How wise is it to collaborate with another professor while working as a staff under one professor? Is there a ethical conflict in doing so even if the other professor is from a slightly different area?

Also, how should one develop his/her own expertise while working as a postdoc under one professor? Is it wise to also work with other professor with slightly different research interest?

4 Answers 4


It depends totally on your status, and what exactly this collaboration entails. You say “working as a staff under one professor”. If you're on a short-term contract (say, post-doc), then it's probably not okay to do independent research on something completely different. You were hired on a project and it's unlikely that you have any significant time left for something else. On the other hand, if this new collaboration is related to your project and you involve your professor in it, it is okay (and he will welcome this initiative from which everyone involved benefits).

To the above, there are a few exceptions:

  • People who just arrived usually have some unfinished business with their previous institution, and they are given a bit more leeway in finishing it: revisions to make to papers on track for publication, conference attendance, etc.
  • People who are leaving due to their contract ending have to get involved with other projects to get a new job. They have to go fishing around, and this sometime requires a bit of extra work.
  • Finally, if your activity on the side is quite unrelated to your main job, and you manage to do it on your own time without prejudice to your employer, you may do so. Some people write books, some get involved in open source software unrelated to their employment, etc.

If you're working as an longer-term staff researcher in someone's group, then it is expected that they respect your academic freedom. To a reasonable extent, you are free to engage in new collaborations with other people, and not necessarily involve your group leader.

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    "it's probably not okay to do independent research" - our definitions of what post-docs do are widely different. In my institution, if you are a postdoc and you don't do independent research, you are not doing your job.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Apr 3, 2014 at 7:07

In contrast to F'x's opinion, I think collaboration with people outside your group is not just wise, but actually necessary, at least if you are working toward an academic career. You must develop both a wide professional network and broad independent research experience. As long as everything is out in the open, with everyone's knowledge and agreement, there is absolutely no ethical conflict.

This does not mean that you should shirk your paid job; any outside projects must be on your own time and must not interfere with your official duties. Similarly, you can't use your supervisor's resources without their explicit advance permission. And your supervisor may be happier if there's some chance of involving them in your outside projects. But ultimately, how you use your own time is your own business. (Any supervisor who tells you otherwise, or insists that you don't have "your own time", is simply abusing you. Run.)

  • 1
    I agree partly. I would say, however, that if there is substantial overlap between your “day” work and your “own time” work, it may be unethical (unless you get approval for your outside work). To give one example I’m familiar with, a staff researcher in a French institution is not allowed to do consulting on matters related to his own work, without explicit authorization from his employer. There are exceptions (“intellectual work”: books, software, some stuff like that).
    – F'x
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 15:46
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    Ah, I see the difference. In my field, research is "intellectual work".
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 15:50
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    Nice one. To expand: “intellectual work” is the translation of a French legal term, “œuvres de l'esprit”, which in fact does not cover one can consider intellectual work (without the quotes). My point is: there are limitations to what you can do in your free time, depending on your contract and your jurisdiction. Better safe than sorry. That's all. Some exaggerated example: if your day job is being a researcher at the WeCureCancer chemicals company, and you discover a new anti-cancer molecule one evening in your basement, you can hardly expect to be allowed to patent it for yourself.
    – F'x
    Commented Oct 15, 2012 at 18:21
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    And this exactly is why I work in academia, and not for the WeCureCancer chemicals company.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 18, 2012 at 22:14
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    And this is exactly why I don't work in a field where people fight over patents. Even in France, the mere suggestion that a PhD student or postdoc in mathematics or theoretical computer science might be legally forbidden from working with someone other than their advisor would be considered offensive. (At least, so I infer from the French PhD students and postdocs I've worked with.) It may very well be the law, but sometimes the law is an ass.
    – JeffE
    Commented Oct 20, 2012 at 3:17

If you are perfectly honest with all parties involved, then it shouldn't be a problem. Everyone involved knows where they stand.

One small point. In the UK, post-doc positions are funded by grant income. It would be strange if a post-doc had enough "free time" for other duties.


Let me give an answer from my own viewpoint - that of someone who hires and 'supervises' postdocs on a regular basis (in my field, mathematics).

I consider that a postdoc coming to my group comes for two reasons: (a) to bring new knowledge to our group, and (b) to learn things from our group. Both are good for the postdoc and good for the group - everybody profits from this arrangement. Learning things from our group is best done in close collaboration with the supervisor (me), while contributing to the group often benefits from a much wider scope.

So I tell my postdocs that I expect them to work half of their time on the project they are formally appointed for, and the other half on something of their own choosing - and I suggest that for this part they might also look for other connections within our group or department.

What this means for the OP is (as has already been said): discuss it with your supervisor, and ask yourself the question whether the 'outside' collaboration might also have benefits for your supervisor.

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