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I am a postdoc whose contract has finished, and I am in the process of applying for industry jobs. However, I have multiple papers making their way through the submission and review process. My institution is demanding my laptop back, but I don't have a personal laptop, just a phone. So if any of the reviewers ask for even minor analysis updates, I won't be able to complete them without a real computer. I did ask my PI if anything could be done, but he said that policies are policies and I should buy my own computer.

Is reasonable or common to ask to hold on to a laptop for a few months or a year after a position ends?

Edit: To be clear, the analysis is python scripts that require a lot of RAM. So I would need a good quality computer to be able to do anything.

Update: A friend has a spare laptop powerful enough to do the analyses. He's letting me borrow it until I get a job. For any revisions, I'll remove my former affiliation and listed funding because it's clear the institution is not interested in supporting the research. Thank you to those who offered helpful suggestions and support.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Feb 27, 2022 at 6:06
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    you are confusing the laptop and the information stored on the laptop. You can do all of the things you said if you maintain an account with the university by, for example, going to the university library and using one of the computers there
    – JenB
    Feb 27, 2022 at 12:46
  • Industry jobs tend to give you laptops. Have you considered saving your data elsewhere, and wait until you get another laptop? This does entail using your work laptop to finish up paper submission, so it is not great, but at least allows you to circumvent buying a new laptop.
    – Pedro
    Feb 28, 2022 at 12:00
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    "For any revisions, I'll remove my former affiliation and listed funding because it's clear the institution is not interested in supporting the research". It seems a dangerous step to take. They paid at least part of the research. The results you presents are partially produced with their support.
    – EarlGrey
    Mar 4, 2022 at 9:51
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    EarlGrey is right. The institution already supported the research, and the main work was done there. The affiliation and listed funding should be left as they are when you do the revisions.
    – gib
    Mar 4, 2022 at 10:40

10 Answers 10

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Best way to proceed is (was) to ask to maintain a guest affiliation to the institution. Usually it is easier to translate your account (both in IT and HR terms) to a guest account.

It may be more difficult since you already left the institution, but it may be worthwhile: you do need the laptop and likely access to publications through the library, too, to complete requests from reviewers.

Escalate your requests to the head of department or similar; you have nothing to lose and it is time to “mark your ground.” As a plan B, I suggest you ask if there is a policy for buying used equipment from the department. You will buy some time and most likely you will be able to get a good working laptop for cheaper price (plus, you know what you are buying).

I am not a lawyer, this is not a legal advice, but in general it has lighter consequences switching from “keeping an object that does not belong to you” (wrongful appropriation) to “not having paid for an object that belongs to you” (late or missing payments).

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    I believe In some jurisdictions you don't own an object you have agreed to pay for until you make the final payment. I.e the laptop doesn't belong to you if there are late or missing payments. This kind of issue is why organisations don't like selling used equipment (along with issues of information security and of liability if it needs repair or burns your house down). Feb 27, 2022 at 10:32
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Not really. You can ask and explain the situation, but I expect they will say no.

You probably need to buy your own laptop, or borrow someone else's each time you need to deal with a review. Or you could talk to your former supervisor and see if they have any ideas.

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They're unlikely to just let you keep it, but have you thought about making them a monetary offer to buy it? A used laptop is unlikely to be worth a huge amount of money, and they might decommission it anyway. There might be bureauratic rules that prevent them from letting you keep it, but it would be worth at least making them an offer if you want to keep it. The worst that can happen is they say no.

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    They said no unfortunately.
    – Aca Demic
    Feb 25, 2022 at 12:32
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    Money isn't really the issue. In a large organization it can actually be harder to deal with collecting the money than you might think, so I'd 100% understand them refusing that request. Feb 25, 2022 at 17:07
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    @manassehkatz-Moving2Codidact True, however a large organization should have in place some processes to deal with this (since it is not unlikely to have to deal with piles of old hardware). In one of the big departments I worked (large polytechnical school in Europe), the official written rule was "you can buy the laptop/desktop computer assigned to you for 50% of the price if younger than 4 years, for 100€ if older". Of course, each person could have only one computer assigned at a time, but when the project had money to buy new hardware ... you can imagine rapid turnover of computers...
    – EarlGrey
    Feb 25, 2022 at 22:57
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    +1 exactly what I was thinking about… A good used laptop in online stores with minimum configuration enough for text edits and answering messages from the journals may not exceed $200~$300. OP may return the previous laptop back to the institute and negotiate them or the supervisor to fund/co-fund a laptop for such temporary usage and return this too after finishing the papers. BTW in my opinion, as a postdoc with at least minimum wage, OP may afford to buy one for personal usage. Another option may be asking them to borrow a system at a laboratory or library nearby.
    – enthu
    Feb 26, 2022 at 21:43
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    @enthu: You can have a decent new laptop in that price range. Certainly sufficient for what the OP needs it for anyway. Feb 28, 2022 at 4:25
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Many postdocs are jobs where the postdoc works on the supervisor's projects. If this is the case with your postdoc, it is important to note that you can immediately stop working on these projects if you want. If the projects are important to your supervisor, and they were paying you to work on their projects, you are under no obligation to finish them for free. So the supervisor has a reason to go to bat for you about the computer if you remind them about the above. Paying someone else to finish these projects would be a lot more expensive than letting you keep a laptop for a few months.

Have a conversation with your supervisor. Say something like, "Right now I'm unemployed, paying off student loan debt, and can't afford to purchase a laptop. I also will be pressed for time finding a job, and with my new responsibilities in industry, when I do find a job. Even if I could afford it, wasting time, re-setting up this project on a new laptop takes too much time away from my other projects, unnecessarily. While I want to finish these papers, without this laptop, I'll have to stop working on these projects until I am fully settled into my industry job, or I am financially secure enough to buy a personal laptop. Let me know if there is any way for me to keep this laptop so I can continue working on these projects over the next few months. Of course, if I have to return the laptop and drop these papers for an extended period of time I totally understand." This might sound like an ultimatum, and since your supervisor's opinion of you matters, I might avoid this until I have a letter of rec from them. But this statement is totally reasonable. It is unreasonable for a former employer to expect you to work on their projects without compensating you in some way, and it is especially unreasonable for them to ask you to spend your own personal money on this work. But unfortunately, some professors think research is a fun hobby (because it is for them) and it is only natural that you spend your free time on it. Sometimes they forget what it is like starting out with very little money. Now if these are independent projects, that are mostly yours and not your supervisors, then this advice won't be very useful. But many postdocs are jobs where the postdoc works on the supervisors' projects. If the supervisor is really interested in finishing these projects, they will find a solution to this situation.

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    I didn't finish reading this, and neither would they, +1. It's better to not even ask for forgiveness; forget about permission. What legal recourse does the institution have, that they would actually bother with?
    – Mazura
    Feb 27, 2022 at 22:41
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You don't have a location tag; this answer assumes one of the industrialized countries. If you are in a poor country things may be a bit different, except that the first paragraph applies universally.

Buy a (used, crappy) computer. You need one. Do some menial work for a few days to earn that money.

Desktops are cheaper than laptops for the same performance. If, hypothetically, you don't have and cannot muster, say, $250:

  • Most public libraries have free computer work places these days.
  • Internet cafes or copy shops often have computer work places for small money.
  • Ask a friend.
  • A computer is indispensable for an academic and it may be necessary to reduce other costs to afford one.
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    I need to run some heavy python code that a cheap laptop probably wouldn't support.
    – Aca Demic
    Feb 28, 2022 at 12:45
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    @AcaDemic It would simply take n times as long. Also, if you are short on money, buy a desktop. (You can even save $80 or so and use your TV as a monitor.) The performance benefits are significant. Feb 28, 2022 at 12:45
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    @AcaDemic Depending on the specific use-case, a cheap low-powered laptop could be used as an interface for a virtual machine running on a cloud provider that costs you money only when you need to use it. If the code could is or could be made tolerant to interruptions, significant cost savings can be had with "spot" instances on GCP or AWS.
    – JohnnyMo1
    Mar 2, 2022 at 20:40
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I've seen many students and postdocs get requests from admins for their loaned computers when they leave. Now I'm not saying this is what you should do, but as a matter of fact as to what happened in these incidents. The people who ended up with the best outcome were the students and postdocs who just ignored the admin email requests for the laptop. They didn't ask anyone. They figured if the computer was really important, their supervisor or head of the department would contact them or the admin would call them on the phone or physically visit them in person. But guess what? That never happened. These students were able to just return the computer a few months later, and everyone was happy. Of course this is only for a short period of time. What happened to the students who asked permision to keep the computer? Exactly what you are experiencing. It drew attention to themselves and created work from everyone else. After seeing multiple types of responses across 10 or so incidents at 2 universities, this is just the reality. I'm not saying you should ignore the admins, I'm just saying doing so may be practical for everyone. It depends on your comfort not following the rules. Sometimes, the admin team is just following bureaucratic procedures and doesn't have any use for the laptop at all. Other times they have a reason they want the laptop back, other than just following the motions. If the former is the case, the admin is unlikely to bother your supervisor or department heads. At least not for a while. If the latter is the case, they will call you, visit you in person, or contact your supervisor. If that happens you can and should return it immediately. But also if this happens, you weren't going to be able to keep the laptop with permission anyways.

So here is a potential option, you return the laptop immediately if you receive a phone call, text, or in person visit from the admin who sent the first email. You also return the laptop immediately if anyone outside the initial email sender, asks for it back in any medium, without you bringing it up. But if you don't hear from anyone again, don't return it until you do. Note because you've already asked about the computer, your experience may be different from others. It is possible that your supervisor does not care about it. Your supervisor might have only said something because you asked about it, in which case they can't tell you to break the rules, even if they believe you should or could.

Are you breaking the rules? Yes. Are you committing a crime? Maybe, it depends on your jurisdiction and the context, best to consult a legal professional. Before it is actually a crime, they do have to make their "best endeavours" to contact you, in the USA or Aus. If they can reasonably contact you using a means besides email, they must do so, as emails could just be going to your spam folder, and wouldn't suffice as "best endeavours". I worked for a car rental service for a bit. People kept the car past the due date more frequently than you would imagine. We only contacted them if the car was booked by someone else, or if the renter was several days past the due date, and hadn't reached out. Usually, they returned the car eventually, and we charged them for the extra days, with no additional penalty and no drama at all. We only contacted the police after trying to get in contact with the renter via phone, email, and text, and the renter didn't respond for more than 30 days. The point is, you were legally loaned the laptop. This situation is not the same as you breaking into a store or bank and stealing it, as some of the comments make it out to be. It will be obvious when the situation is gradually escalating. You will not be charged or punished suddenly without warning (in the USA or Australia). You will have plenty of opportunities to return it quickly, without penalty, if the university really wants it.

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    I don't want to risk a theft charge.
    – Aca Demic
    Feb 26, 2022 at 20:02
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    @AcaDemic this is what happens when you ask for advice on the internet. “Me: should I ask my bank for a loan when I have a poor credit rating? The internet: no need, just go and rob the bank.”
    – Dan Romik
    Feb 26, 2022 at 21:43
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    "Will the admin bother important people like the head of department about your laptop?" Of course they will. That is the most obvious course of action for them if you don't reply.
    – wimi
    Feb 26, 2022 at 22:32
  • I removed a bunch of comments debating whether the actions recommended in this post are theft or not since the argument was drifting out of hand; some say it is, some say it isn't, none are known to be legal professionals in the jurisdiction OP or anyone else reading the answer is in. Clearly this answer is controversial, and has attracted an atypical number of downvotes for an answer on this site,. Voting, up or down, remains a good way to register your agreement or disagreement with this suggestion.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 14, 2022 at 23:30
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No, it is not a reasonable request. It very unlikely that such a request will be granted, even if the laptop is worthless. It is possible that the request will make you seem unreasonable.

Keep in mind that many universities lease computers instead of buying them. You might not know who actually owns the computer.

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  • This assumes there is no preexisting policy that allows you to purchase the computer. Feb 26, 2022 at 21:24
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    +1 for 'It is possible that the request will make you seem unreasonable.'
    – enthu
    Feb 26, 2022 at 21:59
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If you still have unfinished articles under review, and these articles have co-authors that still work for the research institution, you are still working for the institution as a "gentleman scientist".

Surely depends where, but at least in the United Kingdom where this title likely originated, it is understood and respected. I even had an access to supercomputing facilities while under this role. You can have access to various resources and equipment that would never be given to a "random person from the street". Obviously, you must be strongly backed up and trusted by your professor in the institution to get and maintain such a status.

At least in Europe, there are many very strictly temporary positions, some even with explicit statement "no possibility to prolong will ever be considered". This creates situations when researcher does not have the funding to stay employed within an institution, while still having an unfinished (or possible to further develop quite easily) project, connections with the former hosting laboratory and obviously absolutely matching competence, not like in the past when "amateur scientists" were mostly illiterate self learners. Further, while in an ordinary job no salary usually means immediately no further effort at work, researchers are often more motivated to complete all unfinished articles and the like first, because they hope that this will help finding further positions.

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This answer is based on information given in the original question. The actual requirement has been substantially modified since then in comments.

Is there information ON the laptop - if so you MUST back it up yesterday - to "cloud" or similar AND a hard disk - an external portable drive or PC or other. Single point of failure loss prospect is not acceptable professionally or personally.

Is there information that can be accessed via a university account? If so a cheap used laptop or desktop would suffice. Account access is then the key issue.

Backup often, backup now!

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    The information is backed up. It's an issue of being able to rerun analyses on the data.
    – Aca Demic
    Feb 28, 2022 at 12:46
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    Backup seems an orthogonal issue to this question. Feb 28, 2022 at 13:06
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    @FedericoPoloni I agree, now. As the question was expanded on in comments the true question became clearer - as often happens. The information has not been added back into the question, as happens. Mar 1, 2022 at 6:29
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In a different world, it might be reasonable to ask to keep the university's laptop for a while...

But, in most of this world, as far as I can tell, it is not reasonable to ask this. In addition, even though in various ways the universities currently do effectively require faculty and grad students and undergrads to have laptops... they rarely pay for them.

The issues about our personal computers having university-proprietary info on them, and therefore supposedly warranting university intrusion/control are just silly, in my opinion. (That is, if you want me to do only the things you want, with a computer, and nothing personal, and have everything on it exposed to you, give me the thing and don't expect me to pay for it. For that matter, even if you offer to buy me underwear, I might not want to be obliged to show it to you whenever you want.)

You need a laptop anyway...

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    It is very common for universities to pay for laptops for Ph.D. students, postdocs, and faculty (usually they pay for a laptop OR a desktop). Most people would not take a desktop home with them when they finished a position though. I'll take the OP's word that they don't want a laptop and just need this laptop to finish the postdoc projects. This is why pointing out to the supervisor that the OP is happy to return the laptop as long as the supervisor is happy for them to immediately stop work on all projects - leading to them never being published, may work (OP going to industry). Mar 7, 2022 at 13:02

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