As a PhD student in a multidisciplinary subject, I am grouped with a postdoc by my supervisor. In our lab, the usual rule is student do the theory and coding, and postdoc do the experiment.

My collaborator postdoc is highly unmotivated: he badly performed the experimental tasks that I told him to do (most of the time, the experiments was unqualified), and delayed our project progress.

I am much younger than him, and he refused to follow my instructions, and instead fed me with unreliable “ideas” and asked me to do his job... My supervisor knows the situation, but does nothing and just watches. Each weekly meeting I am the only guy having progress.

At end I had to do the experimental part myself. It was tough but finally the project was accepted to a top journal. I have done 95%+ works, but have to add the postdoc as a coauthor (he didn’t even take part in writing the paper)

I anticipate similar course of action in future projects. I can’t change the group.

How can I properly motivate my postdoc to get him work for me?


The question has been revived and let me summarize some of comments. It helps to clarify some statements:

  • "get him work for me" simply means "do his duty as a collaborator".
  • The postdoc received authorship; but I am actually the guy doing all the works.
  • The whole story is, I gave up pushing on him, did the bio training myself, and finished the data acquisition myself.
  • In this question I am humbly asking how to avoid similar situations from happening again.
  • I am not being harsh from the very first beginning. I was polite to the postdoc, even after wasting months.
  • Technician is not a negative word. If you are familar with bio labs, you will know most postdocs are no more than a "technician", most of them cannot get a decent faculty position (e.g. top 100 US universities). I am a technician too, but just in coding. The only scientist is the professor.
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Apr 24 '18 at 7:52

How can I properly motivate my postdoc to get him work for me?

You don't. Changing anyone's behavior is difficult; changing your "superior's" behavior will be even less successful and will lead to conflict.

I would start by trying to figure out how long the post-doc is planning to be around. It may be that he is on his way out; this would explain both his lack of focus and the professor's apathy.

In any case, I agree with the discussion in the comments -- the situation as you describe it is inexcusable. But as a PhD student, your options are very limited. I would suggest asking the professor for a private meeting. In the meeting, I suggest making the following points.

  • You successfully published a paper in a top journal
  • The post-doc contributed virtually nothing to this work, and in fact delayed progress
  • You feel it "may have been inappropriate" to even list the post-doc as an author of the paper
  • Based on this experience, you think it would be more fruitful to work independently from the post-doc on future efforts.

The professor will likely not be receptive to this, and will make some vague promise about speaking to the post-doc. So, the real question you should be asking (yourself) is:

Should I finish my PhD with this advisor or find another group?

If you are willing to leave (and you are sure!), you can mention this to your advisor if his initial reaction is not satisfactory. This may change the calculation for him -- or he may be more candid with you (e.g., telling you that he is about to fire the post-doc). Or he may let you go.

If you are close to graduation, then it's probably worth sticking this out. Adding people as authors when they didn't contribute much does not really rise to the level of serious academic misconduct, so I would simply avoid relying on the post-doc as much as possible.

  • 1
    Thanks for the suggestions. Even worse I am in the middle (2.5 years) of my phd and my professor is one big man (10k+ citations) in this area. There will be no way to find another phd position if I am pissing him off. Yes I now do all the stuff myself. Each weekly meeting the postdoc says nothing and just watch me reporting, like a boss. I felt like I am a slave to the postdoc, not a collaborator. —It was my mistake to do a phd in a CS lab while doing bio for real. Sad.
    – WDC
    Apr 22 '18 at 10:23
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    Have you confronted the postdoc directly? "Why do you expect me to do all the work?" Apr 22 '18 at 11:31
  • @OlegLobachev Yes I did. He said "I have done the task, but you are being too mean for the data so I will not do it again". His data is useless and suffer from motion blur and defocus blur. These are just lab issues that can be properly handled with enough patience. Whenever I asked him to do the job, he just fed me with gabage data. After wasting weeks I have to do it on my own.
    – WDC
    Apr 22 '18 at 16:28
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    What does "too mean for the data" mean? I feel like a couple of things are being mistranslated in that sentence and I'm having trouble intuiting what you meant there. Apr 23 '18 at 12:44
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    Let's see if I understood right. The postdoc said, "You are being too picky about this data; the data I took for you is good enough" -- is that about right? (You might want to check the meaning of "too mean.") Apr 23 '18 at 12:52

To motivate someone, or at least not demotivate them, you should make them feel valued and taken seriously. Everything you are saying points in the direction of that not happening.

For example, your postdoc isn't working for you; he is working with you. Or at least, that's how the situation should be if you want him to be motivated. You are also saying he has to follow your instructions, and do experiments you tell him to do. You describe him as a technician. If I were the experimentator in such a collaboration I'd be very unwilling to put in any effort.

Obviously, making someone feel valued and taken seriously will not turn them into a better experimentator. So in some collaborations being respectful towards your collaborator will be very effective, and in some collaborations it won't be. But the way I see it, you have nothing to lose.


As a postdoc who is often unmotivated, I will try to help you out.

Clearly you are not in ideal academic ambiance for high-quality intellectual output. Your supervisor looks parasitic in relying on others to work on their own albeit in his behalf, and this postdoc is relying on you to do the hard work. Providing the worst quality results for a demanding mate is the oldest recipe for not being asked to do anything. (Like breaking some expensive piece when pushed to wash the dishes).

In that case you're stuck and I don't see anyway around it. However parasites have a lot to lose, in fact more than their host.

I suggest you be bold and do the unexpected: tell your postdoc and boss you're fed up and leaving. My guess is that they'll make concessions to keep you. Do not expect them to change this game: you will just get something this time, for a while. In any case, should you leave anyway, I don't think you will be doing a bad business.

In most cases dropping a bad PhD is way better that swallowing it whole, and still much better than not having had the experience. Reconsider this logic if you must return funding/salary (see your contract conditions).

Shake these mites off you and get on with your life.


What's in it for this postdoc?

I would suggest that you sit in on some courses where you would learn what you need to know to be able to take the data comfortably, without stress, more autonomously.

  • Thanks for the suggestion. Yes I have now finished the training and be able to do the experiments myself. And what do you mean by “what’s in it?”
    – WDC
    Apr 23 '18 at 11:35
  • 2
    You did the training overnight? // "What's in it for the postdoc?" means "What would X gain from doing your grunt work for you?" See english.stackexchange.com/q/443051/112436. Apr 23 '18 at 12:43
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    See my previous comments in the question. I did the training before the submission deadline and finally did the lab work myself. And I see your question. He is one collaborator of the project, and received authorship in the end. So, he has to do the job. No free lunch, right?
    – WDC
    Apr 23 '18 at 12:47
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    I'm suggesting that you do your own lab work. // Now, if you want to learn more about this type of lab work from this postdoc, then perhaps you could make yourself useful around the lab, and build a positive relationship with this person. Apr 23 '18 at 12:54
  • 1
    Right, especially if there is no benefit for the other person. // If you want to do applied math or applied computer science, it behooves you to learn as much as you can about the area of application. // Your question and comments, up until the last one, came across and imperious and likely to make you quite unpopular in a bio lab. As you continue your research work, I suggest you keep in mind that you are a guest in someone else's lab. // Glad you're starting to think in terms of being more autonomous. Best of luck as you continue your studies. Apr 23 '18 at 13:04

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