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In some months my contract at a research university will end. During my employment I have developed tools and methodologies that are of interest to the research group. At present, I am the only person in that group that has in-depth knowledge on several topics. Nonetheless, my employment will likely not continue. My priorities are to finish up research papers, so that I can apply elsewhere. I expect to be asked to hand over the knowledge that I developed.

Now my question: To what extent should I cooperate? One the one hand, cooperation seems like the decent thing to do. I am dependent on my employer's recommendations, and do not want to burn bridges.
On the other hand, I would abolish my employer's need for me, which feels like self-sabotage.

I have offered on several occasions in the past to hand over that knowledge and to collaborate. Now, frankly, my highest priority is to get output, and not train somebody (or multiple people).

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    You will get very different answers from people who view your position as a job versus people who view your position as part of an academic endeavor. You'll probably have to decide yourself which way you want to position yourself. – Bryan Krause Jan 27 at 23:00
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    How can you self-sabotage if you and your employer are already aware you're leaving? – Azor Ahai -him- Jan 27 at 23:04
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    I don't understand. Why did they pay you? Was it just for your happy face in the coffee lounge? Or was it for your work? – Buffy Jan 28 at 13:28
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    @BryanKrause I am not so sure the answers would be that different. Failing to handover work product in industry is unprofessional, and may have negative effects on reputation, references, and future employment prospects. I would expect the same to apply in academia. – Patricia Shanahan Jan 28 at 13:39
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    @BryanKrause The "you're all on your own" sentiments from Workplace are generally in the form of "don't feel bad about quitting," not about intentionally sabatoging a knowledge transfer, which is the position that OP is considering. I don't think I've ever seen anyone advocate for that kind of behavior. – pip install frisbee Jan 28 at 16:34
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Yes, I'm afraid you do need to hand over all work product that you created while employed. You were part of a team and if you try to subvert the team by withholding things that arise from your employment on the team you are trying to blackmail them into keeping you employed. I smell a lawsuit here.

But you should cooperate fully just as a way to boost your own future career. How do you want to be spoken of in this field? Do you hope that people will want to collaborate with you in the future? What value will your tools have if no one wants to come near you in the future.

And without you or your contribution, the team will find someone who can provide an equivalent service. You may feel indispensable, but you are not.

Sorry to be so harsh.

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    +1 for the second paragraphs. In most fields lawsuits are perhaps unlikely, but you want to be known as a professional researcher who helps people, not as one of the difficult people who try to make themselves indispensible. – Flyto Jan 28 at 13:43
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    I think this was the harshness that I needed. – user118821 Jan 28 at 18:03
  • Glad if it helps. Good luck in your career. – Buffy Jan 28 at 18:09
  • Wait, so if I leave a university, do I have to hand over any unfinished manuscripts I am working on to the rest of the research group? Do I have to hand over code that I use to solve mathematical problems, if my contract is strictly to solve these problems and not to write code for the university? – Morgan Rodgers Jan 29 at 7:13
  • @MorganRodgers, that is a different situation, as you can continue to collaborate with anyone, no matter your employer (with few exceptions). – Buffy Jan 29 at 11:10
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Right now you are feeling "indispensable", although since you're leaving this position, you're apparently not that indispensable.

Hoarding knowledge to protect your position is an old technique, but as an academic, I would say that it's backwards thinking.

For one, your goal as an academic should be to grow all of humanity's knowledge. So as a matter of general principle, you shouldn't be hoarding.

But there's also something in it for you: if you developed a genuinely useful tool that other academics will want to use, write a good paper about it and get it published beyond your current institution. Such "utility publications" can accumulate very large numbers of citations and make a name for you in academic circles. For example, CRISPR is basically a "tool" but it's considered an absolute breakthrough in molecular biology.

Done right, sharing your knowledge can boost your career to new heights, while hoarding knowledge will at best keep you at your current level.

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    "Hoarding knowledge to protect your position is an old technique" and it is also a technique that has failed many times. (It has also worked sometimes, but I wouldn't bet on it working out in this situation) – cbeleites unhappy with SX Jan 28 at 13:57
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  • In the end, you'll have to decide for yourself.
  • Properly handing over is decent, required by employment contract, and probably best for you (via professional reputation)
  • As you are already recognized for your helpfulness, don't sabotage that reputation.
  • Don't be surprised if your supervisor isn't interested in a proper handover, though.

Long version: Here's what'd do/did do.

To what extent should I cooperate? One the one hand, cooperation seems like the decent thing to do. I am dependent on my employer's recommendations, and do not want to burn bridges.

Cooperating is not only the decent thing to do, properly handing over your work is also one of your duties as employee.

On the other hand, I would abolish my employer's need for me, which feels like self-sabotage.

Overall, I don't think so - I think good cooperation is also in your direct own interest.

  • Sure, there may be (are) employers/supervisors out there that decide on the basis of such need.
    My experience with academic employers is that they'd rather abandon the tools, though.
    The more so, the less they can judge the importance and quality of the tools (see also Why do many talented scientists write horrible software? - which does not imply anything about the quality of your tools, but this is roughly what I'd expect someone without in-depth knowledge of your code to estimate).
    This means: even if they objectively need you they are unlikely to realize how much*.
    Meaning your actual advantage on keeping that knowledge for yourself is probably close to zero.

Now consider the potential advantages of leaving with good cooperation:

  • This is part of building up your professional reputation. Of course, you may decide for a path of least resistance and not throw in more work than you can get away with. But if you want to build up a recommendation of integrity, being dependable and reliable and writing reliable software etc., this is a chance to get a step further in that direction.

  • Your next employer/supervisor may be interested in your attitude towards collaboration - after decently handing over your work, you have a "hard data point" that you can refer to.

  • Academia is a small world - your employer's recommendations (or warnings) possibly won't end with the letter of recommendation you get now. People talk at conferences, etc.

  • My experience of employers abandoning tools is that this can actually be to the extent that they may not even want the work handed over. In that case, you'd win two ways: you did the decent and correct thing and offered handing over. And you don't even need to actually give up your advantage in knowledge.

One anecdata point: Personally, I can say that I have ongoing collaboration with a group I left almost 10 years ago, and other former employers/groups are now my customers (I'm freelancer now, though still associated with academic research projects).
And I have customers of whom I know that they'd not hire me if I had not that professional reputation of integrity.

 those that can make hiring decisions have indicated that they would keep me because of experience and general helpfulness, if not [...] complications.

Don't sabotage your helpfulness!


* I'm speaking as a chemist who programs as part of my work. If you are computer scientist in a CS group, the chances that your good code is recognized as such may be much greater for you than for me. Similarly, my supervisors would have been more likely to recognize the need to keep someone looking after instrumentation that they understand better than they understand software quality.

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There are already several good answers. Cooperating is indicated here. People in your academic area will talk to other people. And you will eventually want a job or a grant or a LOR.

There is one aspect I didn't see covered. If the university has left the knowledge transfer very late, and they are expecting you to spend your own time after the end of the contract, then that's out of bounds. You can and should expect to be paid during the time it takes to prep and give the knowledge transfer.

Maybe you can be kind and cooperative about it. If it's an hour or two that might be forgivable. Especially if you have a good relationship with the people at the university that you worked with. Even if it's a day, it might be OK, if you are generally feeling good about the experience.

But if they are wanting weeks of your time after your contract, then they need to show you the money for your time. It is a very bad precedent to work for nothing.

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