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Background

I did my Master's and PhD with my former PhD advisor in an Australian university. Coming from the experimental biology background, my advisor switched to the field of bioinformatics around the time when I started my Master's.

For my Master's project, I mainly used Graphic User Interface (GUI)-based programs and platforms such as Galaxy. During my Master's I started learning several computer languages without any support from my advisor. After six month into my PhD program, my advisor decided the whole lab would focus on a newly emerged sub-field which relies heavily on command-line-executed programs for data analysis. I have successfully completed a couple of projects and graduated by a series of publications last year and my degree was conferred in Nov 2018.

My former advisor was not the most knowledgeable person in programming language and statistics. Likewise, my fellow students in the lab all had the same level of statistical and programming proficiency. As a result, I had to provide support to each single fellow student from data downloading to differential testing and many micro tasks in-between, even after my graduation in Nov last year. I've shared online resources on programming and basic statistics with the lab, however there was little improvement or progress. Six months after my official graduation, I find myself answering emails from fellow students and former advisor on a weekly basis, sometimes ten emails a week; many times I had to rerun their analysis or debug their codes, a good amount of my time went to my former lab. Lately my former advisor even introduced to me via email a new honours (an undergraduate-level research year) student who has just started this year, hoping I could teach the student to generate a specific type of plot for their honours project. Either teaching the student via email or generate the plot by myself will be very time-consuming as the program has a steep learning curve and requires a lot of pre-process of input data, all for a non-essential plot for an undergraduate level thesis.

Reasons that cutting tiers with my former advisor seems inevitable:

I can't see an end to my current situation as a free labour for my former lab. The more support I offered, the more demanding they become. I've decided to stop replying to the students' emails altogether. However, very likely my former advisor will eventually step in since I am the only person they know who could solve their problems, but I am unwilling to do any more work for them. They have no funding currently so hiring a post-doc or a bioinformatician is out of question. That being said, I don't think the burden is on me. Frankly, having been exploited by them (Should I decline unrelated work assigned by PhD advisor?), I am not particularly grateful to my former advisor and just want to stay away from them.

Questions:

1) Am I obligated to teach other students even I have developed the necessary skills by myself without my advisor's support and that I have graduated almost six months ago?

2) What are the consequences if I choose to cut ties entirely with my former advisor?

I plan to work as a freelance bioinformatician therefore their recommendation letters don't really matter right now. If I want to go back to academia later, I figured the price I have to pay (in labour) will be overly high anyway so I will probably try applying jobs without their recommendation letter.

Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

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    Instead of cutting ties with your former supervisor and colleagues, why don't you just tell them that you cannot help them with every little problem? It is very time consuming and distracts from your current assignments -- which is a reasonable excuse. IMHO you don't need to be that drastic and cut any connections; especially because -- as your question suggests -- you do not have any quarrel with your supervisor. Just be upfront that your time budget is limited and you need to focus other projects. – HATEthePLOT Apr 15 at 12:14
  • I find this statement amusing: "The more support I offered, the more demanding they become." You don't say? Seriously though, just drag your feet, take a long time to answer, and all around avoid actually doing work. They'll get the message. – A Simple Algorithm Apr 15 at 23:18
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ad 1) Once you have graduated and you are not employed in the lab anymore nobody can force you to do work.

That being said there are a few options for you that might be interesting (but it depends what you actually want):

  • If you are interested in a publication record then agree with your former PhD supervisor that you co-author all papers you gave support for (even if it was only an email or two).
  • If you are interested in the financial aspects then write him a friendly email saying that you would be happy to further help if you are being employed an paid by him (e.g. on an hourly basis using standard market freelancer rates).

ad 2) He will not be happy (but this is not your problem). If you do not plan any further academic career there shouldn't be any real consequence. If you plan an academic career then (1) see the first point above (2) he might be on certain panels about funding/positions etc (3) he might be reviewer (4) he might have friends in points 2 and 3. But if you do not plan to continue in academia then these points do not matter to you.

In any case I would recommend not to just stop answering but write him a clear email with whatever decision you make (and then stop answering if you want).

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Document the time you spend then send an email to your supervisor and their manager / Dean stating that this is work which needs to be supported ie paid for.

Then see what they do.

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The amount of remote help you supplied sounds rather excessive from your description. It's not unusual to get the occasional email about specific aspects of your previous work from PhD students that continue with related work, but your description goes very far beyond that.

In general, you're not obligated to work for free. If it is of interest for you, collaborating on publications is an option that results in benefits for both sides. But it doesn't sound like this option is appealing to you.

You have to obligation to provide help that requires a significant amount of effort on your side. There is a huge difference between asking a former group member about something that takes them just a few minutes to respond and essentially asking them to debug their work and spend a lot of time on it. The latter is unreasonable to ask unless there is some kind of collaboration.

You're not employed by your previous institution anymore, and you have new responsibilities now. As a courtesy you could still respond and give the students some general pointers on their problem, but they have to figure it out themselves and debug their own issues. I think politely declining to help is a better idea in this case than not responding at all (not responding is valid if they continue to bug you after you declined).

One part that isn't clear to me is how much the supervisor knows about the situation, or whether this is driven by the students themselves. They might be unaware on how much their students are still relying on you. If they're unaware, they might not react badly at all.

Your former supervisor might get angry if you stop helping their students, but that would be a rather irrational response. That doesn't mean it won't happen, but it would not be justified. If your former supervisor retaliates it could cause you significant issues, but far more if you stay in academia than outside. But how likely this is is very hard to judge without knowing them and their personality.

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