I am in my third year of funding of an F32 NRSA postdoc fellowship (one month into my final year). My project is nearly complete and ready for publication, however, my sponsor/PI wanted another postdoc in the lab to conduct a few biochem assays for the project.

Over time, I have been cut out of my own project. My PI now feels that the paper is not near submission, and would like my project to be a "co-project" with this favored postdoc. My relationship with this mentor has started to deteriorate since that point. Favorite postdoc complains constantly about me to the PI, even though I remain positive and productive.

Recently at a meeting with PI and favorite postdoc, I was accused by the other postdoc of not properly analyzing a certain data set. In my defense I explained how I analyzed the data and why I employed the method I did. My mentor then cut me off and fired me from my position, citing that I had a bad attitude. I felt set up.

She asked me in a follow up email to give over all stocks, reagents, notebooks, and data files so the other postdoc can finish the project. I am to look for work, and I do not need to report to lab anymore.

What I don't understand is that this project is funded by an NIH fellowship in which I am the PI listed on the grant, can she give this project to someone else and take my three years of data away from me? Also, I had a year of salary/work coming to me, I was going to use this year to publish my work and apply for jobs but now I'm screwed. I was a free employee to the PI since my salary was covered, so I don't understand her actions. Any advice?

  • 6
    First of all, it is your work and paper too. What does your contract with the university says about that? Do you have a contract with the university, or only with the funding agency?
    – Alexandros
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 17:12
  • 14
    I know next to nothing about NIH, but I highly doubt that a professor (or really anybody that isn't the NIH) can reassign a project that you are listed as a PI on. If things really went down as a you said, I am not sure whether the professor can even fire you, let alone decide to reassign the resources given to you by an external entity. You may look into legal representation.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Sep 6, 2015 at 18:27
  • 4
    I don't know much about this type of postdoc, but this seems unethical if they were to take your name off the paper entirely. I would check with someone in your field that possibly has your back instead of any bias. Say, your PhD advisor, if your PhD advisor is from a different university. She/he may be able to advise as you're not getting any feedback here.
    – T K
    Commented Sep 9, 2015 at 10:28
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    This feels incomplete -- firing someone in most jurisdictions is not that easy. It would certainly involve the HR department, and probably some formal caution period. You aren't clear on who holds the grant -- you refer to your boss as "the PI", then say that you are "the PI listed on the grant" -- is it your money or theirs? The NIH probably has rules on transfer of the grant, and if you are the grant holder then the department would not be keen to lose the money. This is not the sort of decision one capricious person can make instantaneously, so the story is surely incomplete somehow. Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 9:24
  • 2
    I second that this feels incomplete. From the surface, it seems unethical but let me play devil's advocate: your tone suggests a bias, it seems you are already certain that it is an issue of nepotism, this might not be true, and even if it is then it is a diffferent case altogether - you'll need hard evidence to support your case. You also say that you had been cut off (including by your mentor) where they cite your bad attitude, what if they can produce convincing evidence to support their claim? Again, what you think might not be the true.
    – OK-
    Commented Oct 5, 2015 at 17:05

3 Answers 3


Generally speaking, it is VERY difficult to fire anyone in academia. Speaking as a professor with a postdoc of my own, there are generally negotiated contracts between the university and the postdoc. Faculty and the university can get in trouble if they violate the terms of that. I highly suggest you talk to your HR person to see if they was all above board. They will be able to tell you if any of the terms were violated.

Futher, NIH funding, like other pots of government funding, is a contract between the government organization and the institution, not the individual. That being said, that is frequently overlooked for things like professors leaving one university to go to another and then taking their funding with them. I would strongly suggest you get a copy of the exact contract between NIH and your institution. There might be some language in there that can help you.


I do not know about the work arrangements in the U.S. and speak purely from my experience in the UK.

In the UK postdocs (often called Research Fellows or Research Associates) are employed by the University. Their salary can come from "their" grant (i.e. the postdoc is also P.I. on this grant), from their Prof's grants (Prof is P.I.), or directly from the University. The postdoc "reports to" their Line Manager, which can be their Prof or Head of Department. However, their employer is the University, and the only the University can fire them.

Needless to say, that the terms of employment should be fully described in your contract, including the right to access the workplace, and conduct the activities related to your work. They also describe the conditions when your employment can be terminated.

My suggestion is to arrange a few meetings: with your Head of Department, with a member of your trade union, and with the University HR. Try to clarify the situation and determine the status of your Prof's words. You may find out that they are "just words" and do not have any legitimate power. This will not solve your problem completely, but probably will allow you to negotiate a more independent role in the project and the publications which come out of it.


Here is the issue, while your fellowship does have your name on it, it was principally awarded for several reasons 1) your CV suggested that you were competent to complete 2) Your PI had a track record both in the topic of the proposed research and they have committed to supplying the supplies, equipment and other needed support to do the project. Yes, your fellowship pays for your salary, but that covers only a fraction of what it will cost to complete and publish the work. Also, it is likely that the professor had data which laid the foundation for your project, which preceded you. The NIH therefore technically considers the project as belonging to the professor. I dont know why the professor now wants to add another person to the project, but I suspect it is because the project is not moving fast enough. Maybe there is competition out there that might publish first, or maybe they need a paper NOW so that they can get a grant which will keep the lab open. I suggest you discuss your concerns with the professor, but keep in mind the project belongs to them and not you.

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