When it comes to what's expected of a postdoc, advice on this SE seem contradictory to me.

  • Some advice seems to be along the lines of: build your own profile, focus on your future goals, do not dance for your PI. Example:

Focus on self-improvement and (implicitly and politely, but only if possible) tell your peers to bloody sod off. Too many professors nowadays will suck postdocs and PhD students dry, while sitting comfortably on a fixed income, pretending to be busy around empty/ghost meetings, random signatures, staring at some computer screen. They are just waiting. They are vultures waiting over you to offer papers and data for them to claim as their own. Do not dance for them.

  • And some other advice is along the lines of: you're not an independent researcher yet and you were hired to do a specific job. Example:

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 (...)

In the first months of my postdoc I've been trying to be very independent. I've been reading any literature that caught my interest even if it was somewhat further from the subject of my postdoc. I initiated contact with a couple of researchers I admire in the field of my postdoc with a plan that we could set up a collaboration in the future. I've been coming up with research ideas for what I could accomplish. And after a few months, I found out that my PI doesn't want me to come up with ideas that are not very related to the research direction of his group. He also mentioned that for now it's better I work with the team here rather than bring external collaborators.

So I felt like a fool and I kept searching this SE some more. I came across this question where the message I got from the answers is more like: Sorry, you're not an independent researcher yet, you will have to work on what your PI tells you to. After reading this I thought okay, maybe I will just have to suck it up and complete the tasks that my PI tells me to do.

But to make things even more confusing, today I got an answer on another question I asked that postdocs should pay attention to their own academic objectives :)

So far, my process of synchronizing expectations with my PI has been painful and I was only finding out bits of expectations here and there after making a fool out of myself. I did ask my PI what does he expect of me in the first month and he told me: I want you to learn technique X. So I've been mastering technique X since but 6 months into my postdoc I guess it can't be the only thing I need to do, so I started doing other things as well (reading, experimenting, talking with researchers in our department, attending seminars...)

I find that this answer does not help, because it still doesn't tell me how to do all those things in such a way that my PI is okay with.

I am so lost right now about what's expected of me. At this point, it seems that I need to directly and frequently get that answer from my PI, otherwise it doesn't seem applicable to my particular lab situation.

So my question is: what's the most effective way that I update myself on what my PI expects of me at any given time? Regular chats with my PI where I ask him exactly that? Many occasions to hear my PI's feedback of my progress? Do I need to ask my PI first with every bigger decision I need to take, like contacting an external researcher? Or, perhaps, I should simply accept that at times I will screw up and make a fool out of myself?

  • 20
    I’d say your issue stems from favoring SE posts over crucial conversations with your PI. Commented Jun 15 at 15:58
  • 10
    Note that you are drawing on advice from people from completely different fields. In different fields the expectations can vary widely. Commented Jun 15 at 19:56
  • What field are you in? If you are in an experimental lab science where as a postdoc you are still part of some professors lab this is very different to being in pure maths or the humanities where almost everything you need for good research is inside your brain.
    – quarague
    Commented Jun 17 at 10:51
  • 4
    @Aruralreader - to be fair, it sounds like their PI also chose to skip at least one crucial conversation when they started work. I always made it clear to new postdocs what the group's expectations were to begin with.
    – Jon Custer
    Commented Jun 17 at 17:21
  • @JonCuster: Agreed, I was a bit quick with that comment. Commented Jun 17 at 19:22

3 Answers 3


There are different types of postdoctoral positions, and different answers reflect different experiences.

  • In some cases, a postdoc is hired to progress a specific research project for which the PI has secured funding. If you have this type of postdoc, your job is to work on the project, largely in the way that your PI has envisioned, but with a high level of independence reflecting the fact that you have a PhD. The PI is your boss and the project is of their design. At the same time, in the interests of your own career, you need to make sure you are publishing your work and looking towards the next steps, such as applying for grants with your PI’s support.
  • In some cases, your PI might have won funding for a postdoc to progress an area of research rather than a specific project. In this case, your job is to collaborate with your PI, coming up with ideas of your own and progressing those that your PI approves while also progressing your PI’s ideas.
  • In the case of some more prestigious postdoctoral fellowships, the funding has been won by the postdoc rather than by the PI, or has been secured by the postdoc in collaboration with the PI. The money funding the position would not have come to this research group rather than another without the efforts of the postdoc in writing the grant proposal, and the funding was awarded partly on the strength of the postdoc’s CV. In this case, the postdoc has the opportunity to develop their own ideas more independently, with the PI more a guide and advisor than a boss.

So: how was your position funded? If you don’t know, find out, and make sure you have read the proposal that funded your position if you did not write the grant application yourself. Then remember that the three cases above are a little idealised: your PI might expect more control even in the second and third cases, though there is more room for negotiation in these cases than in case one.

But yes, you should be meeting with your PI regularly to discuss plans, progress and and expectations. If you don’t have an agreed plan for at least the next year of your research, your first job once you have oriented yourself should be to write a plan on the basis of your understanding of your position and see what your PI thinks of it. Don’t get too detailed before you have agreed on a broad outline.

How often should you be meeting? That depends on you and your PI, but I recommend insisting on at least monthly meetings. Some research groups meet every day.


What you have discovered here is that there is a lot of variation in post docs and the expectations. Some are very similar to entry level faculty positions with a lot of independence. Others have expectations around a certain project or the work of the PI.

Yours is more like the second.

The best and most efficient way to determine the expectations is to ask in some regularly scheduled meetings with the PI in which you have an opportunity to bounce ideas off of them on your next stages. Some project oriented post docs can be guided by regular meetings of the group in which it can become clear what direction you and others are expected to take.

It isn't magic. You need to communicate in both directions. You can make proposals in most cases but it may be that only one direction is acceptable. Ask.


Some very personal observations from the business world.

My assumption is that there is a reason for having a postdoc and that it is limited in time and has a stated goal. In this way it can be compared to other projects in the business world. Projects are by definition run for a time in order to order to achieve a result.

Plan for success

Achieving goals requires you to work on firstly definining the goal(s) and secondly managing the work. Write a plan and then spend a bit of time every week to check if you are on plan and moving ahead. Preferrably start every day with a realistic plan for what you want to do today, then prioritize the list so you at least do the most important things.

The plan

In your situation I would spend a few hours of my time and maybe a meeting with your PI to set down a working document describing the fundamentals of your project. Keep it short, max one page. The first sketch does not have to be perfect, anything is better than nothing. Share this plan in advance with your "owner" and meet to improve the plan. Typical sections might be:

  • Stated goal or target. It might be to produce a research paper or to prove or design something. It might be simply to investigate an area.
  • Who is the "owner" or manager of the project, ie has last say if you are doing the right things: probably your PI. Note that the plan often can and will change for the duration and the "owner" is the one making that decision (everyone else may suggest).
  • Resources used for the project. This includes you, your PI but maybe other people or resources as well. Sometimes how the resources are to be allocated may be described here, say how much to spend on equipment on participating in conferences.
  • A tentative plan for how you plan to work towards the goal. Good plans are often divided into steps or phases, where you can both check if you are moving towards the goal and if you need to make other decisions. Discussing and deciding on the next steps and modifiying the plan is typically done as the current phase gets close to being finished.
  • A plan for how the work will be followed up and reported. In my experience, biweekly meetings with a short agenda works very well. Maybe there are other parties that you will need to report to.

In the business world we often start with a "pre-study" project with the purpose of investigating what direction to take when work really starts (or sometimes not go ahead).

The follow-ups

I suggest a short meeting every second week work with the "owner" or project manager where you report progress and get feedback or changes in direction. The meeting is about the work as such, not really about the content of the work. Note that the "owner" is the representative of your employeer, paying for your work. Keep this biweekly meeting short, to the point and factual, preferrably max 20 minutes. You write a short report and send it in advance as it will help in structuring the meeting, max one page. Typical sections:

  • Done: work done since last meeting.
  • Next: what happens until next meeting
  • Contribution: how does this contribute to fulfilling the project goals and how are the results achieved when compared to the plan
  • Problems: are there any special problems or hinders that you have encountered and that you possibly could get help with

When projects have many identified tasks that need to be fulfilled, it helps to have a separate list for this and share it as well. Typical headings include: what to do, who does it, how is it done, when is it to be finished, what is the status (not started, in progress, finished).

In the meeting you write a short protocol for your memory and share it with the "owner". Document decisions made in the meeting as you need to follow up on these.

Note that sometimes you basically have no idea what you are doing or how the work contributes to the goal. This is OK in my mind to state but is in effect asking for help in finding your directions. Try to schedule a separate meeting maybe brainstorming or searching for ideas.

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