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This is a hypothetical question inspired by a flip side of the situation described here.

Consider a PI on tenure-track position, facing tenure / promotion panel in a few years. The PI has just got their first significant research grant, allowing to recruit one postdoc (research fellow) and maybe buying out a few hours per week of PI's time to administer and manage the grant.

After careful selection and recruitment process, following the regulations of the University HR Department, a shortlist was composed, the interview was held, the best candidates were identified and finally one of them accepted the offer and arrived to start the post. Suppose the project and the funding is for one year only.

Following the usual induction process, a program of research has been agreed and weekly meetings has been set to monitor the progress. A few weeks later, the PI is worried that the progress is slower than anticipated. The majority of time is spent by the postdoc on reading the literature, discussing the problem with other PhD students in the group, formulating strategic suggestions on how to solve the problem and possibly also problems of other students in the group. However, when it comes to writing publications (and scientific code when appropriate), the progress is insufficient.

Suppose that the PI has tried to focus the postdoc on their area of responsibility by making verbal remarks, but it did not improve the situation and only made the relations a bit tenser. The PI feels that the postdoc is under-performing, but the postdoc denies such discussions and in discussion with other students describes them as non-constructive and abusive.

The question: Assuming the restrictions and processes of your current University (or other places your are familiar with), what would you do as the PI in this situation?

I assume that the short-term goals of the PI in this situation are to produce enough high-quality publications to successfully complete their grant, secure the following grants and increase the chances of successful tenure. However, if there are also long-term goals which are more important and should influence the chosen strategy instead, please describe them. I also assume that 3-4 hours per week is just about how much time the PI has to manage this grant, and the rest of the time is spent on teaching, working with PhD students, etc, so the strategies requiring let's say 2 hours of PI's time per day are not very realistic. This is based on the typical breakdown of time for EPSRC First Grant scheme in the UK — please feel free to point out if it's not applicable in other places.

  • In certain cases, adding 2 hours of PI time is the only thing that can be really done. For just one year, especially at relatively young age, it is certainly stressful but feasible. – Massimo Ortolano Sep 15 '18 at 10:37
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    @MassimoOrtolano Could you make it an answer and expand on what you would do as a PI given that you have the extra 2 hours (per day / per week)? – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 15 '18 at 10:39
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    Wow a few weeks in already and still only a minimal number of high-quality publications? Seriously though, give them tasks they can do in a short time and hold them to deadlines on them. The main problem with the prof's behavior in the other question was their abusive behavior, not their job requirements and expectations. – A Simple Algorithm Sep 15 '18 at 19:23
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    @ASimpleAlgorithm Let's try to separate the unacceptable manifestations of clearly abusive behaviour and the issues related to low performance. Could you make your comment an answer and expand on which milestones you will set and how you will respond as the PI if the deadlines you set are not met. – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 15 '18 at 19:30
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This really depends a lot on the contract situation. In some countries, such as Germany, there is a “probationary period” of several months wherein either side can choose unilaterally to end the contract. This lowers the risk from a bad hire. Saddled with a hire gone wrong, I’d try to get what output I could from the postdoc during the period and start a new hiring process right away (or see if anyone from the previous search was still available!).

In countries like the US where contracts may not include probationary periods, you have to try to figure out how to best help the postdoc out, since you’re stuck for a potentially much longer period. If it’s some sort of missing knowledge you figure out how to provide that. If it’s some other issue, you try to work around it or solve that problem. Without a more specific example, it’s hard to draw up a good “plan of action.”

  • In Germany, is the decision to terminate the contract during the probation period made by PI or HR? How realistic is for PI make a case to convince HR to terminate the contract given that the postdoc is attending work but not producing a research paper or code of significant quality? – Dmitry Savostyanov Sep 15 '18 at 12:25
  • Either the PI or the postdoc can end it during the probationary period by notifying HR. It happens frequently enough (a few percent of hires) that it’s not too hard but not trivial to make the necessary argument. – aeismail Sep 15 '18 at 12:29
  • I find it really strange to have several candidates and the one supposed to be the best didn't meet your expectations. A project of one year would force the PI to keep his/her postdoc until the end by encouraging him/her, teaching him/her and pushing him/her forward. I don't think, finding a candidate who accepts a job offer of a few months for a one-year project would be an easy task after ending the contract. – Younes Sep 15 '18 at 21:18
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    @Younes Very few projects are funded for one year and sometimes you can get “burned” by an unscrupulous graduate PI. I know of two very highly regarded PIs in my field, one of whom took a student from the other’s group based largely on the PI’s recommendation when the student should never have been given such a good recommendation. It would be an understatement to say that it “froze” their relationship considerably for a long time. – aeismail Sep 15 '18 at 22:32
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Answering this question highly depends on the institutional situation and context. BTW: very interesting initiative in adding a flip side to a conflict of interests.

I will consider the following scenario: the "competent" postdoc was screened based mainly on CV ticks, such as expertise and # publications & impact; the postdoc salary is paid by the university or government directly; the contract is for 12 months; the postdoc needs to publish 1 Pubmed paper in order to finish his duties.

First of all, let's admit that 12 months for demanding a published paper is a straightjacket. As a PI I would have emphasised and focused on this obstacle/requirement since interview selection. The postdoc should focus entirely on getting any published Pubmed paper as a first priority. (I would not pressure hard on authorship and IF in such case.)

Second of all, I state my view of a postdoctoral fellow. A postdoc relationship is a chance to establish a long-lasting collaboration with an experienced peer (and associated collaborators) and secure interdisciplinary/diversity in one's group. I am sure that if these two main points are successfully met during the temporary stay, a lot of mutual advantages (e.g. better research) should ensue for an indeterminate period of time.

This is why I'd face the first publication as the obstacle (imposed by the department or contract) and thus main potential point of dispute. Let us say it turns out like that: 7 months into the contract and the postdoc hasn't submitted a paper to meet the sole requirement of any publication remotely related to the topic of research without the need to include me as a coauthor, in spite of a known record of publications. Now, this is big bummer, isn't it?

There isn't too much I can do, if I am not directly responsible for the payments. Probably I misjudged the hire and/or the guy is failing to meet a fair agreement which should be trivial. However, still the postdoc is interacting with other group members well (post description) so it looks like the two main goals of the relationship can be met.

I'd be upset and would state it directly. I would state in written that no funding is to be allocated to the postdoc while the publication isn't met, as previously agreed. This should be put very professionally. Perhaps there are clear penalties in contract in case of failure to meet this requirement. I'd state this will be communicated to colleagues but also the fact that I appreciate any technical & sensible input to my lab group members during and after the stay. I would not isolate this person and would probably be forced to allocate my available hours writing the damn postdoc paper, which wouldn't please me.

But it is the best way around the situation I can see. I would reconsider what I can learn from the experience to avoid such issue in the future (e.g. negotiate the requirement with department and/or adjust project with next postdoc)

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