I am supervising a research group. Each year, our institution offers several four years postdoc positions, and one year ago I told a friend of mine to apply to it because we work in very similar fields and I thought there would be a lot of synergy. She got the position, but after these 12 months she refuses to do almost anything I tell her to.

At the beginning I waited, since we are friends and I did not want to trouble our friendship, but at some point I realized that she uses our good relationship as an excuse for not doing anything at all, and from the other side, it is hard for me to tell her that she is doing wrong. Anyway, in the last 2 weeks we have had some words, and I told her that she must respect her work conditions and work in our projects. She says she has never done that, since she feels pressure, and that she works better starting and choosing all projects by herself without any indication from me or any other supervisor. In those projects she does not even count me in for co-authorship and sometimes never tells me what she is doing. In her project proposal it was stated "I will contribute to the group's research lines and adapt to it" and in her contract it was written the same. So it is clear to me that she is going against these conditions. I have talked with her about the situation but she refuses to agree and says that I am wrong and that she deserves respect since she feels like a very important scientist.

I want to solve this situation but I feel dialogue does not work here anymore. Scenarios I see are:

  1. I set up a meeting with her and the head of the department; here she knows she will be in real trouble,
  2. I forget about her completely to avoid headaches, but I am responsible for her and need to report her output from time to time, so I could be in trouble if she does nothing,
  3. ....

So, what would you suggest to do in this situation?


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    There is a point to what @CapeCode is trying to say here, I think. Your question is a superposition of two questions: 1) how to deal with superiority/leadership with a friend (or something along those lines). and 2) how to deal with a postdoc who doesnt follow the contract. The first point is very personal, whereas the second can easily be dealt with by a personal meeting, or via the HR department if you wanna go the more formal route. – posdef Jun 1 '17 at 9:47
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    Short answer: Business is business. Friendship is friendship. Don't mix them up. – scaaahu Jun 1 '17 at 9:51
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    In mathematics, a Postdoc position is supposed to be the time when the researcher starts working independently. I don't know how it is in your field, but for me a postdoc wanting to work independently would be a good postdoc. – Nick S Jun 1 '17 at 12:03
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    @sgf If they work independently well and produce result, then yes. But again, this probably depends of area. Math is different. – Nick S Jun 1 '17 at 12:37
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    @NickS in short: Math is very different. Almost all other STEM subjects you get a grant, a job, a salary to perform a specific research. Your supervisor pays you from her/his grant to help a specific project. Special snowflake grants are rare, and even those have some obligation to do research along a topic and to make progress reports to supervisors. – Greg Jun 1 '17 at 18:30
up vote 21 down vote accepted

It IS a common situation, although there a two parts here: One is work related, she is employed, you are her supervisor, she is not doing her job, you should act in an appropriate way.

The other one is research related, she is producing results (although not together with you), so that might be a criterion to leave her alone. Once again, you shouldn't decide this on your own.

All in all, I would suggest to first talk with the head of department in an informal way, maybe don't even mention her name (unless it is obvious who you are talking about), ask how to proceed. Maybe she produces enough results to allow for a change of contract, giving her more freedom to do her own projects? Maybe she is just lazy and should be fired before getting you into trouble? Either way, you should act before it is too late and you are held responsible for whatever happens or does not happen.

up vote 24 down vote

Your additional information that you put under the comment section and I think it should be placed in Question also, is that post-doc is paid for by the University, not paid by you/from your grant. So you are not PR, you are an advisor. Nick S, pointed out something that is not specific for mathematics, also physics, material science, applied science, engineering and some types of medicine (biomedicine), I will quote him

a Postdoc position is supposed to be the time when the researcher starts working independently. I don't know how it is in your field, but for me a postdoc wanting to work independently would be a good postdoc.

Dan Fox also pointed out very common thing

A postdoctoral supervisor's primary responsibility is to help the postdoc develop into an independent researcher, if the postdoc is not already an independent researcher. The notion that a postdoc should just take orders and be another cog in a big machine is sad. So is the notion that a postdoc who independently obtains interesting results should add the nomical supervisor as a coauthor.

At my university, it is explicitly written in contract that mentor/advisor needs to be the corresponding author of a paper from a postdoc. I am aware that some contracts don't have this clause, and they can be purely independent. However, if this is the case with her contract, you should stop giving her any resources. If she is not dependable on your resources and still yields some kind of results that are publishable, I am sorry to tell you this, but according to info that you provided in your question, she is in the right.

You need to report progress as it is to head and to above you body. You need to be honest with people that are above you that you don't have any control over her and that you don't know direction of her investigation. Does she know you need to write a report about her progress? I think if she knew that she was evaluated, she would tell you how far in research and what she is doing now. Again you should be more precise about the content of her contract. As far as I know, contracts with universities are very liberal and give a lot of freedom to the postdoc.

It's unfortunate that you have let it run to 12 months, so that you cannot use the usual probation procedure, which is meant to deal with things like that from an employment perspective. If this were still during the probation period, you could refuse probation (or extend the period) on grounds that she is not fulfilling her contractual requirements.

If the contract is not for a full 4 years, but for 2+2 years, you could terminate the engagement after 2 years and/or suggest this to her.

But after probation, sacking her would

  1. require a nasty and involved University-internal process of performance management
  2. make the University and you vulnerable to being sued
  3. damage your and your University's reputation
  4. likely ruin her career for good
  5. definitely ruin your friendship

So sacking is not worth it for just 3 more years.

What else could you do? I suggest

  1. Keep talking to her regularly about her and your projects. In a research group, this can be naturally arranged by having regular (weekly) meetings of the whole group, where attendence is compulsory and each weak another member reports on their work (or on a conference they have recently attended) etc.
  2. Don't consider her as a 'slave worker' (who does what you tell her), but try to support her projects. The best young researchers thrive when they have sufficient freedom to develop their own research agenda and are supported by experienced scientists.
  3. Try to have at least one common research project with publications co-authored by both of you (and possibly others).
  4. You have one last trump: reference letters. Point out that if you don't know her research well, you cannot really write supporting reference letters. She will know that failing to obtain a good reference from you may well end her academic career.
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    As a postdoc myself I agree fully with the strategies yet remarking that on (4) no everyone needs reference letters to move on with their academic careers. In my country you just apply for professorship without any need for written recommendations, and if hired, you're a professor for life. – Scientist Jun 20 at 13:31

There are various ways a post-doc - supervisor relationship can be symbiotic. The postdoc can benefit from the position in a few different possible ways, for example

  • stimulating discussions with colleagues, and seminars

  • guidance or at least a sounding board for her projects

  • the opportunity to participate in someone else's project, as an apprentice

  • having an office, and access to the library, lab and computing resources

  • learning academic people skills (by example, counterexample, and by trying things out)

  • learning how to mentor less advanced colleagues

  • adding to her publications list, thanks to her affiliation with the department and group, and thanks to the mentoring and perhaps co-authoring she's enjoying

The group and the supervisor can benefit from having the postdoc be part of the group in a few different possible ways, for example

  • the postdoc takes her turn at running experiments and maintaining the lab

  • the postdoc brings glory and prestige to the department through her publications and conference presentations

  • the postdoc does her share in organizing workshops and picnics

  • the postdoc shows an interest in others' work; her enthusiasm is supportive, and her critical eye helps others improve

One doesn't need all of the above to occur in each individual postdoc.

I wonder which of these, if any, you'd be able to check off for this postdoc?

A postdoc position is indeed a time for the bird to still be in the nest to some extent, but to start to fly and hop around more independently. If you find that the relationship between this postdoc and the group is out of balance, then you may want to negotiate with her. The best way to do this may be by offering at least two options for her to choose among.

This way of looking at the situation will probably be more successful than thinking in terms of Is she following the terms of the contract. After all, there's a difference between a lab assistant and a research postdoc.

You can certainly lay down some groundrules and common expectations for everyone in the group. It may be best to allow for multiple ways for individuals to fit into them. Let's take the example of keeping you apprised of what she's working on, and what progress she has made. You could say, for example, in an email, followed up by an in-person conversation (or the other way around if you prefer):

Lisa, in our lab we don't just play solitaire. Interaction among group members is the glue that keeps our group healthy. But not everybody keeps in touch with the group in the same way. Some group members like to chat informally with colleagues in the break room. Some are introverts and like to send email updates. Some like to give informal seminars from time to time, sharing what they've been working on. Some like to keep in touch with everybody in the group, and some prefer to interact one on one with the P.I. or with one or another fellow student or postdoc. Those are just some examples. Everybody has to find what works best for them. I'd like to ask you to think about how you can contribute to the cohesiveness that gives our group its character.

Then change the subject to something completely different.

But circle back (within a week) and ask her if she's thought about how she'd like to contribute to the team feeling.

Your university may offer some management workshops. When these are well done, they can be rewarding and surprisingly helpful.

It all comes down to where the money is coming from and it will depend on the HR requirements of your University. If she is paid by you on your funding her job is to complete the project that is funded. In the US this is very clear as the effort is reported on grants. If she is an employee of the university and you don't pay her, you have no obligation to give her your own funding for her project. She has to pay for her own supplies, so if she wants to be independent she has to find her own money. As a young PI on a very strict tenure track I have to have very little patience for people who are unproductive because they waste time and grant money. That she's taking advantage of your friendship is particularly troubling...

I think how much the postdoc should be independent and how much she shares the result with you depend on the source of money, and written or non-written mutual agreement. If her salary comes from your research money, and the contract says she is a part of your (bigger) project, she has a duty to spend her time (at lease some reasonable amount of time) to accomplish the goal of the project and report/discuss result to/with you. If she is paid by her own grant/scholarship or is paid by university, she may have more freedom on her project. But it'd be still beneficial for her to work with you and collaborate (and share result with you by co-authering). However, what makes me puzzled is that she doesn't want to discuss with you and share the result (and authorship) with you: If this is always the case, there is no reason for you to hire (whether you pay or not) her. Even if you don't pay her, if she doesn't collaborate with you nor shares, you're wasting your time and resource which you might have used to collaborate with others otherwise.

Assuming her goal is to become a professor or independent researcher like you, she might be in a pressure of proving herself through publication and research independence. She might expect also an authority equivalent to yours even though it's a wrong expectation for her position as postdoc.
I think it's worth addressing these issues and be on the same page as far as expectations before you fire her. Whether it's personal relationship or leadership, it's very important to synchronize the expectations and communicate. Without being emotionally hurt, I believe you can point out the expectation discrepancies between you and your friend and be clear about that you can help her to achieve her goal (e.g. by helping her to get mentored grant for postdocs) and give her independence which amount reasonable to both of you, and in return you expect that she will share the result (and authorship) on her independent projects (you deserve it as a give-and-take since you help her to keep the affiliation, provide resource and help her to grow) as well as contribute/collaborate on your projects. I'd make the argument more win-win than threatening her. It's also a good idea discussing with your colleague and department before and while you talk with her- you may approach them to get some leadership/communication advice on your situation rather than to accuse her. Keep them posted while you talk with your friend (and document the procedure/evaluations/key conversations if possible). When you have gone through all reasonable efforts and she still doesn't get it, you have grounds and witnesses for firing her, so don't need to worry about a backfire. It's easier said than done, but try to be proactive and win-win. Good luck.

Consider the following: while many people see postdocs similar to PHDs there is a simple difference: you are paid 100% to work for your employer. It's nice of you manage to get research done in the right direction, but not necessary (unless you have some independent funding/sholarship which allows you to do what you want).

About your friendship: If you dont manage to recover you work relationship, your friendship will also turn sour. It's better to try to recover the work relationship and see if she accepts the following and you can be still be friends.

Points to explain to her (you can do this in a friendly way like: "Sorry, but i have to protect the interests of this group and myself. And I would like to help you in achieving better, for which collaboration is necessary".):

  • An interesting aspect is that once she puts your group as an affiliation on the paper, you are able to call the journal one the article is published and most likely cause a retraction by saying "this research was not approved and checked by our group, and we are not affiliated with it" (which seems to me a perfectly true statement). Maybe in the end it goes trough ater a few iterations, but the timing could be a problem for a postdoc.

  • If she publishes without affiliation, you can sue her for fraud if she worked during the hours you paid for or used material provided by your group (and you can cause a retraction)

  • Explain to her that she will get no resources if she does not comply.

  • Explain to her that you can not give her a good reference under these circumstances.

  • On her own, she seems not to be super-productive either. She is there 12 months and you did not mention that she is visibly involved with any progressing research. Explain to her that this probably would not end well for her anyway.

  • Asking her how she feels and that you have the impression that she does not react to some pressure in the way which would be best for her- point out to her to seek counseling. (I had a colleague suffering from a psychological problem with very similar symptoms). If she agrees, set a timescale after which you revisit the topic.

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    "once she puts your group as an affiliation on the paper, you are able to call the journal one the article is published and most likely cause a retraction" Not at all. For this to happen, there would need to be an official policy which requires authors to have their research approved by their institution. I have never heard of such a policy. – lighthouse keeper Jun 5 '17 at 7:46
  • Let's say i know a postdoc who actually took a lawyer, and for research done within the group the lawyer told to her that this was the case (Germany, federal research). The "maybe it goes trough" part of my comment was that if the research is not done within the group, the journal could be fine with it, but i am not sure about the affiliation usage - there must be a way for an employer to state that somebody does not speak as you employee, but as a private person. – Sascha Jun 5 '17 at 8:16
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    Interesting, I wonder if the lawyer gave more details on the legal foundation of this opinion. In many aspects, academia is very different from a "regular" workplace, in particular since there is the idea of academic freedom. If an academic institution can enforce a right to approve all publications by their academic personnel, this seems to contradict this idea. – lighthouse keeper Jun 5 '17 at 8:25
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    Academic freedom does not mean that you can do what you want and get paid, but that you (as an institution) are not prohibited by the government to do research. The power of the institution is transferred to Professors/PIs, who are responsible for the research (standards, ethics etc.). – Sascha Jun 5 '17 at 11:05
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    Yes, but the point is that is you are paid on a general postdoc for a given project, whatever you do is theirs, not yours. It's different if you have personal scholarship, obviously. But the Question was about working in a program/project. And there the PI is the primary source of decision. Not that I like it, but if fund were misdirected to other projects, the PI will be held accountable. (and yes, there has been work which i did as postdoc just for the purpose of reaching a goal set by the project) – Sascha Jun 5 '17 at 14:58

I will write here from the standpoint of a postdoc who is likely to act in a similar manner. Perhaps there is something in what I state that could be of any help.

I have always worked independently. I had the same advisor from undergrad until MD who was one very open-minded, humane, slow-paced scientist. As a PhD student I worked on an interdisciplinary interface under the supervision of a professor that had little to offer, intellectually. As a result, I brew my own set of collaborations, projects, methods. I just need a lab and resources to do my experiments. Perhaps "your" postdoc is someone with a similar background?

There are too many labs nowadays that treat postdocs as technicians but still there will be those willing to host an early-career independent scientist. Likely you and your friend misestimated your lines in this scheme, and this needs to be readjusted.

My advice is that first you decide whether you'd like to work alongside this person or not. Because this postdoc will never work for you or anyone. You cannot change that: it is too late.

My second advice is to figure out whether this postdoc is really not doing anything in the lab or just not working with what you'd like her to. How to react will depend on understanding this very clearly.

Thus, if you decide you do not want to work together with this person, and apparently she is just fooling around the laboratory while consuming resources, just tell her exactly that. The situation should be quite self-explanatory. It doesn't mean you need to become enemies: there must be a reason for which you don't want to work together and/or no work is being done at all. You can focus on that point, while pushing to the best possible solution (i.e. postdoc moving elsewhere). A fully-blown bum/sociopath may require bold actions. A clearly lost & depressed individual may need your support much more as a friend than as a workmate.

Now, if you can see the postdoc is engaged in projects you feel like you'd also like to work on, you must do your best to get directly involved. Minding that you're just a collaborator and seeking to improve the project regardless of hierarchy or personal interests. Be prepared to end up in the Acks section of some paper while earning co-authorship (position not pre-defined) on something else. Then may you be able to do the best out of this situation conflicted interests towards future gains.

I really don't think forcing the department hierarchy or lawyers on this kind of postdoc will yield positive gains for either side.

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