24

I accepted a postdoc offer back in January 2023. I signed a (presumably unofficial) contract that stated I would accept the position, and the offer was formal in every sense I know postdoc offers to be. My PhD is from a UK university, and the postdoc institution in based in Asia. My field is Mathematics/Physics.

The position initially had an advertised provisional start date of September, and my PhD program had an expected finish date of the end of September. These dates were discussed very early on (before my offer), where I was informed that their process takes around a month after me finishing my PhD. For this reason, we set a provisional (more realistic) start date of October/November, and I accepted the offer.

With a very small delay (around 1 week), I submitted my thesis at the beginning of October. I was in frequent discussion with their administration team regarding the on-boarding process, setting up my accommodation, sending the necessary medical documents, etc, from January until October. I then informed them about my viva date (one month after the thesis submission, which is quite quick in my field).

Some issues arose when they communicated that they needed the PhD certificate. In the UK, this usually takes at least 3 months after the award (which itself comes after the viva and any corrections). Having discussed this, we realised all these admin delays meant I likely wouldn't start the postdoc until February. Whilst this all very annoying, I have colleagues who graduated from my UK university before doing postdocs at the same institution in question, so I knew these delays were not uncommon. I had interacted with my prospective PI many times after these discussions.

Fortunately, some very new procedures had been set in place at my University such that an eletronic certificate could be issued within two weeks of the award date.

However, out of the blue I received an email from the professor who hired me, informing me my postdoc offer had been cancelled. The reason given was the later-than-planned start date. I quickly arranged a video call to try and sort any issues and also inform them that I could send the diploma much quicker than expected (in just 1 week time - this call happening at the start of December). He said that this still wouldn't work, and the postdoc offer had been cancelled. What's even more unusual is that our last communication was me informing him of my viva date, and him reassuring me that the delay would not cause any issues.

To me, and everyone else I've spoken to, this is extremely surprising and not the sort of thing that usually happens. It is also now too late for me to apply for new postsocs, not just for this academic year but for next year too. As such, it seems improbable that I can continue in academia. What's more, all my accommodation and living plans had been effectively set up around this new position.

An additional point: I understand that duties such as teaching or supervision would be impacted by a late start. However, my position does not include these. I also know this not to be a University policy of any kind, with colleagues in the same department joining in February after similar delays.

Some of the questions I have are the following;

  • Is this at all heard of? My PhD advisor is equally shocked and at a loss.
  • What decisions should I make going forward?
  • If applying to new positions in the future, should I explain this unfortunate situation (as some explanation may be needed for gaps in my academic resume)?

Any advice or comments would be greatly appreciated.

1
  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Academia Meta, or in Academia Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 14:15

6 Answers 6

30

Has this happened before? I'm sure it has, somewhere sometime. But this is not a useful answer to you.

What to do going forward: Strongly depends on individual factors. I'd say apply for other positions. The situation appears clearly out of your control, so explaining it to others in an attempt to explain a gap makes sense if they ask. In general, people taking a few months off after a PhD is not uncommon, so I would not worry too much about it looking weird -- a PhD is a stressful time, I tell my graduating PhD students that they should go travel for a few months or otherwise do what they will likely never have the time again to do until retirement.

In any case, nothing of this strikes me as something that would end an academic career. The worst that can happen is that you'll be unemployed for half a year.

2
  • 1
    This is a good answer, thanks for the advice
    – Eletie
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 8:23
  • 1
    I would completely echo this @Eletie -- there are all sorts of factors outside your control here -- and its very common to take a break post-PhD (travel, get some "real world" industry experience etc. that shines in a well-presented narrative in your future interviews). Word of advice would be to not speak negatively about this incident in future in interviews (not easy right now but with time you will be able to!). Best of luck and you sound like a great candidate based on your viva progress and ability to secure this postdoc well before completion - you wont have any problem finding jobs!
    – BykerHero
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 0:39
13

I feel sorry for you. This is a shock - not only for you, but also for your partner.

How could this happen? I do not think that the delay is really a problem. Perhaps there are difficulties with the funding - he wanted to employ you on a third-party funded project, and now he has not got the project. Perhaps a (from his point of view) more prospective candidate has suddenly turned up, somebody he has already known for long, and they got the job. We will never know.

But you have a contract and the e-mails. Honestly, I have never heard of such a thing like an "unofficial contract". Contracts are binding, and perhaps you could turn to this university's HR department and ask what your options are now, with this contract and the e-mails confirming that the delay is not a problem. There is a chance that he might even be obligated now to give you a job.

But you should also ask yourself if you really want to work with a professor for years who has treated you like this.

What next? Just go ahead and do not look back. You can apply for a postdoc position anywhere anytime. And you can start right away, which might be an advantage. You have still lots of options in academia.

2
  • 3
    Yes, perhaps there are some details with the funding he did not want to share (though doing so would've been much clearer). And good point about wanting to work with such a professor, thanks for your answer!
    – Eletie
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 15:30
  • @Eletie - I had a case last year where a PI rescinded an offer to a UK postdoc in a very similar situation to yours. He rearranged his life as well. The PI said she didn't have the money she thought she did, but she is actually in desperate need of spending funding. Her research administrator found out and pushed her to go back and take him. We couldn't believe it. We think the PI is under a lot of stress and worries about her funding in an irrational way--as though it's always running out. The point is-- sometimes it's not actually about you, even though you are the one who loses. Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 3:39
12

Is this at all heard of? My PhD advisor is equally shocked and at a loss.

It is definitely rare. This is extremely unprofessional, unethical and possibly illegal.

What decisions should I make going forward?

Search for another post, and ask your PhD supervisor if they can support you in the meantime. Ask them to contact their network explaining the situation and searching for an urgent temporary position. This will also make it public that the colleague from Asia has been engaged in unethical recruitment strategies. Which will be important for everyone to know and acknowledge.

If applying to new positions in the future, should I explain this unfortunate situation (as some explanation may be needed for gaps in my academic resume)?

Yes, you should definitely explain this unfortunate incident, which is completely not your fault.

11
  • 4
    I find "unprofessional" and "unethical" quite a stretch. It is OP who delayed their start date by almost half a year. But "illegal"? Wow. Go tell the police to arrest that professor! Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 16:55
  • 8
    @CrisLuengo Breach of contract not possibly illegal?
    – stck8888
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 17:13
  • 8
    @CrisLuengo I delayed my start date by one week, not half a year. I then defended my PhD exactly when I stated I would, and communicated all dates well in advance to their admin manager. Moreover, I managed to obtain my certificate 3 months faster than expected.
    – Eletie
    Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 17:20
  • 3
    @user71659 Many people mix up the words "illegal" and "unlawful". Commented Dec 7, 2023 at 23:30
  • 3
    @WolfgangBangerth, "For all we (and OP) know, the state has simply not appropriated the money for the position, and the professor had no other choice. " --- I find this is speculative and goes against the OP. The professor has not communicated this at all to the candidate. He provided no explanations (based on the OP), except a laconic one ("it's too late"). This is unethical in academic setting. I'm not sure whether rescinding a contract is lawful, but it may not be. Also, the candidate wasn't late in 6 months, but much less according to my reading of OP.
    – Dilworth
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 14:18
1

I am so sorry about this incidence. Please brace up! It's untrue that you can't apply for any other opportunities this year and next year. There are so many postdocs out there that are opened all year round (e.g. Alexander Humboldt Fellowship). Just surf the internet for such opportunities. Attached herein is a link to postdocs in Germany. https://www.research-in-germany.org/en/your-goal/postdoc/funding-programmes.html.

0

I was in a similar situation (although at my own fault, not the supervisor's) and it turned out ok. I finished my PhD on a town in one Ende of Canada, and arranged a postdoc at the other end of the country half a year before finishing my PhD. My PhD dragged out by six months, and the offer was withdrawn (I also communicated poorly during that stage). By that point, my partner had already found a job and moved to the postdoc town, and I had my flight booked to join her to finish my thesis write-up there. So, suddenly I was without a job a few months from my PhD, afraid we would have to move again..

Anyway, turns out it's actually quite easy to find a postdoc position on short notice, especially if you're a bit flexible topic wise. I got a new position in a research project the was about to start (I saw the position 6 weeks from my defense, applied, interviewed, and got the job within a week, and started immediately after my defence).

It worked well for me, I'm still in academia and well on track 7 years later (although I had several other lucky breaks along the way).

So good luck job hunting. Having your degree in hand (or a set defense date) and being able to start on short notice is a huge advantage applying for postdoc positions.

1
  • “although I had stunned other lucky breaks asking the way” - what do you mean by this? Feel free to edit your post if it’s a typo (also: “being able to start on sorry notice”)
    – user126108
    Commented Dec 8, 2023 at 3:00
0

-Is this at all heard of? My PhD advisor is equally shocked and at a loss: Yes, these kind of incidents (even worse) in academia are very common. That's why knowing about potential PI's character is extremely critical. PI's have lots of power vested in them with the possibility to even abuse if they wish (unfortunate reality). So, you never want to be working under a PI that doesn't keep their word or unethical.

-What decisions should I make going forward? Apply for new positions. Make sure to check if the potential PI is genuine person and their work/leadership style and history. Just be very careful with selecting a PI.

-If applying to new positions in the future, should I explain this unfortunate situation (as some explanation may be needed for gaps in my academic resume)? Absolutely not. You are not under obligation to explain such events.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .