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I am a young post-doc working under an ERC-contract (thus, I do not have my own grant or fellowship). I recently attended a conference where I met some people and we discussed possible collaborations with their company. This is a company who is really making new developments and it is normally difficult to get collaborations with them. Nevertheless, after a nice discussion they showed interest in the project I was presenting to them and in the prospective things we could do together.

When I came back to the lab, I told my PI about this possible collaboration and explained to her that we would need to have a meeting with the person responsible for R&D in the company to fully establish our collaboration. My PI told me that as I was very busy with other stuff, she could prepare the slides for the meeting. We were then going through the presentation together and (substantially) modifying it based on my comments. She suggested that she could introduce the project during the meeting because she is better than me in "selling the project" (what is totally true) and I agreed. Everything went well and we started the collaboration.

My problem is that I know she is now asking other people in the group to work on this project and she is exchanging emails with these people and our collaborators without even including me. I feel that I brought this collaboration to the lab, I made the company get interested in developing their technique in our model system, I presented the technique to my PI and thought about the scientific questions we could answer by applying it, thus, I feel this is my project.

I also have to say that we are a big group of 10 people, but the borders of each one's project are not well delimited and we all work together to answer broad questions. I would then understand that this is my project within the big project of the lab. But I still do not think it is fair that she is now leading this part of the project, leaving me out. Am I wrong?


Thanks all for your comments. I post a common asnwer to all of them because they are related. Yes, my PI is a supernice person and I want to talk to her about the issue. But I come from a totally different PhD experience where talking to the PI was imposible, so I am not used to that and I wanted to know in advance how reasonable are my concerns.

Regarding having discussed the involvement in the project in advance, it is true that I did not clearly stated that I wanted to be involved. I was assuming it was assumed. I will learn for the future.

I did not want to be too long in describing the situation, so I summarized, but the negociation with the company started already during the one-week meeting, going from them not being interested at all to be really interested. The same happend with my PI when I came back and presented her the possibility, I had to encouraged her because I thought it was a wonderful project that would help to answer many of the questions we have. And finally, in the online meeting we had all together, my PI was reintroducing the project, but they were saying that they were already very interested in working together. Thus, I was assuming that if I was putting so much interest in making it to work, it was clear that I wanted to work in the project. But I do not want to be the PI of the project, I do not want to be the one taking the decissions about other people working in the project or not, or what other people will be doing. I can understand is not my role. I just would like to be an active part of the project. I though that was also being a post-doc. Not only doing experiments that someone ask you to do.

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    "I do not want to be the PI ... I do not want to be the one taking the decissions ..." vs "Not only doing experiments that someone ask you to do." I think there is no half way between the two things. It boils down to managing (either your time or someone else time) as PI or being managed by a PI. Only very large projects will need "half-PI" positions. And usually they are just a bureaucratic burden associated with ERC rules and paperwork. Quite often, you even have to take decisions, and if the decisions are wrong, you have to perform experiments that you asked someone else to do.
    – user149718
    Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 13:22
  • " I do not want to be the one taking the decissions about other people". I could suggest things, but I would not be the one deciding because I am not the PI. If there is no half way between being a PI and just doing experiments someone ask you to do, which is the difference between a technitian, an ingeneer, a PhD student, a post-doc, etc? Why so many different names if it is just being a PI or doing experiments someone else ask you to do without any other implication? Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 13:39
  • Well, there is a difference between "making the decisions" and "being involved in the decision-making". If your goal is to stay in academia, you will need to take on PI duties on some point, and having some involvement with project management (formal or informal) during your postdoc is definitely valuable training for that. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 13:43
  • This is what I thought it was going to be my role in this project. And as I already said after reading the comments, I did not say anything in advanced, I assumed it was like that. So totally my fault and I will learn from this. But I am happy to read that actually there are intermediate situations (at least some people thinks so). Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 15:11
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    @Aganju Principal Investigator. Is the reference person of a project. Not necessarily the one doing the job, but the one coordinating the project's efforts and keeping the route under control.
    – user149718
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 8:02

3 Answers 3

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Have you tried speaking with your PI about your dissatisfaction about the situation? Because she might not be aware that you are unhappy, she is just doing this as she always does. We have a similar system at my institute, the people who acquire funding or projects do not necessarily work on said projects - the work rather gets distributed to whoever has the time, capacity and sufficient expertise on the topic. This system is not (meant to be) fair or unfair, but rather ensures that the work gets done.

So I would suggest that if you would like to be involved with this specific project, talk to your PI. Tell her how you feel about it and that you very much want to be a part of it. There is no guarantee that she will say yes, but if you don't bring it up chances are very low that you will be involved from the sound of it.

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To answer the actual question in the post - no, not unfair. Like others already mentioned - if you wanted to be the PI, including formally, you had to voice that at the very start. As it stands, you were most likely deemed too inexperienced to handle the project management.

You have not said a word about logistics and it would seem that to you, being a PI is chiefly about the scientific contribution. In most places I am aware of, they have the burden of allocating funds, handling reports, assigning work to others... While you should be getting some kind of that experience as a post-doc, I suspect you are just not quite there to navigate financial aspects and negotiations.

As for working in that project or possibly being a co-PI, voice your desires while you still can do it reasonably. There is no implicit understanding that you bag everyone you rub shoulders on a conference with and claim any collaboration with them under your name - there are usually a lot of leads to follow at any given moment, and you should not be hoarding them. Or expect that the others perceive you as deeply invested in a project until you say so. Preparing a presentation is not generally seen as a big deal immediately implying that you want to continue working on the topic: it is a rather routine task. That is not to say your situation is not typical.

Do not hold grudge against your PI and just talk to her. It is likely she is just trying to optimize the workflow for the entire lab and there is no second, malicious meaning to all that. It is not the most considerate of her, true, but... not unfair. You two just value the project itself and transgressions to date differently, somewhat akin to a kid who wants their painting to be hung on the fridge and an absent-minded parent :)

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Yes you are wrong. You are part of a group, you worked for the group. You may even do the technical stuff, but it is your PI that did the selling part.

Everything went well and we started the collaboration.

Clearly not everything went well, because you never put up the requirment "If the collaboration starts, I would like to be the PI of this collaboration". Your PI has read your attitude as "This postdoc is young and would like to work with the company, let's formalize the contract with me as the PI/reference person and we will see who in the group will do the work, probably the post-doc". She is probably thinking "look how cohesive our group is, even our new post-doc reached out to a company to get it involved".

You left yourself out. I hope you learned a very important lesson: set your boundaries, before boundaries are "imposed" on you.

Final note: I do think you are a nice person, as well as your PI, but when boundaries are not determined, it is purely hierarchy. You perceive you are benefitting less from this collaboration, however your PI has now the responsibility to deliver what is required by the industry partner. Would you be able to do that? How many hours are you supposed to work on your current ERC project? How much time can you commit to the new partner? Your PI counts on you as "fully employed and busy with the ERC project", so for her it was never implied that you would be working with the company, and you gave up the "sales pitch" and never required to be involved more.

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    I would agree to this answer if the question was about a normal employee in a company in industry. However, a postdoc is a special kind of job: it has a large focus on career development. By taking away this opportunity from OP, OP's PI is not acting in OP's best interests. Commented Feb 1, 2022 at 12:49
  • Thanks for your answer. I will try to answer to your questions. - Would you be able to do that?: We do not know if the technique will work in our model system, that is the first thing we need to try, but yes, I would be able to conduct those experiments. Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:56
  • - How many hours are you supposed to work on your current ERC project? How much time can you commit to the new partner?: I am supposed to work full-time in the ERC-project and the results we would get from the collaboration would fit perfectly in there because they would help answering the questions that were presented in the ERC-proposal. Also developing and applaying cuting-edge technologies was part of the porposal. Nevertheless what I am working on right now (my PI asked me to work on that) was not assigned to any workpackage in the ERC-proposal, so I though there is some flexibility there Commented Feb 2, 2022 at 11:59
  • @lighthousekeeper We do not know what the PI is doing, I see the PI as thinking that being involved in an ERC project and its vast network is much more relevant to career development and future opportunities for OP's academic career, rather than getting a smaller industrial partnership project (it does not matter how big is the company, the project is not investigating the unknown with private funds backing, it is just application of a model so the company can spare money in their own R&D dept and may find a way to sell by-products of the model obtained almost for free).
    – user149718
    Commented Feb 3, 2022 at 8:09

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