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I am currently a postdoc at a research university. I had originally intended to stay at my postdoc for two years, and this was the understanding I had with my postdoc adviser.

However, I decided to speculatively apply for a few faculty jobs, intending to defer any offers for a year. I have now obtained a faculty job offer to start at the end of one year of my postdoc.

After much reflection, I believe that it is better for my family life not to ask for a deferral and to start the faculty job earlier. In the event that I take the faculty job offer, I still intend to continue and finish the research work which I have started with my postdoc adviser, so I will not be hurting my adviser by starting but not finishing my postdoc work.

Question: Do I have an ethical obligation to stay at my postdoc for two years, because that was my initial plan and was what I told my postdoc adviser? Should I expect him to be understanding when I choose what is best for my family?

The following timeline may explain the sequence of events more clearly:

  • March 2014 I was applying for postdocs, and I told my potential postdoc advisor that I was intending to stay for two years at the university if he were to give me an offer.
  • April 2014 I was hired with a one-year contract starting August 2014. My adviser explains that there is a good chance my contract will be renewed at the end of the year.
  • Sept 2014 I decide to apply opportunistically for a few faculty positions just in case I can get a good offer, and intend to ask for a deferral, so that I would only start my faculty job in August 2016. I told my postdoc adviser that I was applying opportunistically only for a few jobs, and that if I got a job offer, I would ask for a deferral.
  • Jan 2015 I get a faculty job offer to start in August 2015. By this time I changed my mind and feel that starting in 2015 is better for me and my family.

Additional relevant details:

  • My research area is applied mathematics, so the only requirements for my research are a decent computer and an Internet connection. I can collaborate productively with my postdoc adviser effectively even if I am not physically in the same location as he is.
  • I did tell my postdoc adviser that I received a job offer. However, my postdoc contract has not yet been renewed for the second year, and we have not yet had a conversation about when to renew the contract.
  • 1
    Was your contract renewed? Have you talked with your adviser? – Davidmh Jan 3 '15 at 18:05
  • No, my contract has not yet been renewed. I did tell my adviser that I was planning to ask for a deferral but I have now changed my mind and prefer to start early. – Postdoc Of Denmark Jan 3 '15 at 18:47
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Congrats on getting a tenure track position!

You are not the first person to whom this has happened. Of course, there may be specific circumstances that make the early departure more difficult - say, if you are the only person who can operate a certain instrument in a lab. But people do leave post-docs early, from time to time - it's not at all unheard of. And, if you applied opportunistically, you probably have a job that you are happy to take.

My advice is to break the news to your advisor as soon as possible - once you have made the decision to accept the offer. Your current institution might still be able to find a replacement for next year, which would be good for them. If you reflect on it, it's hard to see real advantages of telling your advisor later. And there is a good chance they will be happy for you that you got a tenure track position.

Remember that you will still be in touch your advisor professionally, so you want to try to keep the relationship on the best terms that you can.

22

In my experience, most academic contracts last for a single academic year. For instance, I am a tenured (associate) professor, but I still sign yearly academic contracts. Postdocs are often offered with an "expectation" of N years, and the expected value here depends on the institution.

In my opinion there is no dishonor in leaving any academic job after the current academic year contract expires (and before signing another yearly contract). In some cases you will be missed if you leave: that's just part of the situation. I have multiple graduate students and am scheduled to teach several classes next year, more than one of which would probably be cancelled if I couldn't teach it. If I wanted to leave my job next year, I most certainly could. It would be honorable to take an active role in covering for my own departure, but it is not strictly necessary. Presidents of entire universities often give less than one full year's notice of their departure: that's just the situation.

When it comes to postdocs: a postdoc is by definition a temporary job. Those who supervise postdocs want (or should want) nothing more than to have their postdocs eventually land a suitable permanent job. In my department (mathematics, UGA), when a postdoc leaves early it is a bit sad to see them go, but we definitely view it as a success story.

A postdoc who is doing key research on a PI's project may be more like a tenure-track faculty member in the "weight" of their leaving, but I don't see how that changes anything fundamentally. If a postdoc is doing something so valuable on a project that someone else can't be trained to do it over a period of months, then something is wrong: that's a PI-level of indispensability. (In fact postdocs should be assuming that they will depart in the relatively near future and start training others as soon as they have the skills themselves.) There is no doubt that a postdoc has a legal right to leave at the end of the academic year. Any PI who would not be able to deal with that one way or another in the face of a permanent job is someone that I would distance myself from all the sooner.

Anyway, the OP's particular case is the best possible one: he doesn't have a solid offer from his institution for the next year's employment. So he can leave: case closed. If the institution actually regrets his leaving then there's a real lesson there: don't string valuable personnel along on serial year-long offers. You can't have it both ways.

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    I agree especially strongly with the last paragraph. Your advisor couldn't commit to you that you would have employment with them next year, so how could they possibly expect you not to take this job? Imagine that you do defer this tenure-track offer, and then your advisor tells you that they can't renew your contract. In this situation, they haven't done anything unethical; instead you've done something stupid, and left yourself without employment for a year. And there's no reason to think this couldn't happen! – Tom Church Jan 3 '15 at 22:55
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This answer is undoubtedly affected by the fact that I'm in pure mathematics and can do my research even without postdocs (unlike people in experimental sciences who may need postdocs to keep their labs functioning properly). If one of my postdocs gets a tenure-track offer, at a good place, before the end of the scheduled postdoc period, I could not in good conscience try to get them to stay as a postdoc.

  • My postdoc advisor always told his postdocs to consider what's best for their career, rather than what's needed for their current stay when thinking about whether or not to take outside offers. (Then again, he was at the stage of his career where he didn't need to worry about paper N + 1.) – aeismail Jan 6 '15 at 0:08
  • I think it is true even outside of the field. With some very rare exceptions, I cannot really think of a situation when a tenure tracking offer should be rejected for keeping a post-doc contract. In this situation, there is even no contract yet, only a promise for a renewal. – Greg Jan 6 '15 at 5:24
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Congratulations on your new position.

In the research group I manage, I make it as clear as I can that the job of a post-doc is to get a job. We will do everything we can in terms of having good, well structured projects to enable that, but the post-docs should always be thinking about getting a real job. If somebody is good enough to go get a real offer in the first year, well, we probably got a lot of good work out of them, they moved the projects along nicely, and we have an opportunity to go find another post-doc. Also, we hope we have made a new friend in the research community that we can collaborate with (and get good post-docs from in the future). More power to them, and to you.

Don't agonize, take the position, make sure you get publications out on whatever you haven't finished up, and go out and do great things.

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