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I am recently discussing an opportunity of joining a university as an industry-funded postdoc. Both the company (in the US) and myself do not have any experience about this so I would appreciate any help, suggestion or potential caveat you can think of at this moment.

I am currently in the final year of my PhD. A company reached out to me and mentioned that they are very interested in my thesis, and would like to explore it more with me. Given that the headquarter of this company is at a city that I do not want to live in, we've reached an agreement that I will start as a postdoc at a university and then company is willing to pay for my entire salary through the university (and therefore with overhead), which means that I will be a formal university employee. I have also found a professor that verbally agrees to host me and serve as the PI. The professor is currently negotiating this with the department.

I have some wishes as following but not sure whether or in what extent they can be fulfilled:

  1. Though being a postdoc, I would like to get a much higher salary, ideally compatible with the industry. The company has already mentioned to me that they are willing to pay higher salaries to me as long as the university agrees. Would universities in general be ok if one of their postdocs earns exceedingly more than others (say 2 or 3 times more)? Is there any creative way so that we can initiate an industry-sponsored project to make this exception? The company is willing to pay for overhead costs. Would making up a new position, e.g. "Williams Kevin James Research Scientist", help make this happen?

  2. Another main complication is that I am not a US citizen nor a permanent resident, so will need visa sponsorship to work in the US. Given that I plan to have a much higher salary, would the university still be willing to sponsor a cap-exempt H-1B, which is typically for non-profit employees? O-1 could also work for my case but I feel like universities typically consider it as the last resort.

  3. To help make this deal work, the company already agrees that I can publish most of my research findings as conference papers or journal articles, so that it can be perceived that the university "owns" the IP of these publications. However, inevitably, there will be cases where I need to work with field data or realistic data that is owned by the company or third parties thus cannot be shared to public. Also, I might also spend a little bit time developing their software tools and infrastructure. Would there be an IP concern regarding these? Is this generally negotiable with the university? I know that there are academic consortia that produces software only accessible to the consortium members. Not sure whether the same idea can work in my case because right now there is only myself.

  4. Although the company is very generous, they are paying because my current research interest highly aligns with their goals. Therefore, throughout this postdoc, my research ideas and focuses will be determined by them on some level. I can still do something "pure academic" but it cannot be completely unrelated to the scientific problem the company is trying to solve. Would this be considered as a conflict of interest? What is the best way to handle this?

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  • Please add a country tag or info about where this would take place as things differ considerably depending on where you are.
    – Sursula
    Feb 11 at 4:40
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    I think it's sufficient to say that your situation is not how it usually works - I think you need to consult with the specific university because a general answer won't help you here. It kind of sounds like you and the company are trying to find an immigration law loophole so I'd be careful about that.
    – Bryan Krause
    Feb 11 at 15:27
  • Thanks for quick reply. This would take place in the United States.
    – Joe Smith
    Feb 11 at 19:08
  • You also need to talk to a US IP lawyer to assure that you don't get exploited. The US university might have a legal department that can help.
    – Buffy
    Feb 11 at 19:20
  • To put it more bluntly: these post-doc shenanigans seem very suspicious, and I would proceed with caution. If everything was on the up-and-up, the company could simply hire you as a remote employee (which would mean a higher salary for you) and form a collaboration with the professor.
    – cag51
    Feb 13 at 18:30

2 Answers 2

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What you are trying to do is actually quite illegal - circumventing immigration laws which tend to be quite strongly enforced in the US, and (hopefully) with most universities as this is a system they must rely on constantly for students, postdocs, and faculty. This would look terrible for USCIS and could land both you and the university in a heap of trouble.

Most Universities have strict guidelines for interacting with industry and how IP is handled. This is not something you casually propose. This is negotiated by the company and the University legal department. A postdoctoral position would have to be created, with a standard pay scale (or provide rationale why yours should be higher, if it is much higher it will raise alarms). Furthermore the average overhead is somewhere between 40-60%. So if the company is paying you 2-3x postdoc range which would imply 2-3x the general ~ca 50-60k salary for postdoc (though most pay more now anyway)... that is a huge amount of overhead to drain on you. Then you have to apply for the job and go through immigration. I assume you are trying to circumvent the regular process and go under a J visa? H visa will receive more scrutiny and may get flagged for what you are trying to pull off.

The nature of your employment needs to be very clear. If you are a postdoc, then you must follow the rules and pay scales of a postdoc.

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Let's start with the salary: I suspect that most departments will be reluctant to have employees at the same level and with the same experience have very different salary levels. But there are other job titles that may allow for this. I would suggest you talk to your university about being a "research scientist", a title usually used by career people in research roles who are not faculty (as opposed to the temporary positions with a training aspect that we call "postdocs"). Whether 2x or 3x the typical postdoc salary is feasible is a separate matter (departments will not want your salary to reach far into the starting faculty salary range), but at least you are not tied to the typical postdoc salary range.

As for IP: By law, the intellectual property created by employees is owned by the employer. It is possible (and not entirely uncommon) for universities to enter into agreements with companies who sponsor research to either share or assign the IP with these companies. But it is something that requires lawyers to be involved, and you will do well to bring this up early given that the wheels turn slowly with the lawyers (I know from experience). You will also have to make sure that this topic is resolved before you start your work given the legal implications of doing work that is then owned by the university.

Visa: This is a good deal for the university. They should be willing to sponsor your visa.

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  • I have a number of industrially sponsored projects. Unless a standard contract has already been negotiated with said company, the process, starting with (typically) an NDA, then IP and follow up negotiations can stretch into 1-2 years. Universities are HIGHLY reluctant to give up IP (or potential IP, or the potential to potentially generate IP), especially if the only return is some random postdoc.
    – R1NaNo
    Feb 11 at 22:13
  • I agree with the timeline being quite slow. The issue is non-trivial because the law by default assigns the IP to the university. It takes a specific contract to do something else. Feb 11 at 22:42

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