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I got an externally funded research grant as a lead researcher to carry out a project at a UK University, together with other senior co-PIs. The grant would pay my salary for the duration of the project as a postdoc, which would be 6 months. Due to several administrative and other issues, the project kept being delayed (outside of my control), by what the funding finished, but the project deliverables were not produced. I continued working on the project in the hope that we could finish it at some point, but other issues came up, preventing the project from being completed.

It has been now 4 months that I've been working as a postdoc in this project without any pay, and I can't continue living without any money to support myself. I got some legal advice from a lawyer about this where I was told I should just walk out since my contract finished and I have no obligation to work without a contract. However, being an ECR (early career researcher), it would be extremely damaging for my future career to abandon this project halfway and not get any publication from it.

After several meetings with the PIs discussing what to do with the project, and pointing out I need money to survive, their conclusion was that I must finish the project deliverables, without any further pay, as they are blaming me for the delays in the project (which is not the case, as I stated before). They are also threatening me (indirectly) with damaging my reputation as a scientist, blacklisting me for future grant applications (the senior PIs are in several grant committees in my area of research) and just in general destroying any chances of me having a future research career.

At this point, I have no idea what to do to get out of this problem... It seems my only options are either to quit academia entirely or accepting to being exploited and work without pay.

On top of all this, I discovered recently the grant has some small amount of leftover money from non needed consumables, which I requested to be redirected to my salary. The PIs refused this, as they are saying they will only pay me this amount if the project is finished.

I am looking for any advice on how to deal with this problem, particularly if someone else faced a similar situation before in a UK university.

closed as off-topic by Buffy, corey979, Peter Jansson, Jon Custer, Morgan Rodgers Dec 15 '18 at 6:53

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    You need to contact an employment attorney. If you cannot afford that, then I think you need to walk away. Work without pay is known by another name: Slavery. – Vladhagen Dec 14 '18 at 17:04
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    @Vladhagen work without pay is also known as volunteering. What you probably mean is that no-one can be forced to work without pay. – Dmitry Savostyanov Dec 14 '18 at 20:28
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    @Vladhagen that's a bit extreme and also is an example of trivializing slavery. The point here of course is that the poster is free to walk away. – T_M Dec 14 '18 at 20:57
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    Don‘t walk. Run. In particular, worrying about the effect on your career is misplaced. The PIs’ threats already show that they have no interest in supporting your career, and eating is not negotiable. I’m sorry you’ve found yourself in a subfield that tolerates this kind of abuse. – JeffE Dec 15 '18 at 5:57
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    Thank you all for your comments! I tried to add more information to my question above, but it probably was not approved. I followed some of the advice given here and contacted the Union and the independent legal service for employees of the University. So thank you to all! – anonymous Dec 21 '18 at 13:09
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For some reason there is this belief in academia that people should work without pay. It's inappropriate. You need to walk away.

Even early career researchers are allowed to work for pay.

It would also seem that a 6-month grant would only be for a rather small project. Can the project be tied off quickly so that you can move on?

If the senior PIs are threatening to ruin your career, I would try to get some evidence of these threats. Also keep in mind that even if you finish the project, PIs who make threats to ruin you career are not all of the sudden going to become your best buddies. You could very well finish the project and still have your senior PIs blacklist you for further grants. You owe them nothing.

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    I agree with the thrust of this answer, except that it seems to imply that a postdoc should cease all work on a project the moment their term of employment is up. To the contrary, it is completely fine to continue to wrap up previous projects after moving on to a new position. I've tried to flesh this out a bit in my answer. – JaS Dec 14 '18 at 23:43
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You should not work without a contract. Whatever is the current academic state of this research project, if your contract is terminated you should stop working on it.

Yes, not delivering on your first funded project can be damaging to your career, but equally for the career of your "co-PIs". Arguably, as they are in more senior roles, they ultimately have more responsibility for supervising/training you through the project and making sure the results are delivered. They also can not, under any circumstances, to force you work without pay — this is likely to contradict University regulations and they can lose their jobs over it.

Not just this bizarre behaviour of your co-PIs, but also other details of your situation are unclear from your question or contradict the usual norm. There is usually one PI, the person who got the grant, and they are entitled to make decisions about funding, within remit and regulations of the University. Longer, multi-million grants may be led by several PIs, but your grant is 6 months only. In your question, it appears that you are "Lead Researcher" but not a PI on the project.

  • I don't really think the behavior is that bizarre--sounds like he's being made the scapegoat for failings above his level. – Loren Pechtel Dec 14 '18 at 23:22
  • Just to add a bit of information here: I have been working for 8 years in the UK, worked in more than one University and with several different people in each University. It is not the first time that I was pushed to work for free (although it is the first time there are threats). I found It acceptable to do some free work when I was just starting my career (before publishing papers or doing any substantial work), as that was a learning stage for me. But now with several papers published and 8 years of research experience, I don't think it's ok for senior researchers to do this... – anonymous Dec 21 '18 at 13:16
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It is normal and acceptable for PIs to expect continued collaboration from a former postdoc on projects of mutual interest, even after the postdoc's employment ends. Furthermore, it is in the erstwhile postdoc's interest to see ongoing projects through to completion (and publication). It is very normal for big papers arising from a postdoc to be submitted well after employment is finished.

However it is not normal or acceptable for a PI to expect their former postdoc to continue working full-time without pay, and it is unacceptable and abusive to use threats of retaliation to compel a postdoc to provide unpaid labor.

In my opinion, you have two reasonable courses of action available to you. First, you might decide that you PIs have been abusive and unreasonable to the point where your relationship is not worth pursuing further. If you are traumatized, depressed, burnt-out, or terrified of interactions with your PIs, this might be a good course of action. And if this is the situation it isn't your fault.

The second option would be to check with your PIs whether there might be some degree of misunderstanding. You could seek an arrangement where you will work full-time elsewhere (with pay!), but where you continue to devote a significant amount of time to the unfinished project (say 10 hours per week). This additional work would be unpaid, but would come with a set of expectations about your authorship on the final products (these expectations should be discussed and agreed explicitly, preferably in writing). If the PIs find this relationship to be unacceptable, but remain unwilling to pay you, then it sounds to me like an absurdly toxic environment, and my advice is leave as quickly as possible.

Either approach involves searching for a job right away.

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I think this really comes down to who are you working for. Nominally you are employed by the university, but the university really does not care about any deliverables you might provide and is happy for your to leave. Maybe you are working for the funder; if that is the case, they no longer think the deliverables you can produce are worth what it would cost and are happy for you to stop working for them. Your PIs also don't think what you can produce is worth it. In fact, as a postdoc, you are really working for yourself as you are really the only person who will benefit from your work. Your failure to get additional grant money means you can no longer pay yourself (via the university) and now you need to decide if you want to work for yourself for free.

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By working without pay, you are fueling the very thing that is happening to you. It's similar to many other areas where college grads are underemployed, and employers take advantage of a college education and a bright and intelligent mind.

That said, if you quit and try to make an economic stand, you'll lose. Someone else will do it. All you can do is quit and know you did the right thing, but you won't be rewarded, and it will be most difficult, possibly more then you can know or I can describe here.

This is what, why, and how technology is developed. It is naive to think a professor somewhere was highly paid to develop Windows o.s., the windshield wipers on your car, and the other things we take for granted.

  • Also the questions of what is best for you and what's best for people who will be in your circumstances in the future are different and probably opposite. – marshal craft Dec 15 '18 at 13:45

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