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I am 3 months into a 15 months postdoc in the UK, so I am still into the initial 6-months probation period. My contract specifies I have to give 3 months notice before leaving (plus some further clauses about not leaving mid-term, but I think this is mostly for teaching positions, while I only do research).

This week I got a really unexpected offer for a 3-year assistant professor position in my home country. It is a fixed-term contract without tenure-track, but for various reasons I still think that accepting it will greatly increase my chances of finding a permanent position in my home country (which is my long-term career goal). Overall I think it is really a unique opportunity and I was really lucky to get the offer.

I explained the situation to current my supervisor, who understands the situation and supports my choice. I have already plans to continue the research even if I leave my current institution and I plan to bring the research project to the end. The main problem is that, due to exceptional nature of the funding, this position must absolutely start in January 2022, so I can give at most 1 month notice and everything needs to happen very quickly. My supervisor emailed HR (while suggesting me to not email them for the moment), but we still have to hear back from them.

I can't deny that I would be devastated to lose this opportunity just due to some bureaucratic impediment. Thus, in the meantime I'd like to know if anybody has had similar experiences, i.e. leaving early without the appropriate notice period, especially with UK institutions. Do you have any advice? Thanks!

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    I'm not sure how applicable this is to academia, but I know generally workplace advice is to not quit your current job until you have a contractual yes from the new job. You don't wanna be caught quitting your current job and then the new job rescinds their offer (for any reason), leaving you jobless. Not an answer, but relevant advice.
    – Drake P
    Nov 28, 2021 at 17:00
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    Thanks for your advice! I haven't signed a contract for the new position, but the position (with my name on it) has been already approved by the chancellor of the university, so I'm pretty sure about the offer. Nov 28, 2021 at 18:52
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    Three months notice is very unusual for postdocs in the UK in my experience. It should be 1 month at most; 3 sounds insane. You should also carefully double-check whether there is any notice period during your probation period: there really shouldn’t be! That’s (part of) the point of probation. Nov 28, 2021 at 20:36
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    based on my experience 3 months notice was entirely normal for a UK postdoc
    – Flexo
    Nov 28, 2021 at 20:51
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    read the contract. Often enough, the notice periods only apply AFTER the probation period, during which the notice time can be a lot shorter
    – Hobbamok
    Nov 29, 2021 at 10:02

3 Answers 3

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As a matter of contract law, the notice period can be truncated provided both parties agree. It doesn't sound like there are any particular reasons here for the university to insist that you serve your full notice. (If you were teaching, or were responsible for feeding the lab monkeys, there might be a need to keep you around until a replacement could be hired.)

Your supervisor is probably the only person in the university hierarchy who actually knows or cares what you were hired to do. If they are supportive, I would expect HR to shrug and agree to whatever departure date you want to give.

Even if they say no, you could decide to break your contract. They are not going to send the SAS to find you and drag you back to your university desk. I am not a lawyer, but I believe the university's recourse would be to sue you for costs reasonably incurred in order to cover your duties during the notice period. I am quite confident that this is not something that the university's lawyer wants to waste their time on. (In theory, breaking your contract would be something that would be entered on your HR file and might impact your ability to get a good reference in the future. In practice, you will almost certainly approach your supervisor, rather than HR, for the reference - so provided they're happy it probably doesn't matter too much.)

Edited to add: My comment that the university is unlikely to pursue someone who 'breaks their contract' is specific to the situation of a postdoc who has no responsibilities beyond research, and who is unlikely to cause the university any substantial loss. The situation might be different if, say, you are halfway through teaching a major lecture course. Then, the university might incur substantial costs (either to get someone to step in, and/or to compensate students for the ensuing disruption) and might be inclined to pursue you pour encourager les autres.

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  • Thanks for the answer, it is reassuring! I hope HR will agree on truncating the notice period, but it's good to know that breaking the contract is a possibility that usually doesn't have serious consequences. Nov 28, 2021 at 8:34
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    surely that would be “pour decourager les autres”? You hardly want to encourage them… Nov 28, 2021 at 13:15
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    Add to this that you'll be sued in the UK, but any award of damages (which would be next to impossible for the uni to prove) would presumably unrecoverable if you weren't in the country, Nov 28, 2021 at 13:18
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    @ZeroTheHero It's a quote from Voltaire. wordhistories.net/2016/10/22/pour-encourager-les-autres
    – Bob Brown
    Nov 28, 2021 at 19:20
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    The most that usually happens when you "leave without proper notice", is that they may be allowed to dock your back pay and/or accrued benefits. But, legally pursuing a postdoc into another country for insufficient notice is not on anyone's todo list. Nov 29, 2021 at 13:38
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I once resigned from a post-doc in the UK with less than one month's notice. I did this by emailing my Head of Department and his secretary, after talking about it with my supervisor. The secretary replied the next day to say that this was fine. There are two reasons to recommend this course of action:

  1. Given my experience of working in several UK universities, I would expect that the person who has the power to waive your notice period is the Head of Department, and not your supervisor or HR. Sometimes, but not always, this has been explicitly stated in my contract. If your supervisor is happy for you to leave and you have no teaching or other duties, then it would be surprising for the HoD not to approve this.

  2. In all the departments I have worked in, the HoD's secretary/PA has been the person who has dealt with HR matters that can be handled within the department without requiring the involvement of HR specialists. This includes responsibility for staff arriving and departing.

Admittedly my experience has all been in maths departments in research-intensive universities so I can't be sure that practices are the same elsewhere.

Since you are still in the probation period, I will also mention that some but not all of my contracts have stated that the notice period is reduced to 1 month during the probation period. This might be stated either in the section on termination or in the section on probation. I assume you would have seen this already if it was the case.

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    Thanks, this is valuable information. Bypassing HR and writing to the HoD is indeed a good idea. This is the second postdoc I'm doing at this university and in the previous contract there was indeed a mention of a reduced notice period during probation, but I can't find it written explicitly in the new contract. Nov 28, 2021 at 16:37
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Sorry to come to this thread late, but some anecdotal information that might help: in late 2019, I found myself needing to resign from a faculty position in the UK, without serving out the notice period specified in my contract (the sudden-onset illness of a relative needed my full-time attention). My line manager, deputy HoD, and HoD were supportive, and I suspect that they and other colleagues had to put in quite a lot of work to make the process go smoothly, both for me and for my students. In particular, my line manager and deputy HoD handled any necessary negotiations with HR. I think a crucial element in making it all work, though, was that I engaged with my line manager straight away, as soon as there were indications that I might need to make a swift exit.

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  • Thanks for sharing your experience, I hope this question will be useful to other people for future reference on this topic. As I explained in another follow up comment, my department's HR office and HoD accepted my resignation with a shorter notice period, since my supervisor / line manager was OK with it. Dec 8, 2021 at 8:52

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