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I am currently a postdoc, leaving my position in ~1 month. I am departing my contract a few months early after receiving an offer for a job in industry, about which my advisor is very upset. It is policy at my institution to pay departing postdocs for un-used vacation days.

My advisor has asked that I "use" my leftover vacation days, i.e. take them on paper, but actually use that "time off" to finish a few papers. His argument for this is that he "cannot afford" to pay me for them (this sounds bogus to me; how was he going to pay my salary, if he is so broke?). It seems to me he just doesn't want to participate in this policy.

Obviously, this would be shafting me first and foremost, since I would be losing out on this money, but I am not all that upset about that. I'm worried that the university, or our funding agency would object to this maneuver. Would it even be legal? Most importantly, could I be held responsible, for facilitating this?

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    If you willingly do it, then there's no way it would be fraud on your part -- people compulsively work on vacation all the time! Don't try to hide behind a rule. Just say you won't do it because you, personally, don't want to. – knzhou Apr 21 at 21:34
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    I agree with the previous answers. By the way, "cannot afford" sounds like utter bs: since you are leaving earlier, there will be money left in the budget, which would otherwise be spent on your salary. One argument you can make is that nobody knows how much time you will spend on finishing papers after leaving, which will be unpaid work; thus, it is even more unfair if your vacation money is taken away. But I warn you against this argument, as it leads you to making promises and gaining nothing in return. Perhaps, this is how your advisor wants to play it: wait and see him offering this deal. – paperskilltrees Apr 21 at 23:28
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    @BryanKrause Thanks. As with that poster, I have had some prior problems with this advisor, and also feel that he bears the brunt of the responsibility for the delay in these papers being submitted. Perhaps that is factoring in to my thoughts on this subject. – early_departure Apr 21 at 23:59
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    Against whom are you imagining that the supposed fraud would be committed? And what law are you imagining would be broken by your agreeing to write papers during your vacation days? – Dan Romik Apr 22 at 0:41
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    At some institutions, including mine, this could be essentially fraud. If you work on projects with research from two or more different funding sources, and you perform unpaid work only on one of them, you are effectively overcharging the other one. (Research A gets more research hours per dollar than Research B). This is an unlikely but very real consideration – thegreatemu Apr 22 at 21:53
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You've earned the days as paid vacation, you don't have to work during them. The money it costs to pay you for those days is part of your compensation for the work you've already done and the stretches of time that you came to work instead of taking the day off.

If you do decide to take the time to work on finishing up some papers, that could be good for both your advisor and you. All your work is basically a waste of time if it never makes it into a paper. Maybe you're fine with that if you're all done with academia, but if you ever did want to return then any papers you can publish will be to your benefit. I think there's also a strong sense of personal accomplishment in publishing papers (why are you doing research if not to share it with the research community??), and as a post doc (or any other level of academia) your role is a bit different from a standard employee in that you're typically doing research not just as a job but as your personal work.

As far as "not being able to afford" to pay for those days, I think you can mostly ignore that statement, it's not connected to what you do next in any real way. However, it's probably not motivated by your advisor literally being that broke, but rather that they expected that the grant money they spent on your position would result in some output that they can use to get more money for future projects - that's how the academic funding cycle works. If they've paid you for a spot and you've failed to complete projects, that's in many ways wasted money for them. Maybe they can pick up your work where you left off but often there is a lot of cost of time and effort in starting from someone else's partial work.

I won't comment on legal issues according to any letter of the law, but it's extraordinarily unlikely that you would see any legal consequences for spending time off working to complete a project. It's also unlikely your advisor would see any consequences for making the request. It also doesn't seem that your advisor is seeking to cause you to lose out on any money but rather they're hoping that you see enough value in completing work to spend your earned vacation time working. Like I said in the start, you've already earned this time and don't need to work for it, but it's a bit different from trying to pull money out of your pockets.


@GoodDeeds in a comment pointed out that OP's advisor may be asking them to "quit early" and count the end of their work as vacation time. I was thinking more along the lines of OP determining their own end date but their advisor asking that they keep working to finish up projects. Also in a comment, OP indicates that they are willing to work to finish up the incomplete papers on their own time.

Based on those pieces of information, my advice would be to:

A) Assure the advisor that you are willing and intending to finish up these projects. I think that's their main concern, whatever conflicts there have been between you. Everything you've said in this post could be a completely honest, non-exploitative effort towards this goal. Maybe that's overly charitable towards them, but I think it's a good mindset to start from.

B) Come to agreement on an official end date, when your regular salary ends. You should be committed to work full time through this date, like you've been doing until now. This shouldn't have any relation to the vacation hours you are owed. Pretend they don't exist. After that date, you're committing to finishing the projects, but not to working any set hours. If your advisor wants this to be sooner, you can say that if you aren't an employee during those hours there are other things you'd like to do during that time.

C) If your advisor insists on involving the vacation hour pay, reiterate your commitment to finishing up the work. If it helps your advisor to think about it, those volunteer hours you plan to put in on these projects in your nights and weekends are effectively "working for those vacation hours", you're just not willing to have those be "full time" hours on a schedule, or to substitute for your normal work.

If they aren't okay with this arrangement, then they aren't being reasonable. You can hope they come around, but remember that you have some power here. Your advisor is going to want you to finish your projects. You have a new job and aren't compelled to work for them. So, if these papers are going to actually get out, the two of you have to work on mutually acceptable terms. Good luck!

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    Yes, this seems almost surely to be the correct appraisal of the situation. People do speak figuratively, and inexperienced people don't have the prior experience to be able to interpret exaggeration or figurative remarks... – paul garrett Apr 21 at 22:30
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    >If you do decide to take the time to work on finishing up some papers, that could be good for both your advisor and you. I will certainly spend my remaining time in the group working the finish the papers, for exactly the reasons you mention. I will probably continue to work on the papers for a long time after departing. The only uncertainty is whether I pretend that I'm on vacation during this time, and basically sacrifice part of my employment benefits. – early_departure Apr 21 at 23:56
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    @BryanKrause I think the OP means that they have X vacation days that they can either use before their official end date, or get compensated for not using it. Their advisor is asking them to officially take vacation before the official end date, so that the days are counted as used, but actually spend that time working. In this scenario they will not get paid for unused vacation since officially there won't be any left. – GoodDeeds Apr 22 at 0:37
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    I disagree with your assessment in part A - this strikes me very much as a dishonest, exploitative attempt to not pay out the accrued vacation time, which was part of the "mutually acceptable terms" under which the OP was hired. The OP didn't use their vacation time, and is contractually obligated to be paid for it. Not paying the vacation time changes nothing whatsoever about how many hours the OP works on the project, it just means they are not being paid what they are owed for the same amount of work. The PI is simply attempting to cut the OP's salary long after the contract was signed. – Nuclear Hoagie Apr 22 at 16:08
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    This answer is pretty confusing to me and I think a bit apologist for the toxic work culture than leads to this request. – Azor Ahai -him- Apr 22 at 18:52
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The advisor is asking you to officially take the days off before the contract finishes, but to work during these days, so you get the work done and he/she does not have to pay these days off, as per the policy of your institution is "to pay departing postdocs for un-used vacation days".

So yes, he is asking you to do something unethical. With him/her you can confirm you will work toward the finishing the projects/reports/papers. But as long as you work, don't take your holidays. They were already in the budget, your advisor is trying to create money out of thin air, probably to be used to (under)pay another student/colleague to work "just a couple of weeks" on a thing that will last months.

If you accept your advisor's terms, you can be statistically sure you will contribute to underpaying someone for his/her work (yourself :) , and most likely someone else).

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  • It's also likely that is is illegal. – Julie in Austin Apr 23 at 21:53
  • It’s not really correct to say the advisor is “asking OP to do something unethical”. The advisor is behaving unethically by making the request, but OP would not be behaving unethically if they agreed to the request. OP has every right ethically to take vacation days, and every right to work on papers during their vacation days if that’s what OP wants to do. Nothing unethical about doing that voluntarily, even less if it’s done under some kind of pressure or coercion. But the adviser is certainly being a jerk and should absolutely not make such a request. – Dan Romik Apr 23 at 23:59
  • @DanRomik please think about the definition of illegal and unethical. Is unpaid work unethical? yes. Is working during holidays unpaid work? yes. Is most of the work done in the academia unpaid? yes. The conclusion is unfortunately straightforward. – EarlGrey Apr 24 at 4:34
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    Your logic reminds me of the old joke “nothing is better than eternal happiness. A ham sandwich is better than nothing. Therefore a ham sandwich is better than eternal happiness.” – Dan Romik Apr 24 at 4:38
  • @DanRomik unlucky you that you pick eternal happniess! – EarlGrey Apr 25 at 10:53
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Your advisor's request is definitely unethical. Don't do it. There can be no benefit to your relationship because he has already burned the metaphorical bridges.

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    Legal advice is off topic and depends on your location. – Anonymous Physicist Apr 21 at 23:23
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Those vacation days have a monetary value. It never makes sense to work through them. If you have X days of labor to get to a good ending point with your work, then labor for those X days and then take a paid vacation, and terminate employment at the end of the vacation. Alternatively, if you will be compensated for the days without "taking them", just terminate employment effective after X days and get the payout.

I do not see any circumstance where taking the vacation days and working through them makes sense for you. Asking that you do so is unethical: he is asking you to give up money which is owed to you.

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Not fraud, simply a request he or she knows you’re adult enough to accept or decline. I’ve had colleagues who’d looked forward to vacation time in order to dig in and wrap up a project. I’ve had those times too.

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    Were your colleagues taking days off to dig in and wrap up a project? It sounds very strange. Can you further a bit the concept of being "adult enough"? – EarlGrey Apr 22 at 7:34
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This is most likely a budgeting issue. Unused vacation is something HR doesn't like, because it means they must accrue liabilities. Employees are for this reason expected to and usually reminded to consume vacation before employment ends. But now it's too late, so there's no point to argue.They can either pay you out or you take your vacation, of course without having to work.

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