In Sweden, a PhD student can change its supervisor according to the higher education rules and regulations. They actually have quite a lot of rights during their studies. I wanted to know if this is also the case for a Postdoc working at a Swedish university?

Note that this question is purely about the legal aspects of the matter.

  • What do the rules and regulations say?
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 11:21
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    For PhD, chapter 6 - section 28 of the higher education rules have clearly mentioned that a PhD student can change the supervisor. But I couldn't find anything for postodcs: uhr.se/en/start/laws-and-regulations/Laws-and-regulations/… Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 11:35
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    Exercising such a right will most likely burn bridges with the involved PI. Therefore, regardless of whether such right exists, it's almost always better to find an informal solution. Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 12:03
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    @linker I'm wondering if it's a good question to ask. I'm a postdoc in Sweden myself, and I can't think of a situation where it would be a good idea to exercise or point to this right. But I'm also on a position funded by my supervisor. Does the postdoc in this question have their own funding? Then the situation might be different (and depend of the rules of the funder.) Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 12:22
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    @lighthousekeeper I believe it’s very important for a postdoc (or an employee in general) to be aware of his/her rights, specially in case of serious conflicts. My question is referring to common type of postdocs who don’t have their own funding and hired by the university. If you are a postdoc in sweeen, do you know what would happen if you get into an unresolvable conflict with your supervisor over a matter related to your research? e.g. in case your supervisor prevents OR force you to submit your paper to a conference. Is he/she “the boss” and you should do whatever he/she asks you to do? Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 13:51

4 Answers 4


Just to add a few things to posdef's great answer. I think it's worth mentioning that a PhD and a postdoc position are very different in terms of work dynamics with the "supervisor", and trying to compare the two is a bit questionable:

  • The primary purpose of a PhD student position is to provide the student with specialized research training under the supervision of the PhD advisor. Of course the PhD student carries out research work, but they are not considered autonomous in this work that's why they are supposed to work under the direction of the PhD supervisor. As a student whose academic success strongly depends on their supervision, they are entitled to specific protections.
  • For all means and purposes, a postdoc position is a work contract: the employee carries out a job for a Principal Investigator (PI). The role of the PI in this work relationship shares some similarities with the role of a PhD supervisor but it is significantly different:
    • The postdoc is supposed to be autonomous in their work and as such is normally entitled to greater academic freedom than a PhD student. Ideally, in a healthy postdoc-PI relationship the two work practically like collaborators (as opposed to student/professor). For example the discussion about whether or not to submit a paper that both co-author should be made by mutual agreement, because the postdoc is able to make their own academic choices.
    • Ultimately the PI is usually the one who controls the funding, and the institution cannot force the PI to give away their funding. As a consequence there's no general mechanism to "change PI", since the institution doesn't have any alternative source of funding to pay the postdoc. This is a major difference with a PhD position, where the funding is usually allocated to the PhD student themselves.
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    A PhD candidate position has a dual primary purpose - conducting actual useful research (usually - useful to the supervisor's own research agenda), and the training of the candidate as a researcher. The post-doc position has a little of the latter and a lot more of the former.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 22:07
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    @einpoklum whether a PhD student is more on the student side or the researcher side of the spectrum is largely a matter of opinion. I'm a strong supporter of recognizing PhD students as productive researchers, but sadly the only constant in their status across countries is the student part. Also in my experience it's very rare that a PI would provide a postdoc with any kind of training (even the opposite sometimes: the PI counting on the postdoc to keep them up to date with the field).
    – Erwan
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 0:38
  • I partly disagree. Or rather, such opinion is an effect rather than a cause. To re-establish Ph.D. candidates' status as proper, though junior, research staff members - to change that opinion you mentioned - they have to struggle and organize, while university management try to suppress their consciousness in this respect.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 16:49

(I'm faculty at Chalmers University of Technology, a well-known private university in Gothenburg, Sweden)

The pragmatic question (whether it's a good idea to change supervisors mid-flight) is covered well by posdef, I'll focus on the legal angle here.

As you mention, PhD students have quite some rights in Sweden, but this is mostly because they are in a special type of employment largely governed by Swedish university law. This is not the case for postdocs - postdocs aren't students and they are not faculty (for which the law also knows some special privileges). Fundamentally, postdocs are just "employees", similar to research engineers, secretaries, or university accountants, and hence their tasks, rights, and privileges are exactly what the university has defined in their job profile. At Chalmers, I am not aware that there is any formalized "right" to be assigned a different supervisor. I suspect the situation in other universities is similar, but you may want to check your own contract first.

That said, and to echo the other answers a little, changing your supervisor is hard. Really hard. Even as a PhD student, when the law is on your side. Funding is a huge issue, but so is the fact that faculty tends to be sceptical of taking on students/employees where one of their colleagues has already made bad experiences. As always, there are exceptions, but in general you should figure out which faculty would take you on and take over your funding before talking publicly about changing supervisors. It's better to have a normal working relation with a supervisor that is not ideal, than to have an advisor who has been assigned by the department because nobody else took you on.

  • Thanks for your great answer. Can a supervisor fire a postdoc in Sweden just because he/she is not listening to the supervisor’s merely scientific advice? (e.g. When the supervisor says not to send a paper to a specific venue or vice verse) Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 18:20
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    @linker Getting fired on the spot is not a realistic concern in Sweden, and certainly not because your supervisor (who will often not even be your formal manager) said so. That said, "I won't get fired" is a very low bar - there are plenty of ways to have a miserable postdoc experience without actually losing your job.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 19:09
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    Postdoc is a time-limited form of employment whereas the other jobs that you mention are staffed by permanent employees. It is difficult to terminate either type of contract, but time-limited contracts are especially hard to terminate.
    – C. E.
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 21:14
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    @linker Is the supervisor a co-author on the work? If so, "When the supervisor says not to send a paper to a specific venue" and yet a post doc sends a paper to that venue, it is really a form of academic misconduct by submitting work without approval of the coauthors, and potentially quite a bit more serious than other types of conflict.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 22:31
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    @linker That depends a lot on the supervisor. I have always believed that a postdoc should get and need little operative oversight, but I have learned that not everybody sees it that way. In practice, assume that the institution or your work contract will not protect you effectively from an overbearing supervisor, as long as they are not engaged in discriminatory or unethical conduct "I want my postdoc to do exactly what I say" is neither of these things (if they tell you to work every Saturday that would be a different story).
    – xLeitix
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 13:46

TLDR: It will depend very heavily on the funding situation.

A reasonable guess as to why there is a clear remark about the PhD students and not about the postdocs is that how postdocs are employed varies significantly.

Without having any proof, I would guess that you can't change your mentor however you like if s/he is paying you. Because why would you have that right, it is that person's own funding. In that situation your best bet (besides trying to find a resolution) is to quit and apply for a new position. Or better yet, apply for new positions and quit when you find one.

If you are bringing your own money, then you would have more flexibility, although it would still be an unpleasant move if you just bail out and start working down the aisle or the next floor.

That being said, you can in general not be forced to submit an article you are not happy with. Because you can always get it pulled (or your name removed) if you are not OK with it's content. That creates bad rep for the group and the paper in question, so I would be willing to guess that it's not really a common situation. More likely, you and the PI has differences of opinion as to why the paper should (or should not) be submitted, and if that's the case it's generally a better idea to try to understand each other rather than fight it.

You can however be forced not to submit a manuscript, or prevented from going to a conference, and I would say it happens relatively often. Usually not it harsh terms, but also that sometimes. That is part of the employment, that would happen anywhere and it's important to try and find constructive solutions. The comment by @lighthouse_keeper is on point, if you try to go down that route, you are burning bridges and you are the small fish in this particular case.

EDIT following OPs comment:

Re: the role of a postdoc

When a group leader gets funding, it's typically from a grant (exceptions exist but lets put that aside for the moment). Grants are written for specific subjects with usually well-defined tasks and goals. In the context of these tasks and goals, one or more postdoc positions might be opened.

So when you are a postdoc, you are taking on a role in that lab that fits their goals and targets, with the implicit assumption that whats good for the lab is also good for you. In other words, it's implied that carrying out your research project there is beneficial for both parties, meaning you choose to do your post-doctoral research there. If that is not the case then obviously it's not a good situation.

Within the context of that project and academic code of conduct, the group leader does have the privilege to direct the project as s/he sees fit. If your disagreements are fundamentally scientific (i.e. not related to bullying, fraud or something similar, which would typically violate the university's code of conduct) I don't see how you'd argue for a valid reason to change to another group, while keeping your current position.

Re: the comparison to a PhD student position

In comparison to a postdoc position, the university and the faculty is an active stakeholder when a PhD position is announced. In Sweden, most (all except a couple) universities are government institutions. So by being a fully employed PhD student you are a state employee, besides being a student. In this case the university (and by extension the state) has accepted you to a degree of higher education. If your supervisor cannot teach you well, for one reason or another, you are entitled (within reason) to ask for a change.

As you see there are some fundamental differences in what the employment is, what is being offered. I would not necessarily say that your rights are more limited, essentially it's not really a "right" to be able to change your manager. Your rights as it pertains to social security, healthcare, insurance, paid holidays, paid parental/sick leave etc apply regardless if you are PhD student or postdoc, as long as you are actually employed and not on a stipend.

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    Thanks. Based on your answer, a postdoc's right in Sweden is much more limited than a PhD who has an explicit right to change their supervisor for whatever reason, right? Let's assume the postdoc is employed on a KKS funded project led by the supervisor. Based on your answer, the postdoc has no right to change the supervisor and if the supervisor prevented him/her to submit a paper to a conference OR forced the postdoc to do specific set of tasks then the postdoc has no other choice but to obey "the boss", right? In other words, a PhD has much more rights comparing to a postdoc. Is that right? Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 14:32
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    @linker well, yes and no... I will try to update the answer with more info
    – posdef
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 15:40
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    @linker - if you aren't listening to 'merely scientific advices' from your PhD advisor, post-doc advisor, or manager (non-university) you are going to be in trouble in essentially all technical positions.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 20:10
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    @linker well, a postdoc would often be hired in a particular project to do a specific research direction and achieve specific project goals (e.g. publications fitting particular criteria). If they're refusing to do that and want to research something else, well, then they're refusing to do their main (only?) job duty and that should be sufficient grounds for firing, and using that budget to hire another researcher for this task.
    – Peteris
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 20:35
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    @linker nobody is forcing you to do anything, it's not slavery after all. The question is rather whether or not you are refusing to fulfill your end of the bargain, that is to carry out the research. Ask yourself this question, if you were in any other job, would you be able to flat out refuse what your manager tells you to do (or not do) within the boundaries of your work/contract? That's why I keep going back to more peaceful resolution of the conflict
    – posdef
    Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:16

A non-Sweden-specific answer:

A post-doctoral researcher is not a student. (That is, except in the sense that all researchers are "students" of the subjects they study.)

Thus, what you're asking is:

Can a post-doctoral researcher working under the supervision of another, senior researcher switch "bosses"?

I believe this clarifies things somewhat, and would lead me to answer (again, generally and not Sweden-specifically):

  • In the less-likely case of the employee being directly engaged by the workplace, with enough autonomy and an individually-defined work agenda - then it may be possible to switch "seats" to another research group, but it would depend on inter-university regulations and politics for approval.
  • In the more-likely case of the researcher position itself being associated with a certain group or a certain single researcher - it is probably impossible to make this switch; but it may be technically possible to quit one post-doctoral position and start another with another group.
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    Although I'd agree with "A post-doctoral researcher is not a student" in the strictest sense, in many cases a post-doctoral researcher is also not just an employee. In the US, for example (and coming from a biomedical science perspective), post-docs are considered employees-in-training, and as such, there are certain responsibilities that an institution has to post-docs that they do not have to other types of employees.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Jan 6, 2020 at 22:28
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    @BryanKrause I think this is a particularly american view. Our PDRAs in the UK, and it would appear in Sweden and I believe Germany (where even PhD students are employees) are regarded, at least for official purposes as "just employees" and are covered by exactly the same rules and expectations as technicians, admin assistants etc. Individual PIs might (and perhaps should) treat them differently, but "the system" doesn't". Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:10
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    @BryanKrause To add to what Ian said, in my country a postdoc is usually tied to a specific task within one or more projects, and the renewal of the contract from year to year is subject to the approval of the supervisor. So, for instance, in case of strong conflict with a postdoc, I'd simply let them go at the end of the year. Commented Jan 7, 2020 at 10:35
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    @BryanKrause: I agree that there is often an aspect of training for post-doctoral researchers, but - this is part of being "just" an employee. If I finish a Ph.D. and take some industry position, I am likely going to spend a good deal of time getting trained and taught things (relevant to my workplace), at least during my first year and possibly later.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Jan 9, 2020 at 15:50

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