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I would appreciate very much an advice on the case which I will describe after a short intro about myself. Such introduction is not really necessary for the matter of question, but I hope it can better explain my situation.

I am PostDoc working in the field of one of the nature sciences in one of German Universities (I apologise for being so cryptic). It is my second postdoc position and I am doing science for about ten years. I moderately rate my achievements although I have several publications in high rank journals and currently my Hirsch index is 10.

Around three year ago I wrote a project for the German Research Foundation and was granted finances for one PhD student. Before submitting a project I discussed the matter with my prof. He was not against such project, but not very encouraging either.

After the project was granted I was first surprised that my boss used all possible kinds of arguments to prevent me of publicly advertising the position. After almost nine month of indeterminacy he suggested me to overtake one of our master students on this position. After all, it was not a bad decision because the student has already worked with me and we had a good experience of collaboration.

Currently, my biggest problem is that by boss interfere in all possible ways with our scientific work. He constantly tries to involve the student in other scientific projects. I would completely understand such approach if we were failing in some respect. On contrary, we regularly produce high rank papers, where my boss naturally is the last “courtesy author”. I spend sufficiently large time working with the student having 4-6 hours of weekly discussions.

One might say the situation is favourable to me. However, as scientist aiming at permanent position I am concerned with development of my own way in science, and working exactly according to the plan of the research project suits this aim. Therefore, I openly talked to my boss to get little bit more scientific independence. I was surprised to hear that "extra projects are in the interests of the student's scientific career". I am failing to see how this can be the case... (jumping from topic to topic?)

I need you advice how to deal with this kind of situation. Of course, I do not want to make strong steps because after working for so many years with my boss I heavily depend on him in e.g. searching for the next job.


Edits in response to comments


I am greatly surprised with the comments below which perceive everything from a very idealistic perspective:

  • Even though it might look selfish it is a post about my problem as a scientist trying to establish my way in science

  • I am also interested vey much in student being able to establish in science. Since the time for PhD is limited, in my view, involvement in too many problems, superficial approach is bad in a long time perspective

  • In the same way as time for PhD is limited same is true for Postdoc experience. Allowing the student to work on other projects also reduces the outcome of my project. In numerical terms it reduces the number of publications on the topic as I deny an opportunity to be a courtesy author. Which is never the case for my boss

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    This isn't scientific misconduct. You and your mentor have a professional disagreement about how you should run your project and/or what's best for your student. Nothing about this is per se unethical. "Extra projects are in the interests of the student's scientific career" does not sound like crazy talk to me, to be honest. – xLeitix Mar 31 '15 at 19:47
  • @xLeitix It impedes our progress on the topic of the project. Secondly, it impedes my scientific progress with a well defined field of study. – Rama Mar 31 '15 at 19:51
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    Sure. But have some side projects (within reason) is still common, and many researchers would agree that they actually enrich a student's research portfolio. Of course we don't know your specific situation, so we don't know whether you or your prof. are in the right, but calling this scientific misconduct still rings wrong to me. – xLeitix Mar 31 '15 at 19:57
  • @xLeitix In response to your comments I made modifications to my post. It is hard for me to exactly define what I am dealing with. However, it is true I am very uneasy about this matter :( – Rama Mar 31 '15 at 20:03
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    Side projects are definitely beneficial, especially for a student trying to get a taste of different topics, working with different people, and acquire letters of rec. – Austin Henley Mar 31 '15 at 20:58
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This is a tough one. The German academic system is more of a pyramid than in the U.S. Too often, the guy at the top of the pyramid got there by, shall we say, not being the politest, most patient piglet in the litter. So I understand your reluctance to assert yourself.

I also understand your resentment of the boss setting up distractions for your student. You have described a pattern of subtle sabotage. The student should be your responsibility. From your point of view (and mine), the boss has no right to butt in. From his point of view, he has every right, because he is the great man, who has earned a high position of great respect, and has years of wisdom and good judgment to draw on. Since you are the student's advisor, and the boss is your advisor, the boss concludes that he has the ultimate responsibility for the student.

I think the dilemma you are in is inherent to the hierarchical structure of German academia. I've never heard of a situation like what you described, in the U.S. In the U.S., which is the academic system I am most familiar with, post-docs don't advise PhD students. But, from what I know of the German system, my guess is that it is not extremely common, but not rare either. Is that about right?

I hope you can get a different job soon.... In the meantime, the best that I can offer is empathy. Possibly you could talk this over with the department chair, or with the equivalent of the dean of the graduate program? Or could you say to the boss, "Frank (I made that name up) is very interested in such-and-so project that you have proposed for him, but he can only spend x % of his time on it (e.g. 10%), because his primary responsibility is his principal project." In other words, start with an assertive stance, but be prepared to negotiate somewhat on the percentage.

I wonder if there are any gender aspects of this? If so, is there an office at your institute that supports women in tricky gender situations?

Have you talked things over with the student? Perhaps he feels some divided loyalties, and finds it difficult not to defer to the big name?

  • I cannot appreciate more your insight into the problem and your empathy. The first 3 paragraphs precisely describe also my vision of the problem, and unfortunately the 1st sentence of the 4th paragraph my approach to its solution. From this point of view it is also a pity for the student who expressed great interest in my topic. I will wait little bit before accepting the answer in order to stimulate more responses. – Rama Apr 6 '15 at 9:12
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I think your concern for your student, project and yourself is quite justified. Your boss is certainly right in the sense that the student could benefit from being involved in more projects. However, focus is what gets things done. I worked with a student who did too many things at once and, because of that, he's still working on his PhD after 6 years.

What I would do if I were you is look careful at your student role in the project. You want to improve his working conditions in such way that he would dismiss himself the sabotage attempts of your boss. Your boss is making your student choose between you and him. If I were the student, I'd feel the pressure to work with the bigger guy, just because a good recommendation from him is valuable. On the other hand, I'd like to have more control over my work, on choosing the problems to solve and I'd like to work with someone who treats me more as a co-worker rather than as a subordinate. Your student is probably different, so you have to find out what he really wants and give it to him. Also take time to explain to him the advantages of focusing on your project: faster graduation, a thesis with a well defined subject, mastery of the field he studies, etc. The chance he will defect will be lessened.

Your boss is a different matter. I don't think I have a good answer, but it seems he simply isn't interested in what you are doing and would rather have you and your student toil on his own projects. Finding a common ground, a connection between your project and his would be a way, but I assume you would have already done that if it was possible at all. From what you said, I understand that your boss is simply the kind that likes minions rather than collaborators, and getting away from his influence could benefit both you and your student. If you plan to get employment elsewhere soon, I wouldn't suggest an open confrontation, but if you are going to stay there for a while you should make it clear to him that he will not fund his projects from your grants.

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Let me first remark that it is a great achievement to get a project funded by the German Research Foundation at the post-doc level, in particular if your boss was not very supportive in the beginning! It is clear that to advance your academic career, you want to use this project to develop an independent scientific profile. Unfortunately, the German system is quite challenging in that.

As a post-doc, you're not fully independent yet, and rely on your boss for several things. Most importantly, you probably don't have the right to formally advise PhD students - I assume that your boss is the formal advisor for the PhD student on your project? In that case, it's clear that the student will have to take your boss' wishes or "advice" into account.

Specific points that I would aim for in your situation are:

  • Be senior author on all publications that come out from the project. Since you gained the project and are fully supervising it, that should be more than fair. Try to have your boss be second-to-last author, if you cannot publish without him or her.
  • Discuss with your boss whether you can be appointed "Research group leader" or the like. Formally, it probably won't change a lot, but it makes it clear to outsiders of your lab that you are building up an independent profile.
  • Try to find synergies with any projects that your boss tries to involve "your" student in. Maybe you can become involved as a project co-leader in these?
  • Don't worry too much about sharing part of your project's resources (in the form of the student's time) with your boss. It doesn't hurt much, as long as your project gives good results, and could be viewed as giving back to your boss for general lab support. You could try to keep track of that, so that you can make a point of having "donated" x months of student time from your project to your boss when it should become necessary.

In general, it would be a good idea to discuss long-term career plans and what you need to do to achieve them with your boss and others. That will help you to evaluate which aspects are important, and where it's worth going into an argument with your boss. With the current German system of gaining academic independence, such arguments usually cannot be avoided, but it's worth carefully thinking where they can be profitable and where not.

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