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I applied for a postdoc at a lab in the US as I really liked the work of that lab. I had the initial interview with the professor and then with the lab members. All went well and the professor welcomed me to join the lab.

When the administrative part started, things got very strange quickly:

  1. The prof put me in touch with his lab manager, and then, casually mentioned that the university has a covid-related hiring freeze...but that it might be OK since I have a scholarship/bring my own money (which I do). It was however only then that I learned about the hiring freeze.

  2. The lab manager (quite unfriendly) told me that given that I have my own funding I will be only considered a "visiting postdoc" and would not receive benefits. When I asked about more details, she told me to "google".

  3. I then got invited to a zoom meeting to clarify some other points about a document I had handed to admin. First of all the mail suggested that it was me, prof and one admin person. Against my expectations 6 or 7 people joined and it felt like a cross-examination. In addition, the meeting turned out to not be about said document at all (they even said that that document was fine??). First, they told me that my scholarship can't be below their minimal level. Then they told me that I would not be allowed to collaborate with another college during this time. Then they asked all kinds of further questions like: If you are really an engineer, why was the department you were at before the department of chemistry? When I said that yes I was an engineer, the admin person said "OK I will have to google to check if this chemistry department really hires engineers" - i.e. she made it clear that they don't believe me....?

  4. I asked them about the terms and conditions for "visiting postdocs", they said there are none (???). That is, I have no clue about what rights, benefits etc. I would have when joining the lab.

The prof seemed to side with admin, though he told me to call him after this cross-examination-style meeting. There he said that it is strange for him as well that admin does not allow for collabs (and he would not mind if I would collab but we should keep it under wraps) and mentioned that he would make up for it if my salary should be below the minimum. But, although he had previously mentioned that he would make sure that I would not be just a "visiting postdoc", he now seemed to have changed his mind.

This entire process was so hostile, I still can't believe it. I invested a lot of energy trying to get this job, but then having to fully commit without being considered a full employe..? I feel like the prof was not fully transparent.. though I really like the work of his lab and it could be great for my career.

And by the way, the place I was before was Stanford, so I am not coming from some (supposedly) random university.

Is this usual behavior, and how could I deal with this most constructively?

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    Please don't close it. I really need to understand from people with more experience if this is usual and what could be done and would appreciate opinions. – carros Aug 9 at 21:35
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    I took the liberty of adding the covid-19 tag, because I have the impression (I'm in the US at an R1) that the craziness and uncertainty and unclear messages from high admin and HR make such things much much worse than any other time I've seen. E.g., people and institutions who might be reasonably decent in "normal" times may do nasty things when stressed... I know this doesn't answer your question, hence just a comment... – paul garrett Aug 9 at 21:40
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    This seems like a legitimate question - especially because of covid many other postdocs and academics might be affected too. I don't understand the insistence on closing - it is of public interest. – TestGuest Aug 9 at 21:44
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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Massimo Ortolano Aug 10 at 18:25
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    This question needs additional clarification on the nature of the postdoc "position". In the opening sentence you say you "applied for a postdoc", which makes it sound like you applied for an advertised open position. However, later you mentioned that you "bring your own money". Are you being funded by a grant? If so, did you first obtain the grant and then start looking for a host, or did you apply for the grant after discussing with the professor? All these things matter in trying to interpret the seemingly odd behaviour of the administrative staff. – mmeent Aug 11 at 7:50
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Is this usual behavior

Short answer: no.

Longer answer: I have heard many stories of bad workplaces, both in academia and beyond. Even at good workplaces one occasionally encounters weird, rude, and borderline exploitative practices and staff/employer attitudes. So perhaps it’s not entirely accurate to say it’s not usual. But by and large, the situation that you describe does not sound good or normal. Self-respecting, respectable US institutions will generally go to great lengths to make their postdocs feel welcome, and will have an orderly, transparent hiring and onboarding process, clear policies, and staff that will communicate those policies to you upon request (even if not always in the most friendly or efficient manner). That’s quite a contrast with what you are describing.

and how could I deal with this most constructively?

Since you bring your own scholarship and generally sound like you are an attractive hire (and someone who has the self-confidence to not be shy about being one) I would guess that you have a fair amount of leverage in this situation, and will assume in this answer that that is the case - specifically, that you have a reasonable likelihood of finding alternate employment quickly if the current offer does not pan out. You need to put that leverage to use. The key is to make the professor/mentor-to-be aware that there is a minimum level of treatment that you are expecting from him and his department, and that should he fail to offer you credible assurance that you will be receiving that minimum, you have other options and will go elsewhere.

To put it bluntly (although in your communication with the professor you will want to be less blunt), you need to make a credible threat about withdrawing your acceptance of the offer to join the professor’s lab, assuming you’ve already accepted, or about not accepting if you haven’t yet.

In preparation for bringing this up, there are two crucial pieces of information you will need to know:

  1. What are your options? Do you have other places you could quickly arrange to give you offers? Given that you have your own scholarship, I am hoping the answer is yes. But do your homework and explore this at least informally, by sending out feeler emails etc.

  2. What are your minimum expectations from the current professor and his lab? That’s a personal question you’ll have to ask yourself and answer - it may include things like health benefits, a written contract or reference to a set of institutional policies governing your type of position, a conversion of the “visiting postdoc” to a title more commensurate with your qualifications, or similar things.

Once you know the answer to the above questions, ask to have a video meeting with the professor and politely bring up your concerns. Be tactful, and make sure to mention all the positive things that make you want to join his lab rather than someone else’s, but also make it clear to him that your concerns are serious enough that you can and likely will withdraw your agreement to join his lab if he does not take them seriously.

I mentioned the threat to bail out needs to be credible. That means it would be good to mention any specific facts at your disposal to make it seem like you have the ability to act on the threat (again, I am using blunt language - I trust that you can phrase it more diplomatically in the actual conversation). For example, you can mention names of specific places where you have a pending offer or promise of one, or at least adopt an attitude that signals your confidence that you can get another offer easily because you have your own funding.

Finally, part of making the threat credible is that you need to be mentally willing to act on it in the scenario where the conditions you are setting are not met. If you think you’re not willing, the approach I am proposing may not be right for you.

Good luck! I hope things work out. But cover your bases and be prepared for the possibility they may not. Honestly, this behavior does not sound normal, and should not (in an ideal world at least) be an acceptable way to treat people.

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    Thank you very much for this great answer. I am sending feeler mails right now also just to keep myself grounded. I know that the behavior was not OK. I guess I have invested so much already, and the lab is that excellent work-wise, that I have lowered my standards a bit. Not sure if that is good though. I feel also put in a position that if I ask for the basics (as health insurance) I am being "difficult" although this entire situation really only comes from their lack of transparency. – carros Aug 10 at 7:07
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    @carros this (what you’re describing - making people feel guilty or ashamed for asking for basic things) is precisely the game many employers play, knowing that the employees they are hiring are both inexperienced in these types of negotiations and are negotiating in a highly asymmetric power dynamic. Unfortunately in such situations sometimes the only language people understand is power, aka leverage. The amazing thing is that usually speaking this language will result in other people respecting you more, and not less. Many people find this counterintuitive but I’ve seen it happen many times. – Dan Romik Aug 10 at 7:16
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    So many +1s for this answer! – Greg Martin Aug 10 at 18:13
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    @carros you are more correct than you realize - I do speak from experience, both of a postdoc and of an employer. When I was a postdoc I was treated badly on one occasion by a host department. The details were not as bad as what you‘re describing, but the experience left a mark on me, and I vowed at the time that if I ever became an administrator I would make a point of not taking part in or allowing such abuse. More recently I actually did become an administrator for a few years (a dept. chair). It was very satisfying to get to live up to that promise I had made to myself years before. – Dan Romik Aug 10 at 22:01
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    A friend of mine in History of Economic thought, who had to fight for tenure in very hostile Economics departments (and won, twice), let me know to be clear about one thing: Never depend on anything you're told until it's in writing. – Diagon Aug 11 at 6:48
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I'm not sure why you are considering this "offer". You've given a lot of downsides that could easily lead to future pain and suffering. But other than a weak endorsement in your first paragraph, you haven't really given any positive aspects to this position.

If you have any other offer(s) with better conditions, you should probably consider them first. If it is this or nothing at all, then be very wary if you take it. The professor in question can probably help somewhat.

I'll note that some of the restrictions given by the administration are probably the result of laws that must be followed, since the position is not a standard one. If you aren't a regular employee, then you don't have the protections (or requirements) that regular employees have.

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    Perhaps you can also ask other postdocs about your experience? – justhalf Aug 10 at 8:01
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    @carros Or hypothetically it could be that the existing postdocs are finding themselves trapped in this position...not ideal, since postdoc is supposed to be a temporary step before moving on to a faculty position. (Of course, the academic job market in general is so awful that it may not be the fault of the postdoc position...but if you personally get stuck as a postdoc forever, it's not good regardless of why.) – user3067860 Aug 10 at 14:18
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    @carros Please be careful. It hurts me a bit, every time you say "I really love the work of this lab". You were sabotaged into a meeting that they were not upfront about. They're trying to get rid of you. "Visiting" researchers often have zero rights. I've held a visiting research position in which I was not even covered under the university's anti-harassment policy (meaning that I could be harassed and abused by the administration, and would not be able to file a grievance, as there is "no internal mechanism" to file a complaint... this basically means the only option is to sue). Run away. – user1271772 Aug 12 at 3:17
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    Being postdoc for 6 years is not flattering at all. @carros – SSimon Aug 12 at 11:26
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    @carros All? Are you sure? What kind of person and where they are now? R2 R3 or R1? Have grants? – SSimon Aug 12 at 11:48
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Currently, I am in a similar situation (working since 12 months as a postdoc in the U.S. with a scholarship that covers 24 months from the "NIH" of my home country). Similar to what you described, I came expecting to be a regular postdoc based on the prior communication with the PI.

Personal situation: Upon my arrival, I quickly realized that my PI does not support me or project in any relevant manner and that I am essentially a visiting scholar working on a line of research that is as of today not really of interest to my PI. In the beginning, I was super motivated and provided weekly detailed “Objectives and Key Results” (OKRs) during our meetings. I would recommend you to give it at least a try. Nevertheless, over time I had to somewhat realize that the meetings should be kept as slender as possible, given that the technical/research feedback is limited either way. I decided to stay and I do not regret it too much. The PI is overall a supportive and respectful leader. While I have to apply for computing resources (applying to Google Cloud credits) and organize data (i.e., setting up MTAs with other institutions) myself, the PI allows me to do so freely. Nevertheless, I keep him always in the loop. I am still thightly conntected to institutions in my home country - i.e., getting data is not a significant bottleneck for me. The institution provides a strong halo effect and is an interesting place to be for me, irrespective of my output.

Thus, the following factors are in my view important to consider:

  1. Do you expect your PI to be supportive even if you work somewhat like an independent collaborator on your own projects?

  2. Is it possible to obtain data in chemistry independently or are you very dependent on the group?

  3. Is the institution/environment exciting enough to justify some degree of a diminished research output?

If the answer to all 3 questions above is not "yes", I would recommend to leave. While you may want to try to talk it through with your supervisor, do not expect that you will be able to change too much about the supervision style.

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    That is an extremely pragmatic and useful answer, thank you – carros Aug 10 at 0:35
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I want to warn you about a red flag that I see, which has come up in two parts of your question:

The lab manager (quite unfriendly) told me that given that I have my own funding I will be only considered a "visiting postdoc" and would not receive benefits. When I asked about more details, she told me to "google".

and:

I asked them about the terms and conditions for "visiting postdocs", they said there are none (???). That is, I have no clue about what rights, benefits etc. I would have when joining the lab.

A "visiting" researcher is usually someone who works elsewhere and is visiting. This usually means that your employer (which is different from the place where you're "visiting") is the one that has an employment contract, which outlines all the things that you mentioned: rights, benefits, terms & conditions, etc., and the place you're "visiting" may have some much smaller-scale agreement with you or your primary institution, outlining the terms of your "visit", usually allowing them to have reduced responsibilities and liabilities compared to if you were a regular employee.

Unfortunately, some universities have started to give the title of "visiting" researcher, to people that are working exclusively at the university, which can be an extremely shady way of binning you into a category that is neither faculty nor staff nor student, meaning that you are not represented by the faculty association, you are not represented by the staff association, and you're not represented by the student union, and therefore have zero support and almost zero rights.

Let's look for a second at the Memorandum of Agreement between the University of Waterloo and its Faculty Association:

"In all matters under this Article, a Member has the right to seek advice from the Association and to be accompanied by an academic colleague for advice and support (including, if necessary, aid in presenting the Member's position) during any meetings attended to discuss such matters."

Therefore, if a professor is called into a surprise meeting with 7 people (like what happened to you) from the university administration, the faculty association will provide an academic colleague (e.g. another professor) to join them as a witness and support-person for the meeting, if the professor wishes. The same is true of people represented by the Staff Association, or the Student Union, but as a "visiting" researcher, which union or vocational association will represent you? It would be the labor union of your employer (the company or university that sent you to "visit" this university!), but wait a minute: You don't have one!

Also, look at section 9 which outlines a process by which an employee represented by the Faculty Association (e.g. a professor) can make an internal complaint if something goes wrong. The Staff Association will have something similar, as does the Student Union, but they have gone out of their way to point out that "visiting" positions are not covered:

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What happens if you get harassed or abused or the university does not follow their own policies? There might be no internal process available to you for making a complaint, because you're "only" and visiting researcher --- How do I know this? Because it happened to me when I was a "visiting" researcher at the University of Waterloo, which is one of the top universities in Canada (this can happen anywhere, and the opening to your accepted answer: "I have heard many stories of bad workplaces, both in academia and beyond. Even at good workplaces one occasionally encounters weird, rude, and borderline exploitative practices and staff/employer attitudes" is a bit of a polite way of saying what goes on).

Therefore, you were very smart to ask those questions about the nature of a "visiting" position.

Since you said many times that you have a fellowship that will be paying your salary, I would recommend to look at the rules that they have for "host" institutions like this university which you are currently considering. As a postdoctoral fellow, I held a Banting Fellowship at McMaster University and they had certain guidelines for host institutions (I have put bold-font emphasis on the specific aspects about which you expressed concern):

From the outset of the application process, applicants and host institutions should discuss:

  • the details of the fellowship appointment any benefits offered to the Fellow any financial obligations associated with the appointment (union dues, insurance premiums, etc.)
  • the availability of any research and/or other support
  • the rights and responsibilities of postdoctoral fellows
  • any other institution-specific policies that might apply to the Banting Fellow any established research-related

Summary: If you go into a "visiting" position (usually not a "real" employee) and you don't have a "primary" institution that is bound by standard employment laws, be careful. Let me quote Buffy's answer: "If you aren't a regular employee, then you don't have the protections (or requirements) that regular employees have." Please be careful and take care of yourself.

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    I'm glad it helped. I understand your feeling of being horribly sad, because I've been through this exact situation. In fact my PhD was from a chemistry department, & my "visiting" position at University of Waterloo was in the electrical engineering department, & I was made to feel out of place after I arrived. Basically your entire question was déjà vu for me. The prof might still be worthy of your high level of respect, but it comes as no surprise that he will "kowtow" to his administration (he needs them more than he needs you). Harvard is notorious for giving "soft contracts" to postdocs. – user1271772 Aug 12 at 6:32
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    I agree this is a great answer. To further illustrate the problematic nature of a visiting appointment, let me add that at my institution policy does not allow giving such an appointment to a scholar who does not already have a primary appointment elsewhere. On the other hand, I recommend checking whether any of these issues are really applicable to your specific situation. It’s possible that “visiting postdocs” at the specific institution you are considering have more rights than they do elsewhere and are closer to being considered normal employees. Seems unlikely, but it’s worth checking. – Dan Romik Aug 12 at 16:49
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While a Postdoc is a training position, you're also something of a "hired gun". In a normal situation, the PI needs something done, and hires a postdoc to do it. Bringing your own money to the position isn't very typical.

Sometimes profs have absolutely no awareness of the red tape required to bring in a postdoc, or any employee, and assume because they made arrangements to bring someone in, somehow magically, the admins can make that happen.

In this case, it seems that the University cannot actually do any "real" hiring because of a hiring freeze, and they are trying to come up with a creative way to bring you in. All indications are that they can't make an arrangement to actually make you an employee of the university, and you would be walking into some nebulous situation. This is good for you if you have no better options, but bad for you if you need a job! There will be ALL SORTS of ramifications. For example, if you are in the US, you will likely be on the hook for the 7.5% FICA tax normally paid by the employer. This is called a self employment tax, and would be an immediate 7.5% pay cut. You may or may not have health insurance. You will have very little in the way of job protection.

You should not be told to "google" anything. This is your life, and you are entering a position. At the very least, you are entitled to know all the details, without confusion. The only place you should have to look is in their employee handbook or your contract.

If this weren't pandemic times, I'd tell you to run away, but I suspect many universities have hiring freezes right now.

At the very least, I would ask them two questions: Will you be an employee of the university? and Can I see my benefits package in writing?

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    Bringing your own money to a postdoc is quite typical, especially for international students. – TestGuest Aug 12 at 21:28
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Please contact Human Resources, and the International Student Services of the institution. Now, the latter might not give specific information on postdocs but they usually do a lot of related paperwork and in my opinion they are the most knowledge people in a university about these matters. The benefits can be learned through HR. It seems to me that they are taking your scholarship granted. The benefits are usually included for postdocs that are "hired" but scholarship holders/fellows are not necessarily employees, so I think they are putting you in this category. The way they brush off your questions would make me think twice to be honest, but been there done that, it seems you are further in the process and don't want to consider other options. There is also a lot of uncertainty around visas, hiring etc. but they should at least be transparent about it.

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  • I think that that was HR and International Students Services (the latter I am sure, and she was the nicer one, I assume the rest was HR but they did not introduce themselves if I remember correctly) – carros Aug 12 at 16:49
  • Sorry, I don't understand, you mean you have talked to them already? lab manager is not HR, the HR works at an institutional level (not departmental, or lab level) – dusa Aug 13 at 14:03
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    It doesn't matter, you can do some research and find the contact information of HR, try to reach them via telephone if possible, you can make calls with Skype. Just explain your situation, get as much information as you can on rights and benefits the people in your situation have, how to communicate about this with the lab etc. – dusa Aug 13 at 15:16

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