to not send them, or at least let them sit for 1-2 days before you actually decide if you'll press "send"?

Has your PI explicitly communicated to you that he doesn't want to read your emails? I think that considering the sheer volume of emails PIs get... simply not answering your emails isn't necessarily a "clear sign" that he doesn't want to respond, especially if he was a valuable enough mentor and advisor to you in the past that you felt, to some degree, comfortable with expressing all of these questions to him. It may simply be that he has to mentor other grad students or postdocs who are currently working at his / your former institution, and responding to your emails (understandably) falls a bit below responding to those students' emails on his priority list. Everyone in academia is chronically behind on their emails.

Finally, you're new to the job! Of course you don't know lots of things. Don't be so harsh on yourself!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:16 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Postdoc is practice for being a PI. Your PhD advisor is, in all likelihood, continuing to train you into realizing that you can't rely on anyone else. You either need to go outside your current circle to find your answers or figure them out yourself from the literature. Or, better yet, assign the problem to a competent undergrad or graduate student. Honestly, for new postdocs, the best resources are the students and RAs in the new lab, and BUILDING a good lab is the first responsibility of a new faculty member.

Asking for help isn't the end of the world. On the contrary, it's basically what being a PI means.
posted by supercres at 7:22 PM on October 9, 2014 [5 favorites]

This transition point can be really rough -- the first month or so of my postdoc, I felt like a first-year graduate student all over again. You don't know where anything is, you don't know the locally preferred way to do anything, you don't know what questions are meaningful to ask in a lab meeting, etc., etc. But I think this is totally normal. In fact many people intentionally choose a postdoc that is a little out of their comfort zone, because this is a great way to get really different training and to come up with a new research program of your own. Anyway, I think I didn't start to feel "comfortable" with what I was doing until at least six months in.

Little time that I spend with my current supervisor, I don't ask for help much because I want to leave a good impression and I also don't want to reveal how much I don't know.

You know this, but this is totally counterproductive.

It may help to reframe "making a good impression" on your current PI as showing that you are engaged, ready to learn, and ready to work, rather than showing that you know a lot of stuff. I mean if you think about it, your PI already knows a lot of stuff. It's a losing game to try to impress them with your knowledge! Instead, impress your PI with your work ethic, your intellectual curiosity, and your inclination to learn as much as you can from them.

And if you don't want to ask your PI personally something that you think is too basic or too laborious, start instead by asking them to refer you to someone else (probably in the lab, but it could also be a member of a core facility or a collaborator's lab) who can help. It could be as simple as "oh, I've actually never done a Northeastern blot, is there anyone else in the lab who's done one recently and could walk me through it?" (And don't feel weird about asking grad students for help! After all, they may have years more experience doing this specific type of work than you do.)

If you frame it this way, the only reason to stop e-mailing your previous PI is not because you don't want her/him to know that you are struggling or because you want to save face, it's because it's no longer their job to advise you. (Plus, unless your postdoc is in something very similar, they may not even really have the answers you need themselves!)

Again, it's totally normal to have a lot of questions as a new postdoc! You just need to find the appropriate outlet -- and that's your new advisor, plus your peers and colleagues in your new research group and at your new institution.

And of course -- you may want to think about longer-term solutions for anxiety, if that's relevant to you. By that, I mean things like CBT, DBT, mindfulness meditation, reading Feeling Good, vigorous exercise, cutting down on caffeine, spending more time with family and friends, getting outside and looking at green things a little, getting involved in a hobby outside of work so you don't feel My Identity = This Job, etc.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:19 PM on October 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

When I was a new postdoc I learned *everything* from the students who had been in that lab for a while. Just because I was ostensibly higher level than them... didn't mean anything because the whole reason I went into that lab was to learn new techniques! Of course they had to teach me! In return, I taught them stuff that I learned in grad school.

I understand about not wanting your mentor to know how much you don't know... but they do know that. Just go in asking questions, but as said above, do some research so your question comes out as.. "should I do A or B? I'm not experienced enough to know the downsides of either way." But have options ready, and think about the ramifications of them.
posted by gaspode at 8:19 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have advised many Ph.D. students. I don't mind getting emails from my former students asking for advice. But when I have 50 emails to answer in a day, email from my current students takes priority over those from former students. Sometimes the former students don't get answers. In my case this doesn't mean I don't want to help them or that I want them to stop emailing me. Nothing you've written here is a "clear sign" that your former advisor feels that way, either.
posted by escabeche at 10:29 PM on October 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

As bad as I feel about this, I care much more about what my current supervisor thinks of me than my former one.

So keep in mind that academia is small and what you're doing has a decent chance of getting back to your new boss. Either directly between the two via email or similar, in person via casual chat at a conference or the like, or, worst case, indirectly via the gossip grapevine. Because how you're acting is non-standard enough that I expect it will be gossiped about.

A postdoc is a training position, so go forth and allow yourself to be trained. It's fine, it's expected. But pretending you know what you're doing when you don't is pretty obvious to the new lab (and common and, yes, we gossip when we see it) and going to your old supervisor with questions you should be discussing with your new one is also pretty obvious to the old lab (and, yes, we've gossiped about this scenario too). You're not getting away with it at this point.
posted by shelleycat at 10:55 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I don't ask for help much because I want to leave a good impression and I also don't want to reveal how much I don't know

I totally understand this and where it comes from. Asking questions puts you in a vulnerable place and some profs might not be as kind and understanding as they should be. Maybe some would get angry or belittle you. However, if they do that, they're behaving poorly, and you shouldn't care what they think.

The way to leave a good impression is to deliver good work. That means asking a lot of questions, a lot of false starts and iterations, a lot of messiness as your half-formed ideas smash into the wall of the unknown and you start figuring things out. Most profs, hopefully all, understand this, and expect their students and researchers to ask questions and push back when they don't understand things. There's no other way to move forward. How does one get to know things, anyway? It's not from books; that's how you get half-formed ideas. Knowledge comes from the messiness of applying these ideas, or trying to, until you figure them out.

I give this advice to pretty much everyone, but I think you should consider therapy to help you work through these feelings of anxiety and panic. The 'out of your depth' feeling and the need to get validation of your worth from an external figure are things I worked through in my own therapy and I was able to move past them almost completely, so that instead of feeling like I knew nothing and was a fraud, I felt like I knew nothing but I was learning lots, getting better, and capable of making my way. Likewise I moved from needing to be perfect and terrified of failure (and thus avoidant of situations where I might be tested, which made work torturous), to being happy with my best, much more productive, and totally okay with failing. Well, not totally okay, but a lot more okay. Therapy is a good way to deal with feelings and help change behaviors, just as you asked, so I hope you'll consider it.
posted by PercussivePaul at 11:03 PM on October 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

My biggest regret about my first postdoc is that I did not take the opportunity to be a total idiot and ask questions. Ask now, you aren't supposed to know everything in your new environment; and you really won't want to ask a year in. Bug other postdocs, students, and yes, your current supervisor.

There is no shame in not knowing, just in hiding it.
posted by nat at 12:56 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

The suggestion of writing your question as an unsent e-mail, or otherwise stopping to explain your problem to nobody in particular is common enough to have it's own term: "rubber duck debugging."
posted by penguinicity at 3:04 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Have you ever heard of "impostor syndrome"? It's the feeling that you don't belong there, that you somehow got where you are because nobody noticed how terrible and unqualified you really are. It's so common that it has a name. And you know who first introduced me to this concept? A friend who was working on her Ph.D. at MIT. She told me that EVERYBODY IN THE ROOM (also MIT grad students/postdocs) gasped and confessed that they felt that way too.

So talk to your current supervisor, and find people other than your supervisor in your current lab who you can talk to and ask questions. They WANT you to ask questions and learn what you're doing. Communicating with them more also lets them know that you're interested in improving and learning how things work in this lab. When I'm supervising a new employee, I expect them to have tons of questions and it worries me if they don't -- I think they aren't seeking out the information that they will need to do a good job, and are trying to skate by pretending they know everything instead of learning the right way to do things.

One of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten about work is: "Don't try to be smart. Just try to be helpful." It's not a mistake that you have a Ph.D. and are now working in a lab. The people who hired you are very smart and believe you can do the work. So relax, stop trying to prove something to them -- you already have, you're already there -- and just try to do the best job you can.
posted by chickenmagazine at 6:06 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Little time that I spend with my current supervisor, I don't ask for help much because I want to leave a good impression and I also don't want to reveal how much I don't know.

This is an entirely backwards approach. This is not how a sound workplace expects you to operate. Ask questions.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:27 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Ask a librarian.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 8:03 AM on October 10, 2014

No postdoc experience here but some anecdotes from the commercial world.

1/ The most useful question a supervisor has ever asked me was 'do you know everything?' to which my response was, no of course I didn't. 'So why don't you ask more questions?' This was to teach me that asking questions and learning from others, as opposed to figuring things out by yourself all the time is a good thing. Clearly pitch your questions at the right level.

2/ I've been in supervisory roles for a few years now and come across a bunch of new (in general or to my team) people very regularly in my line of work. And the worst thing they can do is pretend they know things they don't. That approach wastes a lot of my time and my time is precious so I feel strongly about it being wasted. People not asking for coaching and help as required wastes my time because
a) I spend time briefing on a task in a way that is inappropriate to the level of experience the person has
b) they then sit around for a long time doing something without producing a useful output, which wastes their time but also mine because I will need to
c) spend a lot more time reviewing that poor output than if it had been done well
d) spend time to get them or somebody else to fix the output/redo the work or
e) do it myself because by then the deadline is too tight
f) explain to somebody else why we're over budget (time taken to produce poor output too long, more of my time to review, more time to fix output, more of my time to review again or do myself) at some point in the future

So I'd much rather hear somebody has never done something because it makes my life much easier a few days or weeks down the line.

As a result I will go to great length to remove people from my teams, who will not ask for help when required.
posted by koahiatamadl at 9:24 AM on October 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your mention of email is giving me guilt attacks, but please believe me that email goes unanswered even with the best of intentions. I get maybe a hundred relevant (non-spam) emails a day, and if it isn't a one line answer, well...

If you've moving to a new group as a postdoc, you're going to be working/collaborating/writing papers with them, and there's no upside to your former advisor to answer detailed "How do I ..." questions about a topic that may not even be his primary research focus. You're colleagues now! So do expect him to take pride in your work, and to speak highly of you and the great things you did and are now doing, but don't expect him to offer routine help. Save that for the really big favors , like letters for the faculty job applications in 2 years time.

Meanwhile, as everyone here has already said, your new group and research advisor are the resources you should be using to the fullest. It's very much in their interest to bring you up to speed as fast as possible, and they're expecting to do that. You run the risk of silence being mistaken for either 100% knowledge, or (much worse) disinterest. Please ask questions!
posted by RedOrGreen at 9:26 AM on October 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice to go ahead and ask your current PI (and group). You're anxious about being seen to not understand what's going on, but I think that you could get a lot more out of your current group than your former advisor. Even on his/her most responsive day, your former advisor will only know exactly what your email explained about the situation, and only has their own experience to draw on (although he/she is an expert in the general field, presumably your current boss is the expert on the current boss's project!), and even assuming previous advisor had the perfect answer and time to provide you with it, there's the matter of them explaining it adequately in an email. There's potential for you to get a much better, more thorough and more precise, explanation from your current group. Additionally, asking one question can lead to a conversation that might take care of a lot of information, provide even more context for your new project.

Maybe part of your anxiety is based in feeling that your questions aren't "good questions". That's okay! Ask them anyway!! If it's a question that you don't know the answer to, it's worth asking. If you worry that it'll be too simplistic of a question for the PI, ask a grad student. Very few questions are stupid questions. That said, in a lot of academic cultures, the thing to watch out for isn't looking stupid, it's looking lazy - not "why is Anon asking me that, every baby knows that!" but "why is Anon asking me for something they could just look up in a book, don't they know how to use a library?" It can be a somewhat unreasonable assumption - PI gave you a stack of 15 journal articles to read, and you thumbed through them as best you could but you're not going to remember which one has the info you want. So rephrase your question: not "what's the reflectance coefficient?" but "remind me, which paper is it with the reflectance coefficients, is that Johnston?"
posted by aimedwander at 10:19 AM on October 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

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