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I have conducted my PhD in Austria on a very hyped field in the international community. During my work I have been able to start an international collaboration and publish some relevant papers. In particular, I really want to continue working with my main collaborator and they indeed said that they could offer me a postdoc position, but only starting next year.

In that case I needed to find a temporary one year position to wait. Looking for something like that I talked to a professor in a nearby university who works in a closely related field, but using methods with which I'm really not familiar with and which I do not have any affinity with. The professor asked several things about my research and said that they could offer me a position right now and I accepted. The issue is that during our conversation I took for granted that I would continue my current research (which is indeed what I wrote in my research statement when I applied to that university). In any case, he never mentioned anything else.

After a while his assistent started filling a form to formally request the grant be issued to me, and I got worried when I saw that they posted a project on that professors research. Again, I have no intent to work on that, and had he said during our conversation that I would be required to do so, I would have rejected the position.

I think that I have to ask him about that to have a clear understanding of what its expected of me, but I'm afraid to look like a fool that doesn't understand how postdoc positions work.

In that regard: when I talk to a professor to be my supervisor in a postdoc position, is it implicit that I will have to work in whatever he decides without any input on my part? How can I deal with this situation without looking like a fool?

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    I think it's more important to get clarity than to worry about looking foolish. Norms differ enormously across countries, academic subject, and individual professors. You should just say that you misunderstood and see if you can come to some mutually agreeable outcome (which might mean you have to bail out).
    – Ben Bolker
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 17:46
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    Quite likely the grant that funds you had expectations of work being done in some area. Using the time to learn something new and teach what you know to others may be quite fruitful. But get it clear up front.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Apr 2, 2023 at 18:09
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    Do what 99% of the funded people do: grab the money and then try to balance your interests with your duties. When they diverge too much, simply be sure to have the next position funded and go away. Yes, you will burn bridges ... but you are a PostDoc on your own anyway, so there is not much harm, you are not anymore a PhD whose lifeline depends on one professor...
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 9:39
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    The answer depends on many things (as others noted), including your research field. For math and theoretical physics there will be one answer, for lab sciences - another. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 12:35
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    I've made an edit to your question since I think that you were saying that you have something lined up to start next year (with your main collaborator), and are taking a temporary 1 year position (with the professor from the nearby university). Can you confirm/deny since if this is the case, the way you wrote it probably confused some people. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 17:47

9 Answers 9

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You have a strong view, it might be useful to soften it a bit:

I have no intent to work on that, and had he said during our conversation that I would be required to do so, I would have rejected the position.

There are a lot of benefits of actually doing exactly that:

  1. You haven't secured funding for the next year. Here you have money for a project in related field. It is better than to be unemployed for the whole year.
  2. You have a great opportunity to learn new methods and extend your circle of collaborators.
  3. It is very typical to continue to work on existing projects (e.g. finalizing manuscript, resubmissions, new job applications, etc.). Bare in mind, however, that the level of tolerance to these activities might vary. You should demonstrate good performance in the main project.

I suggest not to make quick decisions and actually try to harvest maximum benefits from this research opportunity.

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    This^^^. Branching out is exactly what one should do as a postdoc. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 20:58
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    @Wolfgang Bangerth Why should one branch out post PhD ? One's value to an employer is largely due to one's specific experience in the doctoral programme rather than the general research skills/discipline acquired. Imagine being a postdoc and having a Y2 PhD teaching basic techniques of that field to you . . . But all that apart it's clear from OP's tone that he/she is not mentally willing to move research topic, even if only for 1 year. Without a willingness to do so, it must be a no go. Though we all take yarchik's pragmatic point about having some fellowship job as opposed to none.
    – Trunk
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 13:23
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    @Trunk "One's value to an employer is largely due to one's specific experience in the doctoral programme rather than the general research skills/discipline acquired." Nearly everyone I know will disagree with you on this. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 14:56
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    @Trunk Nobody needs anyone who can only work on the very narrow topic they investigated in their PhD research. If that person later wants to be a faculty, they need to be able to teach a variety of courses to which they should have a connection; and they need to have a broad enough overview of areas so that they can see where what they do is applicable (and could be used to attract research funding). If they later want to work in industry or national research labs, they will need to have skills that are transferable between projects. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 19:27
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    In other words, everyone needs the academic equivalent of decathletes. Nobody needs someone who can only do the pole vault and nothing else. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 19:27
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I am sorry to break it to you, but yes, postdocs are generally not independent researchers. To do what YOU want to do, you've got to secure funding yourself (for example, a competitive postdoc fellowship awarded by a national granting body), or at least that's how it works in my country of origin (Japan) as well as in the labs I have visited so far (in Europe, Australia, and Russia).

So, the relationship between a supervisor and a postdoc is generally as follows: the supervisor either (i) gives you a topic to work on and expects you to come up with some ideas yourself, or (ii) gives you a specific problem and expects you to solve it. I've talked with a lot of supervisors and postdocs and have never seen anything different from that.

Professors spend a lot of time and effort to secure grants, so they naturally want to use their grants to advance their own research by hiring postdocs. Hiring a postdoc who would do something very different from what the professor does would be highly irrational for the professor.

Also, when professors apply for grants, they have to explain in their applications what the grant will be used for - the exact topic, methods, expected benefits, etc. So, when a professor is awarded a grant, he or she can't really use it for something substantially different from what was stated in the grant application.

There might be exceptions, so there might be professors who hire postdocs and give them freedom to do what they want, but that's not how things work in general, at least in my experience.

If I were you, I would say or write to the professor something to this effect, "Dear Prof. XXX, it looks like I totally messed up. My understanding was that I would be able to continue my current research. Now I've seen a form that says I will be working on a project of yours. And I've just realized, by reading things on the Internet, that postdocs generally work on their professor's projects, not on what they (postdocs) want to do themselves. But it wasn't my intent to work on your project. I didn't really know how things work in academia. How should we go about that?"

So, be honest and direct and ask the professor how he thinks both of you should go about the situation. In my experience, this kind of attitude gives the best outcomes in difficult situations.

Honesty is the best policy.

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    Postdocs are indeed not independent positions, but they are positions intended to improve the applicant's chances to obtain a permanent faculty position, which might entail furthering their independence. This is the tension in which the postdoc-to-PI relationship is positioned, and which requires careful navigation. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 9:44
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    Good postdoc mentors will be able to balance requiring postdocs to work on the project that pays their salary, and letting them have time for their own projects. But there has to be an element of the former. Commented Apr 3, 2023 at 21:00
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    "Also, when professors apply for grants, they have to explain in their applications what the grant will be used for - the exact topic, methods, expected benefits, etc." In the US there are postdoc fellowships, in which a level of independence is expected. Sure, you have to define the general topic, but considerable latitude is afforded in the research direction.
    – user71659
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 4:23
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    @user71659 I've just added a clarification: To do what YOU want to do, you've got to secure funding yourself (for example, a competitive postdoc fellowship awarded by a national granting body)
    – Mitsuko
    Commented Apr 4, 2023 at 22:14
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    @Tom that sounds fraudulent to me, unless it is a very specific type of grant (fellowship funding the person like a MacArthur Genius Grant) … most funding is project-based
    – Dawn
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 14:14
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The only real requirement is that you adhere to any contract that you sign. But how postdocs work varies a lot from case to case. There are situations in which the person is totally free to set their direction and others in which they are bound to the needs of some specific project that may (or not) already exist.

Funding complicates the issue. If there is only funding for close adherence to a given project then you might want to keep looking for a more suitable position.

You are wise to be concerned and you need to work out any misconceptions about your respective needs. This situation may not be the one you want.

But you seem to have the right idea about the needed conversations.

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That depends on a lot

  • The first thing is if the money for paying you comes from a project with a clearly defined scope and goal. Then it's not even up to your supervisor to change that (and yes, while I have seen it happening that money was misappropriated and nothing happened, the funding body could come to the person applying and ask why the money is not used correctly).

  • If you work more than the funding paying for your position and get additional funding from the institution you work at and their money, then your supervisor is your boss and has power to decide what you should be working on

  • If you use equipment provided for by your new institution, you need to ask if that's ok, even if you do this outside your working time.

  • If you use equipment provided for by your a specific project funding, the applicant to that funding needs to clarify if that's ok (to be clear, i have seen parts from Projects "borrowed" to other experiments, which probably is not ok without mentioning the funding source).

  • The rest is up to a discussion between you and your supervisor, but yes, they are your boss in sense of that contract and need to decide.

So talk specifics to your potential supervisor - it could be that they are interested to find a solution.

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Why would researcher/PI fund from their grant a postdoc working on a project not related to the grant? How does this PI justify this to the funding agency? Why would this PI invest time, money and resources (space, computer time, a lab bench, whatever) into a postdoc who will bring much less to the research group than someone working directly on a grant-funded project?

So unless you come with your own money, yes you are expected to work on your PI’s project.

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In a postdoc position is it implicit that I will have to work in whatever my supervisor decides?

  1. No. On the contrary, it is implicit that you will have some, or a lot, of autonomy, on the one hand, and contribute to the group/PI's research, on the other hand.
  2. There isn't a proper definition of what a "postdoc position" is. Any position doing research, for which a PhD-equivalent background is a necessary and sufficient condition, and which isn't a permanent staff position, is a "post-doc" - but that's quite a wide set of potential occupations. BTW, It's not even implicit in the term "postdoc" that you'll have a "supervisor" at all.

that professors research... I have no intent to work on that

Now you're saying something very different than what your title says and what your question up to here has said.

You asked whether you may be required to work solely on your host/supervisor's research project - but what you actually want to do is not do any work on that project. It is implicit that much of your work will be on the subject your research group is working on.

and had he said during our conversation that I would be required to do so, I would have rejected the position.

I'm not sure I really believe you, and few others will take that claim seriously. It seems like you are trying to deny the nature of the position you have taken, using sophistry to argue that they should employ you to do whatever you like.

I think that I have to ask him about that to have a clear understanding of what its expected of me, but I'm afraid to look like a fool that doesn't understand how postdoc positions work.

In Academia, we often look like fools, and sometimes even adopt the position of the fool to examine issues without our assumptions and presumptions; so - don't be afraid of that too much. More specifically, though, it is better to have a sit-down with that professor, explain your misconception, and try to reach an amicable arrangement - than to let this miscommunication fester and blow up later on.

An "amicable arrangement" might be some carving-up of your time between your own research agenda and his / his team's. It might also be an early termination of the post-doc, although that might theoretically reflect poorly on you.

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  • I don’t think this is completely right. If you are paid by a PI, you can be autonomous within the project assigned by the PI but you are typically hired as a postdoc to work on a specific funded project, not on any project. You’re 2. is also IMO slightly incorrect. There are plenty of non-permanent staff positions funded on “soft money” that are not postdocs but will typically require a PhD to qualify. There are a variety of titles aka research associate or research scientist which fall under this umbrella and aren’t so well defined, but they are not “post doc” positions. Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 13:37
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    It is hard to believe that the work involved in the PDF was not expressly discussed in the interview, if not in the job advert. If the interview conversation didn't get too specific on the work but rather focussed on OP's doctoral work, techniques, pubs, etc then this would only be because of an assumption on the interviewer's part that the candidate knew this. But let's try to be 100% fair here: disconnects happen in workplace conversations as well as in Jack Lemmon movies. So be in no doubt: ask the PI for a time breakdown on the various work commitments in this job.
    – Trunk
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 13:50
  • " If you are paid by a PI" <- This almost never happens. You're paid by the university. "typically hired as a postdoc to work on a specific funded project" - disagree. "that are not postdocs but will typically require a PhD to qualify" - these are literally post-docs.
    – einpoklum
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 16:18
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The official line is that they are paying you so at least in the sciences, yes you have certain duties to fulfil to get that money and you might be expected to work on a very specific project which supervisor has in mind.The game is to balance those duties with what you ''actually want to do''.

They probably aren't just going to pay a postdoc to work on absolutely anything they want, be completely independent and not write any papers with anyone in the research group, at least not in science and engineering.

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  • To this I would add that though PDFs are usually 9-5 rather than PhD student hours, there is limited time - and moreover quality time - scope for separate concerns concurrent with the obligatory work. Besides, many PDFs are thinking about settling down at that age and this further limits their available time.
    – Trunk
    Commented Apr 5, 2023 at 13:34
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A postdoc position is a contract for a particular job

In a postdoc position it is implicit that there will be a particular research direction specified in the contract; postdocs generally are not treated as independent researchers, they are hired to do specific research work. Depending on the position and its funding, that direction may be set by the postdoc's personal research interests or by the supervisor's research interests or by the pre-committed direction of some already approved project at the institution.

In general, if someone says "hey, I've got a postdoc position that would be good for you" it shouldn't be interpreted that they have available funding to pursue your own interests, but that they have available funding for something specific that is close enough to your previous research that you'd be able to do it well; and if you want to consider that option, it's entirely appropriate to start with an inquiry about what the research direction is going to be, with the expectation that you might not have much input into what it's going to be.

It would not be safe to assume that it is a position to pursue whatever research topic catches your fancy, but it also won't be "whatever my supervisor decides on the spot", a reasonable expectation is that the direction would be agreed upon before the contract. Do note that the supervisor may or may not have the possibility to agree on an arbitrary topic that you want, that depends on what the constraints on particular funding opportunities dictate, it may well be that a research direction for a particular postdoc position is pre-determined, take it or leave it, and your previous research is only relevant as far as to suggest if you'll be able to do the specific research work that the institution needs from that postdoc.

That being said, often (perhaps usually?) postdocs do pursue their own research interests - however, unless they are a close match to what the research team needs, that research work on personal interests would be on top of the research and deliverables expected from the postdoc job.

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Welcome to the forum.

After some consideration I have formed the view that you have had an interview for a postdoctoral position that was inter-personally very agreeable.

So agreeable in fact that both parties left the discussion feeling quite confident that they could work together. We can all relate to this: being at ease with people in an intense working environment is almost a human necessity and a free-flowing line of communication a tremendous boon. This being rather hard to find, it is not surprising that when we do find it we may feel that everything else about that position, i.e. the actual work, the labs, library, canteen, colleagues, other faculty, office staff, sports facilities, the local city culture, etc will be at worst 'workable'. And this state of emotion may well make us neglect to run through that "matrix of job considerations" we may have mentally prepared on the train to the interview.

Yet, just as for every moonlight kiss there is a sunrise of reality, there comes a time in every fellowship when a client's needs must be ascertained or inferred, a real work schedule lain out and a set of project milestones set in place towards the eventual completion of the task.

Were you someone who had a difficult PhD supervisor, you no doubt would be quite happy to have found a research group leader whom you could work smoothly with and perhaps quite happy to let him/her determine the work objectives. Yet this does not appear to be the case with you: you had a seemingly reasonable supervisor and have a quite fixed idea as to what area you want to do research in. Making matters worse, the latter does not appear to be what this research group has in mind for your fellowship term.

Obviously, you will be fearing that your intense interest in your own favorite area will turn to intense frustration were you to continue on your present path. And this is surely the last thing that any researcher wants: research work always has an elegant sufficiency of frustration without one adding to it.

It may be helpful therefore to contact and respectfully apologize to the prospective research group leader for what seems to have been a rather unfortunate, although not uncommon, misunderstanding on the fellowship project objectives. Of advantage in this discussion is your own willingness to:

  • assure the PI of your professional regard for him and his research group

  • admit that only working in your preferred area is of real interest

  • acknowledge that hiring a Fellow with limited motivation for the project would be a disservice both to the work involved and the supporting university's commitment

In this way the parting would be respectable.

I could end this answer to you by wishing you well in your search for a fellowship that would be interesting to you.

But in writing that I would feel like I am being indulgent to you and ignoring what with decades of personal hindsight I recognize in your thinking here: I see an echo of some of my own foolish career decisions and fear for your prospects if you proceed as you seem to intend. It's kind of like that final parole application in The Shawshank Redemption where Morgan Freeman's character says he wishes he could talk to that 16 year old boy that he was before he went out to rob a liquor store and kill the attendant in the process, putting himself in jail for life as a result.

If you are fortunate enough to have come through the challenges - financial and intellectual - of a PhD programme and have an offer of a fellowship in a good respectable research group led by someone you get along well with (maybe too well!) then maybe it's time you manned up and humbly accepted that offer.

Life's not just about doing interesting things and hoping the euphoria of that will carry us through the rest of it. It's mostly about persevering through humdrum work, sifting out the odd nugget of use to the world and carrying on. Most folks don't get a fraction of the opportunities you can have with this job. Jeff Greenfield recounts here the happenstance preceding some of the major events of his life: they all seem to follow a "nothing" invitation from an agreeable person. (Of course, Greenfield is being modest about his own impressive analytical and communication skills as a young man: you don't get invites to high-powered dinner parties or to join RFK's campaign without real class)

Your offer of a fellowship "next year" may be genuine - or it may be a non-confrontational way of steering your out of your previous group. If you do find a position in the area you like, it may not be under a PI that you like. So please think hard about taking the fellowship offered to you and providing your own motivation to get through the less interesting aspects of it.

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