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I'm currently doing the first year of my postdoc. My contract is coming up for renewal in a few months and my PI has asked what my plans are for next year. I told him that I was hoping to stay in his lab for at least another year, but he's told me he can't yet guarantee my contract will be renewed.

I've heard from other people in the lab that my PI normally holds off from confirming that he'll renew your contract until the last minute, where he'll then try to add some extra clauses in the contract that demand the postdoc to complete certain projects or papers by a certain date.

I'm relatively confident that my PI is intending to renew my contract, as he's pushing me to write some grants that would start next year.

But as he can't promise anything yet, is it ok for me to start looking for other postdoc positions in case he doesn't renew my contract? If so, should I let him know that I'm looking for other roles?

Thanks!

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    The PI sounds awful. – Anonymous Physicist Aug 20 at 12:09
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    IMO, it is ALWAYS ok to look for other positions; you aren't liable with anything except what is written on your contract. Unless your contract is renewed, I would consider a to-be-a-jobless person – onurcanbkts Aug 22 at 21:33
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Actually, it sounds like it is essential for you to to look for alternatives. It is improper for the PI to hold you in jeopardy and he should be more clear.

But your career is at risk if you just "hope for the best". You also need to "plan for the worst". It is more than OK.

Whether you let him know or not is a matter of your judgement of his personality. But it might be fine to say (a) I'd love to stay, but (b) I recognize it may not be possible and need a backup.

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A postdoc is a transitory position. Looking for your next job and career step is not just okay, it's essentially what those positions are for.

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  • +1. I specifically ask the potential candidates about their long term plans during the interview. Having a good plan (even outside the lab) is a definite plus. So no need to be shy about it. – magu_ Aug 21 at 8:46
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You need to plan ahead for the sake of your own career, as well as your financial and mental well-being. There may be certain cases where a PI genuinely can't let you know until the last minute whether they can renew your contract, such as if they are waiting for the outcome of a grant. It seems that this is not the case here however.

You could try politely speaking to or emailing the PI setting a reasonable deadline after which you will apply for other positions. E.g.:

"My contract is ending in December. I really hope that it will be possible to extend my contract here, but appreciate that you cannot commit to an extension at the moment. If it does become possible for me to stay, please let me know by the end of September, after which I will start submitting applications for new positions."

However if I were you, I would consider whether I want to work for a manipulative PI. If they want you to work on a particular project or paper, they should be upfront about it.

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    These days one should start sooner rather than later. September sounds late to get a position lined up by early December (early because of the holidays that likely would slow down getting everything signed sealed and delivered). – Jon Custer Aug 21 at 20:22
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Yes, you should look for another job. In any contract negotiation, you should always consider your "best alternative to negotiated agreement" (sometimes referred to as a BATNA). If your advisor comes to you with a new employment contract and you have a choice between staying on or being unemployed, you will probably sign.

If, on the other hand, you have two offers, you can choose which one you like best. A second offer also gives you the confidence to negotiate better terms, avoiding unpleasant projects, for example.

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I would recommend having an honest conversation with your PI ASAP, making it clear that:

(1) You'd be happy to stay and continue and expand your research with them; (2) If the contract extension cannot be guaranteed, in the current uncertain funding and political climate you need to start looking for alternatives ASAP; (3) This would drain some of your time and attention from the current research, which you would not like but, well, these things do use up your mental energy; (4) If they cannot guarantee extension, you'd appreciate their advice on which other PIs might have funding available and would be good to contact, or which funding opportunities to pursue; (5) Because it's important to both of you that by the end of your postdoc you have a first-author publication, if they cannot guarantee extension, you need to discuss which of your current projects to focus on. Also, whether you could take some aspect of your current research as your own to develop independently in the future.

Basically, make it clear that you need to know the contract situation and plan accordingly --- and that it is also in the PI's best interest to let you know early.

Best wishes from a new PI who's had his former postdoc positions extended repeatedly, and who is being very clear to his current lab members about their contract situation!

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