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In a meeting for a potential PostDoc place, I want to talk to the professor about potential collaborations and working together. I've learnt that independent papers are a must for my career. I also know that I am able to do this but perhaps not entirely independently. For example, I may produce a paper entirely on my own but say I use supercomputing time for which the grant was written by the professor. Therefore, I would say this is not entirely my own effort. Although it is debatable.

In the meeting, what is the best way to put my demands on the table. My options are:

  1. Do not talk about it. Maybe after 2 years when I am almost about to leave I can think of something completely on my own with the 2 years of experience behind me.

  2. Talk about it directly. I say it on the face that I want and need a single author paper and I can help with other things while I get the single authorship.

  3. Drop indirect hints that this is important for my career and reduce the chances that the message is delivered.

Kindly suggest a suitable approach. You may create your own option.

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  • 3
    Are you sure that "independent papers are a must for my career"?
    – Louic
    Oct 28, 2021 at 12:50
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    Single author papers being a "must" are very much a field-specific thing. For the projects my group works on and published on, none could be sole author - there is just too much collaboration across different specialties needed to get a result.
    – Jon Custer
    Oct 28, 2021 at 13:16
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    As comments are [pointing out, this varies by field. It would be difficult in my field to publish a solo paper, and doing so would be pretty meaningless. Can you add a field? Oct 28, 2021 at 15:29
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    Physics (that's why the name quantum)
    – quantum
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:09
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    @quantum What area of physics? Some areas of physics it is certainly not possible to publish as a single author (besides reviews), because the projects require substantial collaboration to conduct.
    – Bryan Krause
    Oct 29, 2021 at 17:01

3 Answers 3

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Another approach is to ask rather than tell. This has the advantage of appearing collegial (not making demands) but also getting direct info on policies/preferences (to the extent the person is honest).

Ask: how do you handle authorship? Under what circumstances do your post-docs publish solo authored work vs co-authored work? How do you assist post-docs with communicating their readiness for running their own lab on the job market? Is solo authorship an important part of this, in your opinion?

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    I think this is good advice. Also: work out what you're asking for. Agreement that you can work on your own projects for some of the time? Agreement that you can work on the professor's projects quasi-independently so that you can publish as a single author? Agreement that the professor helps you to do the research but doesn't put their name on it?
    – avid
    Oct 28, 2021 at 15:57
  • Also: if possible, discuss this question with someone you trust who understands how things work in your field, and who is in a position to assess your capabilities (e.g. your advisor). This is something where it would be very easy to shoot yourself in the foot by seeming to make demands that are unreasonable or unrealistic.
    – avid
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:02
  • From the entire history of papers of my supervisor in the group, I do not see even one single author paper...
    – quantum
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:05
  • Clarification of policies can be both good and bad: If the professor says "sorry, we don't do solo authorship here", the threshold for still preparing a solo submission is higher than if the policy is unclear. Appearing collegial is good, but one could argue that a professor who doesn't allow solo papers is not acting collegial in the first place, so one might worry less about being collegial to them. Oct 29, 2021 at 8:10
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Ask for forgiveness, not permission

(This answer assumes a field where solo-authored papers for a post-doc are feasible, but practices differ from place to place.)

You're navigating a certain tension here: An ideal PI will be an unselfish mentor and advocate for your career. Unfortunately, real-life PIs often see their post-docs as ripe oranges to be squeezed out. If you ask a professor for permission for solo-authoring a paper, it's not unlikely that the answer will be no, which would leave you without the option to solo-author papers.

My advice is to first seek evidence on what the PI's possible stance is. Three tactics here are: First, check the track record of the PI's current and former post-docs. Second, talk to current and former lab members in private. Third, have a more open-ended conversation with the PI, framed as "I seek advice on publication strategies - how do you think I should publish to get a faculty job?" without addressing solo-authorship and related policies explicitly.

If you have the feeling that their stance is negative, don't ask about it. Instead, seek to be a productive member of their lab, who shows an excellent potential to successfully apply for faculty jobs. Then you're in a position where you might be likely to be forgiven if you at some point casually mention a minor solo-authored paper you submitted.

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As a post-doc, I think you should be able to work on several projects at the same time. Working on only one paper with your supervisor (collaborator who pays for the visit?) might not fill all your time, and you can work on a separate project.

Also, if you apply for some grant that you get the funding for as a post-doc, gives you much more freedom, even though you have supervisor. I did a 2-year post-doc with this format, and I think wrote about 6 papers during this time, only one with the actual supervisor (2 papers with a very talented undergraduate student, one paper with another researcher at the department and 2 papers on my own). One of the papers I wrote myself was a problem my supervisor suggested, and it was highly influenced by his previous work - it was kind of a gap that needed to be filled.

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