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Some postdoc positions are formally advertised. Arguably, even more exist on a "gray market" - they are not advertised, and a person seeking a postdoc is supposed to contact a professor directly.

One ethical concern that I see here is that in some situations even when the agreement between the professor and prospective candidate is made, the position still has to be advertised (e.g. this may be a legal obligation in some countries). The advertisement will attract a number of applications, none of which has a chance to succeed, since the deal about this position has already been made behind the curtains.

My second concern is a bit harder to formalise. Is it true that when a candidate approaches a professor with a request like this, some serious ethical restrictions arise? Is it more difficult to turn the offer down, if you were the one asking for it? Is it more difficult to terminate the postdoc contract earlier than expected (and move to permanent position, for example), if you were the one asking for it?

Should I keep trying to apply only for a officially advertised positions, or should I give up and approach senior guys directly?

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Clarification needed: are you looking to ask about a known position that colleagues have said actually exists, or are you looking to simply ask if the professor has any funding available for a new postdoc? –  Moriarty Jun 18 at 20:24
    
I'd like to talk about positions that do not exist in public space. The recommendations of colleagues to ask a specific professor, for example. Word of mouth. Networking through your current supervisor. Any situation when a candidate should initiate a contact with prospective professor, asking for something that is not publicly here yet. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 18 at 20:31
    
@DmitrySavostyanov: That still doesn't really answer the clarification question. The question is are you asking about positions that are known to exist (even if not publically), or are you just asking people without knowing if they have postdoc positions at all? –  BrenBarn Jun 18 at 20:37
    
I am sorry, I do not see any difference between these two regarding the ethics. Can we discuss both? –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 18 at 20:38
    
Why would it be harder to terminate early? If you approach a potential supervisor and successfully write an application together, you're arguably more independent than if they have the money and hire you for a project they need to have done. –  gerrit Jun 18 at 20:38

2 Answers 2

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+100

I have no special experience in applying for or managing postdocs, but this is just my take on the ethics.

As regards your first question, I would say it is the professor who is being unethical if he arranges backdoor deals for postdocs, while still openly soliciting applications which he has no intention of considering. I don't see anything unethical about approaching a faculty member to ask if they have or will have postdoc positions available. If they don't want to give you special treatment, they can easily and fairly say something like, "Yes, we will be accepting applications in November, I'll forward you the job ad when it's ready." If they tell you you are a lock and then mislead other applicants, that is their issue, not yours. As an applicant, I can't see that you can be held ethically responsible for how other applicants are (or aren't) considered, since you have no real control over that process.

As for your second question, I think those issues shade from an ethical level down to the level of personal courtesy. My impression is that everyone applying for every job tells the offerer that they are really interested in it, even if privately they view it as only a backup option. I agree this is somewhat distasteful in that it's not totally honest and straightforward, but I don't see any way around it and I think everyone expects it. Unless you were down on your knees begging for the postdoc, I don't think people would consider it a real ethical breach for you to reject it.

Plus, it's easy to avoid getting in too deep by making your inquiry diplomatically: instead of saying "Hey I really really want to do a postdoc with you have you got one?" you can say "I'm looking into postdoc opportunities and your work looks very interesting, will there be any postdoc opportunities in your department/lab soon?" By mentioning opportunities, plural, you make it clear that this is only one of many options you're exploring, and you can avoid appearing to make a commitment at an early stage. There may come a later stage where they ask you for a handshake agreement that you will accept the offer when it is officially made, and if you reject it after such a handshake, that could be considered unethical, but at the early stage you're describing I don't think it would be an issue.

In the end, I think the questions about rejecting the offer or leaving the position early come down to personal and professional courtesy and the desire to maintain good relationships with these people. As a nonacademic analogy, imagine you call up your friend and say, "Do you want to go to the movies?" and he says "Yes" and then you say "Okay, you can go by yourself, I don't actually want to go, I was just asking." You may not be cited by any ethics board for that, but you will be perceived as a jerk. Likewise, if you string people along making them think you want a postdoc offer, and then cavalierly drop it, even if it's not an actionable ethical breach, you may gain a reputation as a sneaky and underhanded negotiator, which will not help your professional career.

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In some countries, public announcement is compulsory. (But some people may publicly announce it on the physical notice board of the department and that's it). –  Davidmh Jun 19 at 11:14
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Ah yes, the physical bulletin board, final destination for all announcements that are supposed to never be read. –  xLeitix Jun 19 at 12:45

I think you are making a much bigger deal out of this than what it is. Ultimately, you seem to assume that this is something shady that should be avoided, as indicated by your word choices ("gray market", "should I give up and approach senior guys directly"). This is not the case. It is not more honorable to score a publicly announced job than to get one that has been offered to you personally and without lengthy official search.

Hence, the ethical implications over other postdocs are minimal to non-existant.

One ethical concern that I see here is that in some situations even when the agreement between the professor and prospective candidate is made, the position still has to be advertised (e.g. this may be a legal obligation in some countries). The advertisement will attract a number of applications, none of which has a chance to succeed, since the deal about this position has already been bade behind the curtains.

This may or may not be true, but it is certainly not your ethical issue. This is a problem that the professor has to deal with.

Is it true that when a candidate approaches a professor with a request like this, some serious ethical restrictions arise? Is it more difficult to turn the offer down, if you was the one who was asking for it?

I don't see why this would be the case. A postdoc is a postdoc is a postdoc. You do not bind your soul to this professor for eternity because he has offered you a job directly. Generally, turning down offers may cause some -unwarranted- hard feelings (everybody involved is just a human, after all), but the same is also true for any other job search.

Is it more difficult to terminate the postdoc contract earlier than expected (and move to permanent position, for example).

No professor should fault you for terminating a postdoc early to move on to a faculty position. Of course some will, but, again, this has little to do with how you got the job in the first place.

So if you have a network: go ahead and use it!

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Thank you for your answer. Do you think that the ethical situation with early career positions like Assist Prof or Lecturer is the same? I.e. there are no ethical concerns to activate your network and ask a friendly Head of Dept to open a position for you? –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 19 at 11:45
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@DmitrySavostyanov There's no ethical concern, but the answer will likely be that (s)he can't do that. –  xLeitix Jun 19 at 11:46
    
This is not uncommon in some countries I am familiar with. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jun 19 at 11:50
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There is a reason for this. This is not a private company. Post-docs (and some other people) may be paid with public funding, therefore the professor cannot choose someone out of his whim. The position must be publicly advertised and the best candidate according to some objective criteria must be chosen. While this is not a big deal in post-docs it may be for tenured positions. Ethics aside, it's against the rules (maybe laws) and the selection process is a lie, but well... what isn't? –  Trylks Jul 1 at 15:59
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+1. I agree almost entirely. My only quibble is that you cannot separate the professor's ethical problem from yours quite so easily. As an extreme example, if the postdoc were funded by organized crime (and you knew this), you would still be ethically on the hook. –  Ari Trachtenberg Jul 3 at 1:39

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