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I am a doctoral student in a large state university in the eastern US. I'm in my final year of work and will likely defend my dissertation shortly. I already have a job in "industry" (i.e. non-academia) lined up.

My advisor would prefer that I stay for another semester to finish up another publication with him. My contributions to the publication are relatively minimal now, but I am the last remaining person on the project that knows any of the details about it. My advisor, while topically knowledgeable about the subject, would need to put in significantly more time to produce the paper.

Because I anticipated this, I wrote a document to allow for a transfer of knowledge to anyone who joins the project when I leave. It assumes the person is familiar with Python, R, or MatLab. My advisor knows none of those languages, so he cannot immediately pick up the work himself.

Long story short, my advisor wants me to stay and finish up one last project with him so he can include it in his portfolio for tenure. If I leave before the project is complete, he will likely be unable to complete the project in time to have it considered for his tenure evaluation. This would weaken his tenure application and could also lead to the loss of a grant.

As such, he offered me a small stipend of $5000 or so to stay on and complete the paper with him. I would need to turn down a job offer that would likely pay four times that, plus an offer that would place me in a long term job in a field I want to be in. I would also have to go without dental and vision insurance for another semester.

Is there a tactful way to tell my advisor I really couldn't care less if he doesn't obtain tenure because of this? It's not that I hate my advisor, but I'm not exactly thrilled at the prospect of still having to work under him. (Especially for a quarter of the salary.) It's nothing personal, it's just that I don't want to write a paper for the advisor just so that he can obtain tenure.

In all, how much I care about my advisor obtaining tenure?


Added While it may be feasible for me to contribute to the project while also working in a full time position, this is not a desirable outcome. To be blunt, my advisor should have figured this situation out before now. He has had several opportunities to become involved in this project more fully. He has resisted learning the necessary theory and technology relevant to the project. As can be inferred by his current pursuit of tenure, we are not talking about someone who technology has passed by. If you got a PhD after 2010, yet cannot deign to learn new technology....it's hard for me to feel very inclined to continue to help you write a paper that you should be able to oversee on your own. Ultimately, I am wondering how I should go about telling my advisor that I am not going to become more involved in a project at the very end of my work with him, when I in fact want to distance myself from working with him in the future.

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    Do not say anything along the lines of 'I couldn't care less about your tenure', regardless of how it's worded. That's horrifically rude and disregards the years your adviser as worked to get you to the point of completing your doctoral studies. You simply have to say to them that you cannot reject this offer and that you will be taking it. Why do you have to remain in the group to complete the paper, if your contribution is so small? – Eppicurt Mar 19 '18 at 23:57
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    "It would mean that you would need to turn down a job offer that would likely pay four times that, plus an offer that would place you in a long term job in a field you want to be in. It would also mean having to go without dental and vision insurance for another semester." This is all you need to say. If those reasons are not good enough for him, nothing will be. – user37208 Mar 20 '18 at 0:26
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    I would take the job and work on the side to help finish the paper. – The Doctor Mar 20 '18 at 0:31
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    I"d say help your adviser as much as you reasonably can, but what he's asking of you isn't reasonable. How long would it take to do the work he wants if you did it in your spare time? (And I really mean "spare" --- not giving up sleeping, eating, and everything else.) If it could reasonably be done in time for his tenure and grant applications, then go ahead and help. But don't give up your new job for this. – Andreas Blass Mar 20 '18 at 1:16
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    Why do you have to "stay"? Can't you finish up the paper while employed? – jamesqf Mar 20 '18 at 4:40
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I think your approach to this situation is a bit misguided. Yes, you should absolutely care about your advisor’s success (and he should care about yours). But “caring” doesn’t mean that you should sacrifice your own career and self-interest to the cause of helping your advisor, just as, by the same token, I wouldn’t expect your advisor to sacrifice himself for you either. Thus, the way you frame the question as a dichotomy between the extremes of “couldn’t care less” and “will do anything to help my advisor get tenure” is a false dichotomy.

The truth lies somewhere in between those extremes, but broadly speaking I tend to agree with your assessment that the advisor is unreasonable to have an expectation that you will defer the launch of your career for a semester and give up money, health insurance and professional opportunities to stick around and help him finish a project that is no longer a priority for you, for whatever reason. You need to stand up for yourself and explain what your priorities are. But do it in a civil and polite way that shows that you are grateful for the mentoring and other help he has given you (and may yet give in the future through letters of reference etc). Don’t say you don’t care (and better yet, don’t even think it). Do say that you would be willing to make reasonable efforts to ensure a smooth handoff of the project, as you seem to have been doing already. And finally, as @aeismaeil said in his answer, don’t mention the tenure or the grant, since they are simply irrelevant to the discussion. Good luck!

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    And if the professor seems still concerned about their own tenure, maybe it's worth it to suggest that having a successful student with a good career track (right out of the gate, too) is a good mark on their record. – zibadawa timmy Mar 23 '18 at 4:45
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You should have some concern for your advisor's tenure considerations—inasmuch as having a successful advisor helps your reputation as well (helpful if you're a young researcher)! However, that does not give your advisor the right to treat you as a "wage slave" or under substandard conditions claiming "it's for tenure."

I would address this by saying that you'd like to help him complete the paper but you've already made plans to move on that can't be postponed. Don't mention the tenure issue unless your advisor brings it up. It's an extraneous detail—you wouldn't really stick around to work if the paper weren't for tenure, so it's not a germane issue here.

But one other question remains: is there a way you could help out without staying on? Could you help "advise" the replacement, whoever that may be, to get up to speed faster?

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Your advisor put himself into this situation. There are a number of very serious mistakes on his part here:

  • He's down to one person that knows anything about the paper, and that person didn't do any of the work. This was highly foreseeable; he should have made arrangements to hire someone else and ensure a smooth tradeoff (as you yourself made arrangements to do).
  • He doesn't know enough about the paper to take over himself. How it's possible that he doesn't know any of those languages is beyond me.
  • He didn't communicate his desire for that student to stick around until they had already made other plans.
  • Having realized that he is in this position, he offers you only $5,000. In my (STEM) experience, students in this position are generally offered a post-doc with a salary that, while less than industry, does reflect your professional status (i.e., several times what he is offering you)

There are only two options here:

  • If this one paper is so significant that he loses tenure over it, then it's ridiculous that he let it come to this. Frankly, he deserves to lose tenure.
  • If this paper is not so significant that he loses tenure over this, then you shouldn't waste time either.

So, my view is that you should care (in the sense of being willing to change your own plans) very little. My answer might be different if you wanted to stay in academia, just because you might need to preserve a good relationship with him at all cost.

If you are willing to take a post-doc equivalent (if such a thing even exists where you are), or if you'd be willing to work on this in your spare time once you start your new job, then you can offer as much. Otherwise, you can just say something like "I understand this puts you in a tight position, but I've been very clear with you about my plans to take a job starting on [date], and I'm afraid it wouldn't be practical for me to stay here for another semester." If he is at all reasonable, he will understand that turning down a good job in your field making good money for a $5K stipend would be crazy.

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    It may be $5000/month, which in my experience is the right ballpark for postdoc salaries in some fields but still substantially less than industry salaries. – Peter Shor Mar 21 '18 at 11:58
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    @PeterShor Considering that the other job offer apparently only pays four times that, I should hope it's per month. I have a hard time imagining a PhD industry position that only pays $20k per year. – Ray Mar 21 '18 at 16:27
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    I assume the $5,000 covers the extra semester in question, which would be about $15K per year, assuming the university uses fall, spring, and summer semesters. That sucks! Though I had said this was low by a factor of 10, which was a bit too strong, updated my answer. – cag51 Mar 21 '18 at 18:53
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    @cag51 Yes. the $5,000 is for May through August. RAships usually pay around that much at my university. Thank goodness that I was mostly privately funded. – Vladhagen Mar 23 '18 at 20:49
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Is there a tactful way to tell the advisor you really could care less if he does not obtain tenure because of this?

No, of course not. There's no tactful way to ever tell someone you don't care about them or their success.

However, you should consider mitigating the blow. There are many people who continue to work on research after their defense, and there's nothing (that you've told us, anyway) that would prevent you from continuing to support your advisor once you leave.

As such I'd suggest the following:

You've asked me to stay on and help you complete this paper. Unfortunately I'm not able to do so. I've provided enough information to hand it off to another student, and I hope you can find a replacement for me. However, if you cannot I'm available to continue working on this remotely for the paper as a paid research consultant. I do want to see this paper published, but it's not ready yet and I cannot place my career on hold for one paper.

This should provide the necessary support he's requesting without you putting yourself on hold, and should supplement your income during the time he's asking for your continued assistance. It makes it clear that while the ball is in his court regarding finding a replacement or using you remotely, there is no option for you to stay.

You should discuss this with the company you're joining, but unless they've hired you specifically for the exact topic of that research paper, they shouldn't have any objections to allowing you to finish it outside working hours. As long as your time spent is minimal you should be able to do both.

  • Surely there are ways to say this tactfully. It doesn't even seem that hard: "while I respect your needs, I just see no way to align your needs with my own in this situation." Never say "never". – user58748 Mar 20 '18 at 18:25
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    @user30031 I suppose I interpret his statement as 1) not respecting his advisor's needs and 2) requiring that he tell his advisor he doesn't care. Your solution is not to mention whether he cares or not, and to suggest that he does respect his advisor's needs. However, it's not a bad way to go if his goals are adjusted slightly. Consider adding your own answer, or upvoting the one closest to your suggestion. – Adam Davis Mar 20 '18 at 18:28
  • @user30031 That said, you're right, "never say never" and your suggestion does come close to a tactful solution. If the question were, "Is there a tactful way to tell them I'm prioritizing my needs above theirs?" then I would upvote your suggestion. – Adam Davis Mar 20 '18 at 18:31
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Is there a tactful way to tell my advisor I really couldn't care less if he doesn't obtain tenure because of this? It's not that I hate my advisor, but I'm not exactly thrilled at the prospect of still having to work under him. (Especially for a quarter of the salary.) It's nothing personal, it's just that I don't want to write a paper for the advisor just so that he can obtain tenure.

Setting aside the substance of your question (which is pretty trivial in any case) I think this kind of talk betrays a really repugnant attitude. It is perfectly reasonable to want to accept a desirable job offer over a substantially less desirable offer, and it is a trivial task for a mature person to figure out an appropriate way to communicate that. But to say that you "couldn't care less" about the success of a person who has spent 3-4 years of his time advising and teaching you on a one-on-one basis is really quite vile.

Supervising a PhD student is a lot of work and often that work does not contribute substantially to your own academic career. Your supervisor certainly has no right to your future employment, but I would expect there would be some degree of appreciation shown in the way you talk about him. You say you're not thrilled about the prospect of still having to work under him, like this is some kind of prison sentence he imposed on you during your candidature. No, you "worked under him" because he was kind enough to act as your supervisor in a degree program you chose to enrol in.

Care or don't care about your advisor obtaining tenure. But take a good hard look in the mirror.

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