Having recently finished my PhD, I have now secured funding to act as PI on a project.

I continue to work alongside my former PhD supervisor, with the old supervisor listed as a collaborator on the new project.

The former supervisor frequently refers to me as their 'postdoctoral fellow'. Question 1: Is this appropriate, given that I am the PI on the new project? The former supervisor is certainly in a higher position than I (Professor, whereas I am indeed a postdoc), but I feel that I should not be considered 'their' worker.

The current project requires me to use equipment owned by the former supervisor, and we closely collaborate on a lot of work. I value the impact my former supervisor has had on my career so far, and would hope to continue to work with them in the future. Question 2: How can I best make clear (respectfully) that they are now a colleague?

(UK based)

  • In my understanding, the term "postdoc" implies that you have, at least nominally, a faculty supervisor. Is that not the case here? Also, using someone else's equipment (though I wonder whether your supervisor literally "owns" the equipment; more commonly it was purchased by his university for his use) does put you in an at least partially subsidiary role to them. Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:15
  • I have no supervisor. I am at the 'postdoc' stage in my career, but my work is independent. I am just hostage to owning no equipment of my own.
    – anon
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:17
  • So your situation seems a bit unusual (at least in my experience, which is far from exhaustive). Let me also say that your postdoctoral supervisor can certainly be a colleague: I am the supervisor of a postdoctoral fellow. I call her "my postdoc" but our relationship is more like senior / junior colleague than employer / employee. Other than the naming issue, is there any specific aspect of your relationship with your former PhD supervisor that you'd like to change? Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:18
  • If you are not getting advanced training / mentorship from someone, I have not seen the label "postdoc" used. If you are really an independent researcher in a soft money position, maybe the use of the term "postdoc" is part of the problem. Could you give a link which explains the type of job you have? Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:22
  • My work is in psychology and generally very cheap to fund, as it uses human subjects. I applied for funding to work with my existing supervisor as a co-investigator. The job has no 'label' as such; I am simply funded to undertake a project that requires the use of existing equipment over a period of one year. The role of the old supervisor is to provide equipment and review publications. As you say, the issue may be to do with the use of the word 'postdoc'. I'm sure the situation would be eradicated if I held a lectureship, which I do not.
    – anon
    Commented Nov 25, 2014 at 18:29

2 Answers 2


Working with former advisors can result in unexpected issues as you clearly point out. The reasons can be a question of (bad) traditions or just not reflecting on the new position to which you have arrived. The "once a PhD student, always a PhD student" is a common syndrome.

What appears to make your situation worse is the fact that you depend on your former advisor even though you are now a PI. I have a colleague who went through the same thing. Sadly things did not improve until he left and that was with a large bang. Clearly the resolution depends on the personality of your advisor and an answer is therefore slightly difficult to pin down.

Communication is always good and so if your former advisor is sensible and has a reputation as being so then a short to the point discussion should suffice where you can state your obvious gratitude to the former advisor for supporting the application and providing facilities in the collaboration but that you want to be appreciated as a peer, albeit perhaps inexperienced, but not a student. That is the simple way in a good situation.

Now if you know your former advisor is less susceptible to good two-way communication, then the problem is more difficult. You should know your environment by now and should probably know of other peers to whom you can talk and ask for additional advice concerning the situation. I would see this as the second port of call. In the worst case, the problem might not be possible to remove until you remove yourself and then it is an endurance test.

Since you have finished your PhD and still opted to seek funding with your advisor I suspect reality to be located away from the last scenario. Finding colleagues, with insight into the actual conditions to talk things over and seek advice is the best step forward you can take.


The former supervisor frequently refers to me as their 'postdoctoral fellow'. Question 1: Is this appropriate, given that I am the PI on the new project?

I have never encountered a "postdoctoral fellow" that does not have a supervisor. But my experience is far from global. As this article on postdoctoral research says, "Depending on the type of appointment, postdoctoral researchers may work independently or under the supervision of a principal investigator." Later it says "In the US, a postdoctoral scholar is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing."

If you are the PI on your project then yes, I suppose that must mean that you do not have a formal supervisor. However you can still have a mentor...and you should. Your former PhD advisor's description of you as "theirs" need not imply that they view themselves as your boss; it may only mean that they are affiliated with you and are taking a role of mentoring you, as seems to be the case here.

Let me also say that in that this person who is formally associated with the grant is your former PhD advisor and in that he owns (you say) the equipment that you are using both give him more oversight than some other independent researcher would expect. If I borrow my friend's car that does not make her my boss, but it does give her some supervisory role over my use of the car. A senior academic who owns equipment you are using should have some supervisory role in your work.

Question 2: How can I best make clear (respectfully) that they are now a colleague?

I don't see what behavior of the supervisor indicates that he does not view you as a colleague. I have a postdoc, and I view her as a colleague: a junior one, in which I have some supervisory role, but still a colleague: I have some projects she is not involved in, she has some projects I am not involved in except to hear her talk about them, and there are some projects we do together. If she decided tomorrow that she only wanted to work on her own projects alone, that would in my view be suboptimal for both of us, but it would be her right.

In some fields postdocs are treated rather differently: they are the highest level of workers for the PI professor. But since you are a PI, that is not your situation.

Having a senior colleague who can mentor you is extremely valuable. I continue to mentor my PhD students after they get the PhD -- well, so far I have one, but soon two more -- but this mentorship is limited by my time and energy. Any mentor should be guiding his/her mentees towards greater mastery, independence and autonomy. Gradually the influence of mentors wanes: when I was an untenured assistant professor I had a research mentor and a teaching mentor; as a tenured associate professor I have no formal mentors anymore....which is a shame, since to paraphrase Yoda, much to learn, I still have. But my work is still evaluated by more senior people -- that is a ubiquitous phenomenon in academia -- so it is still important for me to maintain good relationships with senior colleagues. Unless people are literally telling me what to do, I tend to let it slide when people treat me with less "seniority" than I think I have.

I am a little worried that you may have your eye on the wrong problem. You have a one year position: what happens next year? That's the key question, and your future relationship with your advisor is a key part of the answer. You don't need to kowtow or be subservient to him: on the contrary, you're the PI, so when it comes to the work itself you get to call the shots (and you should). But you are still looking for a lot of help from your supervisor -- help landing the best possible future job, if nothing else. So trying to insist "You're not my mentor; I am fully independent from you" in a one-year position seems really to be a strategic mistake to me. Instead you should apply yourself and show your former PhD supervisor how much stronger and more capable you have become, and then they can write you an excellent recommendation because all of your post-PhD growth and maturation took place before his eyes.

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