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How would you handle a colleague offering your PhD student a postdoc position? I had applied and received fund for him to continue with me as a postdoc immediately he graduates. We had this discussion before the application. Now I'm informed that a colleague offered him a longer postdoc contract (+2 year) and he's accepted to work with him. I spent years training this student in this field and we work very well. So I believe the extra two years is what was used to attract him.

I need opinions to make sure I don't appear confrontational or bring my ability to finalize this student's PhD supervision without bias to question.

Some points:

  • Politically, I think I am disadvantaged to have direct confrontation with this colleague. My position is under contract. And my work visa is dependent on keeping my job.
  • The student in question is on a student visa and I believe he wanted to stay longer hence going for his offer.
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    I had applied and received fund for him to continue with me as a postdoc immediately he graduates. - Is this normal in some fields? In pure math, it is very unusual to do a postdoc with your PhD advisor.
    – Kimball
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 11:57
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    "You have learned well, grasshopper."
    – keshlam
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 15:14
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    @Kimball In my experience in psychology, it's not common, but certainly not that unusual if people have projects/experiments ongoing. Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 16:27
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    Sorry to say it, but you sound a bit like a parent who is disappointed when their child reaches adulthood and makes their own decisions about their future. You should be congratulating yourself on a job well done. Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 22:28
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    Would you clarify if the PhD student applied to the other position, or was your colleague reaching out pro-actively? In the former case, would your colleague be bound to treat the application confidentially in your country/at your institution? Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 10:16

6 Answers 6

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You don't own your students; your role is to educate them and teach them about their field - in terms of content, in terms of conduct of research, and in terms of navigating the professional environment.

One of the first marks of your success in this process is the successful graduation of your student.

A further mark of success will be if your student is able to find a next position that suits them and furthers their career goals.

It seems that most academics agree that for a student who wants an academic career (which usually means eventual hiring as a professor, though there may be other long-term options in some fields) it's important that they demonstrate some independence in their post doctoral years, meaning that they do work separate from their PhD advisor. Ideally, this would be at a different institution, but another advisor at the same institution is better than the same advisor.

You can congratulate your student on their new position, wish them well, offer them support and a place to turn to advice in their future, etc.

For their remaining time as your student, there's no good reason for you to have nor to demonstrate any ill-will towards them for taking a job that's best for them. If you're feeling upset or like you can't advise them in their best interests because of some perceived snub, that sounds to me like a personal problem for you to resolve that shouldn't involve either your colleague or the student directly.


A commenter pointed out that you may be specifically bothered because you've obtained funding for this student to continue with you as a post doc. Given that information, I think the courtesy owed depends a lot on additional information not provided here, but it wouldn't change my overall answer too much. You say that you applied for funds, and that you had a discussion before the application.

It's not really fair to expect a student to be ready to commit at that point - yes, if they don't have any other options at that point, they certainly are going to want you to produce an opportunity for them. On the other hand, they can't stop all other plans just because your application for funding might be successful.

It is possible that you both reached a mutual agreement that the student would continue in your lab as a post doc, and that now they've accepted a different position without letting you know. I still think it's important to recognize that the student has to keep their own best interests in mind, and that staying in the same lab that they did their PhD work is probably not in their best interest, especially if they have another offer for a longer duration.

However, it's also possible that you've done these things more unilaterally, and I don't think it's fair to consider obtaining funds for a student or offering them a job because you want them to work with you to be any constraint on them should they choose to go elsewhere, nor should colleagues see it as a limit on whether they can make their own offers to the student; there's no "calling dibs". Hopefully you can use the funds to hire a different post doc, and if not, then you should have had a more concrete agreement ahead of time.

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    100% agreed in principle, but I think your answer doesn't consider "I had applied and received fund (sic!) for him...We had this discussion before the application." While it's best to let bygones be bygones, and what you write describes the general situation of transitioning Ph.D. -> PostDoc well, a conversation with the other PI strikes me as in order. And the student should have at least mentioned it given that they were on board with OP securing funding. Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 22:31
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    @gnometorule Thanks; I had interpreted that more along the lines of "I have funds that could fund a post doc and offered a position"; though OP may have had this student in mind for that position, they didn't say that the student accepted the position, only that they discussed it, and at least in my experience with grants unless it's something like a fellowship that is really to the trainee, a grant for a post doc is for a post doc, not a specific person.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 22:37
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    @BryanKrause don't you think the colleague should have informed the OP that they are reaching out to the student as a courtesy? While I completely agree with the main gist of your answer and see no issue with the student's actions, it does feel like the colleague acted in an underhanded way.
    – terdon
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 12:40
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    With respect to "handling" his colleague, do you think it's appropriate to say something like "Hey, I'm glad ___ found a good spot in your lab. In the future, would you give me a heads-up on plans like that, just to help me plan a little better?"
    – fectin
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 23:43
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    @BoltzBooz "We can even see postdocs switching to different labs under first year of contract." Then you should work on being more attractive. If other labs appear more desirable, that's an issue for your lab to solve, not something that requires changes by the other labs.
    – user9482
    Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 6:02
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Why do you want to "handle" your colleague? It is nice for the student to receive multiple offers and choose what's best for them. It is also nice for the student to be exposed to different research groups, mentors and supervisors before they become an established researcher and form their own group.

You may be able to keep the funds and use them to invite another postdoc, which means you would not lose the funding. It all seems rather a win-win situation and I am not sure why you consider confronting your colleague on it.

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    Concerning 'Why do you want to "handle" your colleague?': I think it is a rather natural reaction to be disappointed, and from that emotional state all sorts of irrational thoughts may follow. Nothing wrong with that. It is just advisable not to act out of the emotion. Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 19:20
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    Sure, but Dmitry is asking "why" in the sense of "what professionally defensible well-thought-out reason do you have...", not "what fart of brain-chemistry is causing this emotion".
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 22:50
  • @Ben, I do not think that kind of language gets us anywhere. Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 10:37
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Your colleague did nothing wrong here (most likely).

The only questionable behavior comes from your student - IF you have clearly communicated the intended postdoc and IF the student clearly affirmed they are on board with it. If that is the case, you have every right to sit down with them and discuss why are they breaking the promises they gave so explicitly, and it triggers some kind of a crisis resolution sequence which all three of you will have to navigate.

However, if that is not as unambiguous, I would consider actively clawing them back abusive, as you are clearly currently in a position of power with respect to the student, and they may feel threatened by the confrontation. Students are a bit like children - like others have said, you have to do what is best for them, not make them instruments of your personal ambition. And being able to independently (!) find a new job with better prospects than you could offer (!) is a great career step.

On the flip side, you could be on the other end of this arrangement and become the one poaching others' students. To avoid situations like yours, I would advise asking students about the possible conflict of interest they may already be in and helping them to solve this issue ethically by raising their awareness of the other perspectives.

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    An interesting answer (+1), but even here, a "promise" to take on a particular professional role is always subject to other better offers coming along --- that is a natural expectation in almost every profession when dealing with job applicants (save perhaps the military or the mafia). It is always an inconvenience when good employees leave to go to greener pastures, but that is part of management. This is why employment contracts typically are not signed in blood.
    – Ben
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 22:54
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    @Ben Maybe I am reading too much into the original post, but I got an impression of OP learning about the student leaving for greener pastures from third parties. And this is problematic, because then the situation becomes "I am pouring resources into you being under assumption you will continue working in my lab for a while and it will bear fruit in 2-3 years time. I am also willing to accept the risk you jump the ship at the last moment, but you already know you would be working elsewhere and keep me in the dark; I would still then need to invest resources, but differently".
    – Lodinn
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 16:29
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You have to think long-term. You may feel disappointed now but your working relationship with students does not end when they graduate or they move on to a new position. For example, I have had a student who graduated more than ten years ago started working with me again. Just wish them success, be helpful whenever you can, and continue to maintain a good working relationship with them. You will never know what happens in the future.

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If I were you I would think about it on the bright side. You have trained your student so successfully that another professor is happy to offer them a long-term postdoc position. This is nothing bad for all three parties: You get a testimonial for your education, your student gets a bright future, and your colleague gets a helping hand at their lab. I see no reason to confront anyone.

If you're worried about your postdoc funding, you can seek another candidate to support your projects. A postdoc candidate is nothing unreplaceable. It's completely reasonable to expect your "replacement" workforce to catch up with your project in a month or two.

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    It's completely reasonable to expect your "replacement" workforce to catch up with your project in a month or two I think thst this depends a lot on the nature of the field,
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 19:32
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You can't prevent the PhD doing his fellowship elsewhere, in spite of his apparent "breach of promise".

You will appreciate that having a good communicative connection between student and adviser is in most cases a large part of any success they may enjoy together. But you say your relations with the student are good so this suggests that he is not leaving you because he finds your colleague more congenial; rather more because he was offered a 2 year program and took this as he wants to stay in the country.

Naturally you feel aggrieved that your efforts in training this person on techniques vital to the field you work in have effectively been stolen by your colleague. And thinking that this situation could be repeated again must be dispiriting for you.

I think that a lot depends on your present Head of Department and his sensibility to his staff's situations. If (and only if) you adjudge your HoD to be appreciative to your situation, you might try talking to him on the matter. Terdon commented that where a PhD student agreed prior to application to be your nominee for a fellowship bid, then your colleague's "poaching" of him showed scant courtesy to your time investment in him let alone good collegial relations. Your HoD of course may agree or not.

But whatever happens, you have learned that when you intend making a big time commitment in training a PhD with a view to retaining him for later work, you have to evaluate character at least as much as intelligence or energy. A student who is voicing anxieties about his visa security or his girlfriend in another part of the country may really be creating for himself a plausible exit route from future commitment to your research group. We all have to learn to "read the signs" in others' behavior in order to avoid disappointment.

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    when you intend making a big time commitment in training a PhD with a view to retaining him for later work the premise here is completely flawed. No one should be training a PhD with a view to 'retaining him'. Thinking about students in this way is appalling.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 17:13
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    Referring to this as 'poaching' is also completely unacceptable. You do not own your students. The 'exchange' for training a PhD student is they perform research with you while under your supervision. There should be no expectation beyond that. The 'fair procedure' here is that OP congratulates their student and moves on with their life.
    – MJeffryes
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 18:23
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    Not poaching ? But not good form either, is it ? And your proffered fair procedure would not reproach this. Which would encourage this in other senior faculty - in turn demoralizing the hard-working junior staff. Individual academic freedom brings some obligation to consider the department's other faculty and their aspirations.
    – Trunk
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 18:38
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    @Trunk Whatever ideas OP has for roles of their students does not bind the students to filling those roles. If it did, that would imply the PhD advisor has some ownership of the student post-graduation. They do not.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 4, 2022 at 15:41
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    Training by fellows is OK, but those fellows should come from elsewhere and the PhD graduates should go gathering experience to other, in Europe preferably abroad, places. The supervisor should seek postdocs from other universities. The graduates need experience from somewhere else for their career. In our place we are required to get foreign experience even if we want to return and do tenure track back home. Commented Dec 5, 2022 at 10:15

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