I am a postdoc with a double affiliation (I belong to two groups in different departments but same institution). As such, I work under main supervisor A and under secondary supervisor B, meaning that most of my funding comes from A, who also is officially appointed as my superior. I work mostly on common projects between A and B, but also on A's and B's independent projects, and some of my own stuff.

I am currently working towards further independence, which is in principle the purpose of a postdoc. This involves participating in grant writing and decision making, for example choosing which conferences to go, journals to publish, more flexibility in the approach to problem solving, etc.

Recently, I got funding to hire two people from a successful grant I wrote with A. I was responsible for designing most of the scientific part, as well as risk management, scheduling, etc. Because of my involvement in the project preparation, A wants me to also be involved in interviewing and selecting applicants. We also decided that the most convenient way to articulate these positions (in terms of accessing resources) is for them to be in a double-affiliation scheme between A's and B's group, just as me. Obviously, B agreed to this since they benefit from two new appointments at no (money) cost to them. And obviously B was also invited to participate in the interviews and selection process.

Already after the applicant selection has started, B seems to be making somewhat erratic applicant assessments which go against mine and A's judgement. We thought this was very strange because their assessments did not appear to make much sense to us, until B eventually openly added that my opinion should not be taken into account. At this point the whole story put together seems to point to the direction that B basically wants to undermine my input in the decision making process.

This is not an isolated incident. B has also been increasing the control that they exert over my work. I get the feeling that B somehow feels threatened by my increasing scientific independence and somehow wants to let me know "what is my place". Incidentally, and probably adding to the problem, B is not much more senior than me and is trying to establish their research group.

How can I defuse this situation such that I do not burn bridges with B: a bad relation with B could hurt my chances to progress in B's department. At the same time, I want to progress in my independence, and this obviously involves being part of personnel selection and project design.

  • 1
    Have you discussed this with A? If so, what did A say? Oct 11, 2015 at 14:47
  • @PatriciaShanahan Yes. A backs me up and agrees with my assessment of the situation, but they are also in an awkward position and will try to handle this in as diplomatic a way as possible. Oct 11, 2015 at 14:53
  • 3
    IMHO, either that gets solved over a couple of beers, or it won't be solved at all. If someone is that easily threatened, it is not a good idea to be around him... More than likely that nothing positive will ever come out of that.... Oct 11, 2015 at 18:47

1 Answer 1


As I and others have said many times in this forum, the appropriate method to resolve such problems is communication.

It doesn't help anyone if everyone just interprets each others words and behavior without any factual knowledge what they really mean. Write B an email with content such as

Dear B,
I've given the issue of how we try to hire our graduate students for
project X some thought, and I think we're pulling in slightly different
directions. I think it would be good if we could exchange a few
ideas to make sure we're on the same page with this.

Would you be available for lunch on Thursday to talk this over?

Point being that you make implicit assumptions on why B behaves the way he does. Your assumptions may make sense, or they may not -- I suspect the latter, given that you call his actions "erratic", "feeling threatened", "wants to undermine" you. This is not how most people behave. Most people have very rational reasons to behave the way they do, but you may simply not know what these reasons are, and you will not find out if you don't talk it over in a frank conversation between colleagues.

I would suspect that ultimately both of you have the same goal, namely making this research collaboration a success, because that is in the interest of both of your careers. On the other hand, "putting someone in their place" is not in either of your interest (in particular, not in the interest of B either if it jeopardizes the collaboration). That would imply that you ascribe B's actions to the wrong motivations, and it is on both of you to clear things up.

  • Thanks for your answer. I fully agree with you that communication is key. However, I strongly disagree with you that people (especially most people) make decisions based on rational reasons. This is true even for big decisions such as buying a house and there is much research on it one Google search away for anyone interested. I am not making implicit assumptions, and this is not solely my assessment since A fully agrees with me. We have also met in person with B and the meeting has confirmed every bit of what I wrote. B's reasoning was erratic and improvised. Oct 13, 2015 at 5:57
  • @confusedpostdoc -- you cannot go through life believing that people make erratic decisions that are not in their best interest. We would not be able to work together in groups if that were the problem. And it's simply not the case that people purposefully shoot themselves in the foot with their careers. They may have different incentives, and maybe they do not correctly understand the system in which they operate. In either case, it is for you to find out what B's incentives are, and maybe for A to explain to B how the system works. Oct 13, 2015 at 11:45
  • Otherwise you acknowledge that you are dealing with a madman (in the literal sense of the word) and in that case there is simply nothing you can do about it. But, even if it were true, assuming that someone acts erratically and against their own interest is not a productive approach. If that's what you believe, then the problem is as much with you as with B. Oct 13, 2015 at 11:47
  • @confusedpostdoc I suppose it goes without saying, but it would be a mistake to allow some rando's view of human nature to guide you here. Talk to A (he/she seems like an ally), think about your options -- you'll figure it out.
    – abcd
    Oct 13, 2015 at 16:11

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