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I am currently a postdoctoral fellow in a top institution. Sadly it did not really go well, principally for human reasons. Therefore I decided to leave my position and last year I made it clear to my PI that I would leave this year (I said exactly that it would be my last contract), which he was fine with. I found a position and got an offer, which would have required me to start two months before the end of my contract. I came to my PI, who refused to let me go, as he wanted me to finish my current project. I later realized that he invented a vastly exaggerated story about the company to justify his refusal. At the time I believed him and refused the position. Looking back it was clearly just a story to keep me for as long as possible. Sadly I am in a country where I don't have the right to resign unilaterally from a fixed-term position, only by mutual agreement and he made it clear that I won't be able to leave before it expires.

This is after I already delivered on one of the two projects, that I worked on with a best-in-class solution (I am on the computational side), published, and distributed it. The second is in a very good spot, just not 100% finished.

I think that preventing a postdoc who wants to leave academia from getting a permanent position does not conform to the usual informal deal in academia, and that this conduct should not be rewarded. The problem is that if I keep working hard and deliver, it means that the behavior of my PI is rewarded. I also really want to pass this knowledge on, so that another postdoc doesn't end up trapped with this PI.

I would also add that at least 50% of the last students/postdocs of this PI left and do not want to talk to him ever again. He frequently does not talk to his PhDs for years, even when being the principal supervisor. He is simply the worst 'mentor' and 'manager' that I have met in academia, because he does not even try to be any of this.

My PI is clearly keeping me out of the 'next generation' job interviews probably because he knows that I'll be bluntly honest and discourage anyone to come in this lab in 1 on 1.

Is there any way to get the word out about his behavior? If I finish the second project, do I not reward this behavior, so that he will do that to future students/postdoc? What are my options to ensure that this kind of behavior does not reproduce?

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    I personally think that you have to distinguish between different aspects of your interaction. Offering an early termination of your work contract may be usual in academia, but you can't take this for granted, I'm afraid. Funding often comes with obligations, and leaving a job right before these obligations are due would be hugely problematic for the PI, so such implicit agreements cannot come without restrictions. Having said this, actions such as incorrectly badmouthing your prospective employer are not acceptable. But badmouthing your former PI will also put a bad light on you. (...)
    – DCTLib
    Oct 5, 2021 at 7:31
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    @UnknownPostdoc In my country you are expected to fulfill your contractual obligations. Anything else depends on goodwill of the other party and as you explain it, there isn't much of that between you and your PI.
    – user9482
    Oct 5, 2021 at 8:09
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    @Roland your profile specifies your country as Germany. To the best of my knowledge, employees in Germany have the right to resign, respecting a certain notice period. Would this case not be covered by that right?
    – user116675
    Oct 5, 2021 at 10:00
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    @UnknownPostdoc: I think it would be really helpful if you could specify the country (in case that there are people on Academia StackExchange who have experience there). Oct 6, 2021 at 7:16
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    In no Western democratic country can you be forced to go to work, at least not for a random academic job. The employer can stop paying you, revoke your work visa, and curse you, but they cannot send the police after you to drag you to work. I don't know what the laws are in your country, but it seems to me that if you desperately want to quit a job, you should be able to do so.
    – Norbert S
    Mar 5, 2022 at 3:15

3 Answers 3

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I it is been a a few months and my situation changed a lot. I left at the end of my contract and started a new interesting job. I can say that the country is Switzerland, and from my knowledge it should apply in all Switzerland. I decided to post my experience about the follow-up to help people in a similar situation. About the question "How to prevent the situation from reproducing ?":

  • People contacted me about doing a postdoc in this lab. I said I was leaving because I was not interested in academia, but that they needed to be very independent. No word about the relationship with the PI, as 40%-50% of people seems to have a decent run in the lab.
  • The PI had trouble recruiting, I think it is because a lot of people quit, and it is visible if you follow the publications record of the lab.

About the legal aspect raised in the different answers:

  • It is not possible to resign from a fixed term contract in a general case, you have to give a rightful justification. The majority of postdoc in switzerland don t know that, but it is the case if not specified in your contract.

Other considerations which might be useful for someone in a similar situation:

  • The company still asked my PI for references, so keeping good relation was important. Taking a legal action or not working at all would probably have been worst to find a new position.
  • Despite my perception, doing a postdoc in a top institute and sticking to it was ultimately very worth it, I had a lot of interesting offers to choose from.
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As this questions is still unanswered, a few things to consider:

  • Are you sure that you cannot terminate your contract giving e.g. two months notice? Don't ask your PI if you are allowed to terminate the contract but rather ask someone like a labour union representative.
  • Even if you cannot terminate your contract: What happens if you just don't show up for work anymore? He would possibly fire you. But isn't this exactly what you want anyway? (Added: Could you be sued for noncompliance?)
  • If for whatever reason the " don't show up anymore" is not an option for you then you can still come to work but stop doing anything there. I'm pretty sure then your PI will agree to a contract termination quite quickly. As an employee you have always much more leveraged in such a situation.

The PI will not get what he wants - if he learns his lesson from that is however another question.

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    In some places and under some contracts, the OP might be sued for noncompliance. The consequences could, in theory, be worse than just not getting paid.
    – Buffy
    Jul 30, 2022 at 12:53
  • I am 100% sure that resignation was not possible. See the accepted answer. Moreover, academia is a small world, you ll need all the references that you can use. Therefore not showing up or doing nothing is not an option, as it will leads to your supervisor not recommending you. Aug 4, 2022 at 15:25
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As I read this, it boils down to reading contracts carefully, and possibly having a lawyer go over them to be on the safe side. Key points:

  • Contracts are very specific and clear from a legal standpoint, and anything that is not clear is not applicable.
  • If you sign a contract you explicitly agree to everything it says. If it says you cannot leave before its end without them (whatever other party) approving, then you have explicitly agreed to that term. and must see it through.
  • But not all is lost: The other party has to obey the same contract. If there is a clause that says that you can leave, as long as the circumstances in the clause are applicable, you can use that with certainty.
  • The repercussions of breaking the contract by not fulfilling what you agreed to can range from nothing to, as was pointed out in comments, a non-compliance lawsuit.

The core advice here is: read carefully before signing, consider how each term can be used and abused, and when you need something that the other party does not agree with, talk with a lawyer specifying what exactly you want, in order to find the loophole that gets that done - if it exists. Simple as that. The operating principles of contracts are simple, the details of the law are not, which is why we have lawyers that know the laws, the caveats and the gotchas.

Also keep in mind that "having the right" to do something does not mean they have to do it, nor that they must remind you to do it. They can stay silent, unless the contract says they must notify you, so it is very likely that they are aware of how you can get out but will not tell you.

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