I have recently (6 months) left academia after a three year postdoc at a high ranking university. During my time there, I became the lab's statistics guru having carried out analysis on a lot of our labs data, both my data, and others.

I was let go due to lack of funds, but my previous supervisor is now asking me to carry out a number of analyses on new data for publication, and to finish one or two papers I did not finish during my employment.

So my questions are:

  • How do I graciously refuse to touch others data? I wrote the data analysis pipeline, but am not interested in maintaining and rerunning it every time new results appear. It's available on github and well commented, just no one else in the lab knows how to do anything with computers. The actual running is easy for the most part, it is "small" modifications that are causing me trouble. I've offered to train others (and trained an undergrad who has also since left the lab), but the amount of training to teach someone python from scratch is a little daunting.

  • How to finish up my own papers? I'm currently contracting to industry at rates 3-6 times what I was paid during my postdoc - my supervisor is asking for me to work for free, or maybe my previous rate if he can get the money. This is a significant time sink, but I do feel obligated (and interested) to finish these off. What is a good pay rate to ask for? How do I do this without offending my supervisor?

Location is USA. The postdoc was a yearly contract, where an informal agreement was made to extend it to a 4th year, which had to be cancelled due to a loss of funding 4 months from renewal, thus the somewhat unorganized departure. In my heart of hearts, I'd like to continue in academia, but due to partner issues have to stay in the current location, making academia extremely unlikely. I'm currently undergoing the recruitment process for two different industry positions, as well as my contracting.

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    no one else in the lab knows how to do anything with computers, I hope that is a hyperbole.
    – gerrit
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:02
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    @gerrit Unfortunately, it may not be. Academia: the place you can get away with not having any idea of what a computer is! Nov 30, 2015 at 18:29
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    @gerrit I'm a software engineer. I expected all other software engineers to understand computers, Windows, etc. Turns out this is definately not the case...
    – Steve
    Nov 30, 2015 at 20:10
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    Is he planning to pay you for the work he's asking for?
    – corsiKa
    Nov 30, 2015 at 22:04
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    Am I reading correctly that you had 4 months warning and nobody asked you to train them on the software/data pipeline during that time?
    – stannius
    Dec 23, 2015 at 21:00

4 Answers 4


Since your reasons for wanting to finish your own papers are personal, then I think you should seriously consider doing the work for free. The obvious disadvantage is that you have to do it in your spare time (perhaps by deliberately not filling your schedule with contracts), but it has two benefits:

  • it forces you to assess whether you really, truly do want to finish them for personal reasons, and that these reasons alone justify your time.
  • it forces them to accept that you don't work for them, they are not your boss, that they cannot afford you, and you're involved on your terms now. This stops them expecting you to do whatever they ask as opposed to strictly only what you wish to do as a collaborator on the one or two papers in question. If you take their coin, you may not be able to hold this line.

It also means you only have to do the things that strictly need to be done by you, and as far as possible you can encourage other (paid) authors to pick up bulk of the work completing the paper. Of course if you were always the only author doing any actual work then "as far as possible" is "not at all".

However, if your reasons for wanting to finish the papers are professional (that is to say, you're hoping to get back into academia and want the credit) then, although it seems like a paradox, I think you should not do so unless you get paid at least at a plausible rate for the role, and preferably for a rate that takes into account any benefits that you're missing out on as an external temporary employee rather than a full-time postdoc. Chances are they can't afford this, so chances are it won't happen and you have to let those papers go. Either your supervisor considers them worth their time to finish, or not, you can let that decision out of your hands.

The reason is that if you want to do something for a living, you have to make sure it's paying for itself. Else you don't have a profession, you have a hobby of acting like someone else's employee and doing what they tell you as if they're your boss. You also give them no incentive to do what you want, which is to find the funds to rehire you, since you're doing the work anyway for nothing. It's tough to give up on a vocation, but if academia doesn't pay then you're better off paid in industry than as an unpaid academic, so be that. Or, if you think you can find an academic job elsewhere, focus on that job search and then, once you're stable again, figure out with your new employer whether and how you're going to finish the papers.

Depending on your attitude to work and pay in general, you might also consider whether you want to do unpaid work that they "should" pay someone else to do, and therefore you're contributing towards a job not existing where a job "should" exist. I'm not a fan at all of unpaid internships, but if you don't consider them a problem then fair enough.

How do I graciously refuse to touch others data?

First, it's rather cheeky of your ex-employer to even ask this, considering they let you go. However, on the principle that it's acceptable for anyone to ask anything provided they're prepared to accept no for an answer, say something like:

"I'm sorry, all I'm going to do is complete these 1 or 2 papers. I'm not available to maintain your software or train your staff."

This might mean that the software is no longer usable to them. But letting you go was their way of making this their problem and not yours. They can't hope to rely on your charity to reverse their funding shortage.

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    Thanks for this comment, I think this will be more or less my approach. I'll explain that until I am stably employed, I'm unable to help in any capacity, at which point I'll gladly work as a collaborator, rather than employee, on the parts of the research which are of interest to me. Depending on my workload, I'll see about charging for the non-interesting parts. Nov 30, 2015 at 22:11

The easiest way to do this is to politely inform your previous advisor that you no longer have the time to commit to the projects you were working on as a post doc. It is not your responsibility to train others in his lab, or to take on duties beyond what you're comfortable with.

One option to consider, if you're working on a "for hire" basis, is to offer the possibility of hiring you on a contract basis to do the work. You would then be able to set the scope and extent of the work, as well as your compensation. If your advisor was unwilling to accept the terms, it would put the refusal on him, and you'd be more or less "in the clear," so to speak.

As for the pay rate, you should probably select a rate that is between the academic and corporate rates, but leaning more toward the former—remember that academic pockets are typically not as deep as corporate ones.

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    I find it pretty unlikely that a postdoc who has just been let go for lack of funds is going to be rehired on a contract basis at a higher rate. At least not for long: maybe this is something for the supervisor to contemplate as a stopgap measure if the departure of the postdoc really brings his research to a screeching halt. Nov 30, 2015 at 14:10
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    @PeteLClark: That's pretty much what I had in mind—enough money to train someone else or to finish up a paper or two. But there's also a difference between not having the funds to pay someone for a year and not having any funds at all.
    – aeismail
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:22
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    @PeteL.Clark - While your observation is probably completely correct, it's also not really the OP's problem at all. The advisor is looking for work to be done, and it's completely within the OP's request payment for that work. The fact that there aren't funds is the advisor's problem.
    – eykanal
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:59
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    @PeteL.Clark - I think you've identified a source of frustration for post-docs everywhere. Any time the term "career advancement" is used in conjunction with "free labor", something's probably wrong. That said, if that's how it works in your field now, the OP would be shooting himself in the foot by not following common protocol.
    – eykanal
    Nov 30, 2015 at 15:54
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    Thanks for the comment. I think asking for any remuneration is likely to come off bad to most academics, but doing unpaid work for a previous employer who let you go would be completely unheard of in any industry job. Switching between the two is tricky. Nov 30, 2015 at 21:57

I am a little unclear about what it means for a postdoc to be "let go". Does this mean that you had a year-to-year contract funded by your supervisor's grant and he found out after three years that he didn't have enough money to keep you for another year? There's a sort of implied abruptness your choice of phrase, but I'm sure you know that many (most?) postdocs are three years or less. Certainly that's enough time for your supervisor to plan for the future of his work. Assuming that someone whom you've hired will continue to do that work after the end of their employment is...well, an assumption.

After reading your post I have one, key, question: you are now working in industry, not in academia. Are you looking to get back into academia, to have an industrial career, or are you not sure?

In my experience, the vast majority of the time when people leave academia for industry they really leave. In fact the famous mathematician Paul Erdos referred to people who left mathematics as having "died" (and thus also referred to people who had died as having "left"), and there is some insight behind this eccentric language. If you're doing a joint project with a student or postdoc and they "leave for industry", then in some ways it is as though they have died (and in others very much not, obviously); notoriously, it is not a good idea to leave such "dearly departed personnel" with work to do on projects; rather it sort of goes without saying that they will completely stop working on whatever they are doing and keep their authorship on all their partially completed projects (with the idea that it won't affect their career much either way, so why not be nice about it). So if you are done with academia then I think you can just communicate that to your supervisor. As I said before, if that's awkward for him it's really his fault rather than yours. If you left things in good working order on your departure, I think you can have a clear conscience.

On the other hand, if you want to continue to have an academic career then in my view your supervisor is giving you an opportunity by prompting you to write up your old projects and trying to involve you in new ones. That's exactly what you need to be doing to get back into a research-based academic job. In terms of how much to ask to get paid for that -- maybe things are different in your field, but to me that sounds a bit strange. On the one hand you were "let go" precisely because there wasn't available money to pay you so....how can there be enough available money to pay you? On the other hand professional academics usually do not work for hire: whatever they get paid is for "full time work", and to be honest about it, the payment for much of the hard work that is done in grad school and the years afterwards is the promise of a permanent academic job in the future. Whenever I collaborate with students or postdocs, they are "working for free" in the sense that if they write X more papers it has no effect on their salary.

I think you should figure out how much involvement you want to have in academia in the future. Since you now have an industrial job which is paying 3-6 times as much as your academic job, I think you're seeing most of the financial rewards there. I encourage you to stick with the academic work if and only if you foresee getting nonfinancial rewards from it. If you don't, don't be afraid to bow out, and don't overthink how to do that: just say that you are now working full time in industry.

  • In some places (such as University of Bristol, apparently), post-docs are often hired on an open-ended contract with the notification that they are let go if there is no more money to fund them. Although little difference in terms of job security, it makes a big difference when applying for a mortgage.
    – gerrit
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:05
  • @gerrit: What does open-ended mean? Annually, or that you could be "let go" at any time? (The idea of a postdoc applying for a mortgage is pretty out there to me, but to be sure there are more things on heaven earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy.) Nov 30, 2015 at 14:07
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    I mean that there is no end date specified in the contract. Instead, HR must send a notice of termination three months before whatever money salary is sourced from runs out. Supervisors and postdocs are encouraged to apply for funding to keep people employed when one project runs out (this is how I understood it when a colleague explained it to me). Note that I'm using postdoc loosely here to apply to any research-funded staff, i.e. any researcher on soft-money, including those who have obtained their PhD 10 or 20 years ago. Their actual job title may or may not include the word post-doc.
    – gerrit
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:10
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    @gerrit I can confirm that this model is very common in Switzerland. Most postdocs around here are essentially open-ended, with people staying 4+ years not being uncommon. If you have been in a lab for multiple years and don't get your contract renewed due to lack of funding, it certainly feels like being let go (even if this is not what technically happened).
    – xLeitix
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:14
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    @PeteL.Clark "Yes, the term postdoc is the most nebulous one in all of academia." As a postdoc, I can confirm this.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:16

If you can expect a co-authorship for this work (assuming that was the arrangement), then you might consider doing it to bolster your CV. You are presumably on the market for a job now, and having some more papers in the pipeline (submitted, under review, in press, etc) might be helpful to your future prospects. Paper publication doesn't pay your rent or feed your family, but doing this work for "free", especially if the papers are good, might lead to a better job down the line. If you have time between your contract gigs and job application preparation, you might consider it. It might be better to be working than to be doing nothing.

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    If OP is now in industry, he may not care much about co-authorship or bolstering his CV.
    – xLeitix
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:37
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    I agree, but I read the post as unclear on OP's current status. Contracting to industry didn't seem like the long-term goal.
    – Bill Barth
    Nov 30, 2015 at 14:55
  • Thanks for the comment, this is how I felt upon initially leaving, and how I imagine my ex-supervisor feels. After talking to my peers in industry, they are shocked that I would even consider unpaid work. Conversely, my peers in academia have called me a heartless mercenary for thinking of charging. There's a balance there somewhere... Nov 30, 2015 at 21:52
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    @user2031521Turn it around for a second, your former supervisor is asking you to do unpaid work which, while you're doing it, will actively impede you from doing what you need to do in order to sustain yourself. How are you ever the heartless mercenary in this? Sure, 'the work needs to get done', but your supervisor should have considered that before terminating you before terminating someone else. Also, he could have had you train someone up during the 'notice period' when he knew the funds were starting to run out. No matter how you slice it this is not your problem to solve.
    – Cronax
    Dec 1, 2015 at 9:00

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