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For the past two years, I have been working as a postdoc under a new German professor with what I consider to be an atrocious work ethic:

  • His presence on campus is limited only to when in-person teaching is involved. The rest of the time he stays at home hundreds of kilometers away.
  • He is disorganized, often misses to register grades for students, or respond to their emails (I know this because they contact me instead with "what is happening here?").
  • Zero research initiative. He relies on other people to put his name in papers.
  • No support for his PhD students; he has had one since 2016 who is supposed to defend this summer, with two workshop papers since 2018, and I have met her and she is not the problem (the field is computer science).
  • He is constantly delaying procedures that just need to be signed-off by him, like reimbursements for travels (I've waited for mine for over four months for something that is done in two weeks tops).

Suffice to say, I have worked in universities in four other European countries and Australia, and I have always been the lazier one.

So, I walked to the dean's office and I asked him what the point is of someone having a job that he can't do. He told me that my attitude is not nice, and that this is normal in German universities as they “don’t follow the US model” (whatever that means).

Two months ago, I got a call by the president. He told me that I what I describe is indeed not professional behavior, but nothing really happened after that. In fact, I still see students looking for him and not finding him, missing grades, and so on.

I don’t really know what my options are. The dean basically suggested me to shut up and just do my own work as if I am independent here (I don’t have to involve the professor), but I think that this is nonsense, as I’m not a slave to ignore what is going on in my environment.

I would resign, but I like the city here, and why should I resign anyway for someone else?

Let me know your thoughts, please. Perhaps I have been extremely lucky so far to have worked with dozens of different professors/researchers that had some baseline qualities and work ethic and now I am acting paranoid?

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    You don't describe that it really affects you or your work in any way.
    – Buffy
    Jun 16 at 12:32
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    A minor thing: with two workshop papers since 2018 – Is this good or bad? (This really depends on the subfield.)
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 16 at 14:34
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    "why should I resign anyway for someone else?" - because if things don't change you'll be stuck working in a situation that causes you grief. You have to weigh the +'ves and -'ves and determine if it's worth it to stay. Also: you don't get to change every environment to what is best for you. Be aware that some things are out of your control, and you need to either adapt to that environment or seek a new one. Eventually you may be the decision-maker that can enforce your will, but you aren't right now. Do what you can if you think it'd be better, but if nothing changes you may need to move on.
    – Daevin
    Jun 17 at 15:50
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    @Chim3ra I know someone in the same field who got his PhD with one short paper under the supervision of a senior professor internationally ranked in the top 50. Publishing papers is not a condition (surely highly recommended to validate the PhD work) to obtain a PhD (unless explicitly mentioned in the PhD regulation of the faculty). Since you are not a professor and I assume not habilitated -which means not allowed to supervise PhD theses-, how you can judge the assessment of several professors (supervisor, examiners, PhD committee)???
    – Younes
    Jun 18 at 14:19
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    @Younes I don't understand, in general in a PhD defense anyone with a PhD degree can ask questions and/or make a remark. It is not about supervising a PhD, it is about making a judgement on another PhD, which anyone with a PhD degree has the gravitas to make.
    – Chim3ra
    Jun 18 at 16:09

4 Answers 4

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If this doesn't affect your work, I suggest, like the president, to let it go and finish your projects so that you can move on. It is their problem to resolve, not yours.

Pressing it too hard can negatively affect your own future if someone in the system is vindictive, say that professor or the chair.

You will find a lot of unfortunate things in academia that you have no real power to correct, especially as a junior person.

If you want to do something positive, and have the time and energy, do what you can to benefit the students that you see affected.

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    Well, it DOES affect my work to some extent, my motivation mostly, because it makes me feel like a slave here. I have worked for many different Professors in the past, and they always seemed professional, and always showed up, so I was feeling grateful and I was trying to give back as much as I could and involved them in my papers with pleasure.
    – Chim3ra
    Jun 17 at 13:24
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    @Chim3ra “it makes me feel like a slave here”: welcome to this part of the postdoc world. Jun 18 at 13:20
  • @ZeroTheHero well, it shouldn't be this way, and if nobody does sth about it, nth will ever be done. Postdocs are already bad employment as they are, Profs shouldn't create more problems by bottle-necking procedures. In another comment of mine I said that I will leave for a tenure-track abroad and will use the rest of my time here to take this to the Ministry level.
    – Chim3ra
    Jun 29 at 9:22
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What you can do for others

Professors in Germany (and other countries) are very difficult to fire. Most failed professors end up without a group, or one or two employees that are come with their professorship instead of third-party funding. They are like a permanent teaching staff with somewhat higher salary.

Complaining to the department, faculty, or similar is not bad, but only if such complaints accumulate can you expect for something to happen, though even then I would not expect too much. Unless you can motivate others to complain too, you probably did all you can do in this respect.

You can also warn people considering to join the group (if such people exist) about what to expect. If required, you can thinly veil this, e.g.: “In this group, you have much freedom to decide the direction of your research, but are also expected to work very independently.”

What you can do for others and yourself

If you have the capacity, use this situation to gather experience and CV points by taking the role of your professor where he is failing, for example:

  • Advise other supervisees of your professor in research and writing and earn authorships as well as some supervision experience.
  • Publish your papers without your supervisor as a co-author showing that you can do research independently.
  • Establish collaborations as you seem fit.
  • Take higher responsibilities in teaching and thus gain experience with organising courses etc.
  • (Basically what your dean suggested:) Organise your own time and explore your own research ideas.

Ideally, when you are interviewing for a higher-ranking position, you can honestly say that you have experience with these things.

What I wouldn’t do is to get involved in any grant applications as they mostly enable your supervisor to harm more advisees in the future.

General caveat

Many of the above suggestions can obviously backfire when your professor feels attacked and can muster the energy for revenge. It is up to you to judge how likely this is and how much you prioritise security over doing good and a chance to benefit from the situation. On the other hand, an escalation after a serious backfire may be what eventually brings down your professor (in the sense that he cannot find students, supervisees, or funding anymore).

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    In this group, you have much freedom to decide the direction of your research, but are also expected to work very independently - I know things are more understated in Europe compared to the US, but even so, if someone said this to me, it would never even occur to me that there was a "thinly-veiled" message here. Would most Germans pick up on this?
    – cag51
    Jun 17 at 10:56
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    @cag51: Actually, criticism is usually much more understated in the US and direct in Germany. Still, I think a lot depends on the tone here though. If you are saying this seriously in a “you really need to know this” context, I think most people will get that this is not normal. And even if not, the plaintext message already is something that may be a red flag for some people. (Mind that I personally hardly ever do subtext and would probably be very direct in this situation, but that really depends on what risk you wish to take. )
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 17 at 11:27
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    @cag51 As an Englishman the ''very'' in front of ''independently'' is something I would pick up on as a vague warning that they are basically going to provide zero support or assistance.
    – Tom
    Jun 17 at 12:30
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    @Wrzlprmft Well, the rest of the current location here is nice, I have lunch and chats with other Profs, and the city is nice too, so at least I wanted to give it a try. Some months ago I also entered the Habilitation phase here exactly because I wanted to maximize my efforts here and actually do some things (teach, supervise, apply for grants, etc).
    – Chim3ra
    Jun 17 at 14:23
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    @Chim3ra: In that case, I would confidentially consult some of the other professors on your situation. This depends a lot on the local power structures, how much support your professor has, and particularly how much support you can get from somebody else. Depending on these things are, you can suffer from depending on your professor for quite a while or not at all.
    – Wrzlprmft
    Jun 17 at 15:21
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In Germany (like in many other countries), professors are civil servants and it isn't easy to fire them. Therefore, all your efforts to report this behaviour won't probably have any effects.

However, even if they do not have this privilege, I don't see reporting to the dean or the president is the right action. First, it is not your task unless you are directly affected (and here, you complain only about your conflict with him by following the right procedure). Second, it opens the door to many malicious complaints. Third, if the professor decides to complete only his basic duties (according to his contract that I am pretty sure you don't have access to), he is free and no one can complain about it.

As a postdoc, it is recommended to stay professional and not bad-mouth your professor because you don't have the competency to judge him. It is your right not to like working with him and you can simply resign. You mentioned you do not want to do it because you like the city. Are you expecting the professor to be fired and you keep your position because you like the city?

EDIT

he has had one since 2016 who is supposed to defend this summer, with two workshop papers since 2018

Since you are not a professor and I assume not habilitated, you are not allowed to supervise PhD students. How can you assess whether the students deserve the degree or not and judge the assessment of many professors (i.e. Supervisor, the examiners and the members of the PhD committee)???

what I consider to be an atrocious work ethic

Nothing you mentioned has to do with work ethics. I would rather call it "irresponsibility".

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    The phrase "work ethic" does not really refer to ethics. It's an add phrase, that one. Jun 18 at 15:09
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Since you've already brought this to the attention of several others, you no longer have to deal with this in secrecy.

So, take the time to conduct 1-on-1 chats with other people who are affected by his behavior - other post-docs and PhD candidates, and possibly junior tenure-trackers. Also talk to the relevant people in the student union.

After those 1-on-1 chats, try to schedule a meeting of several of these people. In that meeting, each person should present two or three cases of "not doing the job" misconduct on that Professor's part. Summarize the meeting in a joint letter to be signed by participants, calling for action to be taken to address the situation - but without demanding specific measures (e.g. don't say "fire him").

Before sending this out, see if someone closer to him can get a draft of that letter in front of his face, so that he has a chance of offer making amends (although he might just lash out at those involved).

Finally, have different people, not just yourself, mail this letter to:

  • The head of the department
  • The department council or body of senior academic staff
  • The student union
  • The graduate employee union if you have one
  • The senior academic staff union
  • The Professor himself

... and post a few copies on the bulletin boards where your research group is at.

An additional measure you could consider - if the university is mulling the affair and claiming they can't do anything - is indicating this may be brought to the attention of donors and funding bodies.

Of course, as I've already hinted - the more of these things you do personally, the more this is likely to gain you the reputation of a trouble-maker, or get that Professor to bad-mouth you to colleagues, or terminate your post-doc early etc. Doing the right thing rarely goes unpunished.

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    This is Germany where the professor is a civil servant (as pointed out elsewhere). The primary funding body will be the government. In this context, what you suggest is completely absurd. But even in other situations, you are essentially recommending a full-time job "to get back at the professor." I realize the U.S. is all about open letters of aggrieved and offended parties, but I don't think this is helpful to OP and their career. Jun 18 at 14:19

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