Currently I am searching for a regular postdoc position. I visited a potential advisor some time ago. I had a good impression of the advisor except for one thing: he introduced one of his current postdoc to me and half-jokingly threatened to fire the current postdoc (said in my face and to the face of that postdoc) if the said postdoc couldn't improve his productivity.

Later the said advisor encountered funding problem and cannot hire me. Recently I asked him about the current status of his funding, he replied he was considering firing that postdoc so that he would have one open position.

I understand that, compared to PhD, postdoc positions emphasize performance much more. But telling a potential postdoc candidate about firing a current postdoc? I'm a bit scared. It sounds like a warning to me as well: if I get hired as a postdoc to replace the fired postdoc, I will get the same treatment. If the current postdoc survives and I get hired as well, this could create tension between the current postdoc and me. Is this something an advisor should tell his potential postdoc candidate? What does this tell about the advisor's personality?

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    Yikes. I'd put this firmly within the 'unprofessional' category. Even if it was semi-facetious, it's a red-flag. Concerns about productivity are best addressed in private (with the postdoc directly, or maybe with colleagues on a confidential basis). In front of a stranger? Yeah, I'd call that a warning.
    – trikeprof
    Dec 1, 2016 at 15:03
  • Another aspect would be to check what happened with previous postdocs working for the pi in the past. You can also ask them directly by e-mail.
    – Nikey Mike
    Dec 1, 2016 at 18:39
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    If you are still considering taking this position, you could reach out to the current postdoc and say, "I wanted to ask you about a comment Dr A made during my visit back in August. Do you remember, he sort of joked about firing people when they're not productive enough? I'm not used to hearing professors talk that way, and I wanted to ask you if it was entirely a joke. Was I off-base in feeling uncomfortable? Does he make 'jokes' like that often?" Dec 1, 2016 at 21:46
  • It's definitely unprofessional and should be a big warning for you. I recommend you to contact the other postdoc for his side of the story. My adviser also complains about my productivity and threatens to fire me, although in private: academia.stackexchange.com/q/80370/23352
    – anubis
    Dec 1, 2016 at 23:30
  • @aparente001Great suggestion!
    – wdg
    Dec 2, 2016 at 1:49

2 Answers 2

  • Can a PI fire a postdoc? Surely they can, and sometimes they really have to do so in order to save research money and do the best for the group.
  • Can PI signal to the postdoc that their performance is under review? Yes. This is an honest thing to do. It gives postdoc a chance to improve their performance and fix things, before guns will fire.
  • Is it a good idea to tell this as a joke? Absolutely not. The job contract is a serious personal matter. The discussion should be private and professional, not public and semi-serious.
  • What can we tell about PI's personality? He cares about the performance of the group and he tries to manage it. He doesn't know/feel what is a professional way of doing it. Perhaps, he struggles to maintain a distance and tends to become a bit too friendly with people in his group. As a result, it is hard for him to communicate difficult decisions and unpleasant messages and he tries to disguise them as a joke.
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    I don't think it has anything to do with "struggl[ing] to maintain a distance and tend[ing] to become a bit too friendly". There's nothing wrong with being friendly with one's subordinates. The problem is having what looks like an inability to tell what circumstances are appropriate for discussing serious and confidential subjects, and what tone to take when discussing those subjects. Dec 1, 2016 at 21:53
  • I much agree with the first three points, but in the last one the bottom line seems to me a too nice interpretation of the supervisor's behaviour. Dec 1, 2016 at 21:54
  • @DavidRicherby "The problem is [...] inability to tell what circumstances are appropriate..." --- Yes, that's what I meant when I said "He does not know what is a professional way of doing it". Dec 1, 2016 at 22:01
  • This is quite mildly put. This is a major red flag on the part of the PI. Importantly, we don't know the context of exactly how productive or unproductive the postdoc in question is, but I think it's a major red flag either way. May 3, 2022 at 20:28

This seems it says quite a bit about the adviser's personality. Now he may have just had a conversation with this other postdoc, but even so it's a bit unprofessional to mention to you that he's thinking of firing him. Some academics like things the way they like them and there's no getting around it. I think you have to weigh the merits of the position against working for someone like this. You might also want to try to factor in whether or not you'll be the next threatened postdoc. If those latter two things do not appeal to you, do not apply for the position. If instead you see them as a challenge that you want to take on then go for it!

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