No, postdoc, your fellowship doesn't give you a right to continued salary from the PI

Sep 17 2014 Published by under Postdoctoral Training

I got it mostly out of my system on Twitter but there IS a lesson in this idiocy from today. Do not EVER assume that just because [insert some assumption you made up inside your own head] that your postdoctoral mentor is going to continue to support you beyond some timepoint agreed upon explicitly. That time point may be established when you first join the lab, that time point may be adjusted. That timepoint may depend on forces outside of either party's control and change despite your best mutual intentions.

Do not assume!

No. There is no "usually". There is no "expect".

What there is, postdocs, is discussion.

Money to support you does not grow on trees, as much as one might like to fantasize about it:

Ok, sure. There are people who have unlimited funds to tap. Sounds fine to stipulate. Most people in the biomedical sciences do not. Most of them support trainees on research grant funds, if no fellowships are available. And those grant funds cannot be just stockpiled for three years waiting for the trainee to rotate off the training grant. The grant award, for the most part, is only somewhat guaranteed for 5 years. So assuming the postdoc on a fellowship comes in to work on a given project, its clock will be ticking during the fellowship. Three years of fellowship and three years of the "expected" payback and....uh-oh. It doesn't add up even under the perfect scenario.

so even though it is essentially impossible to make this guarantee to someone on a training fellowship..

The PI must take "financial responsibility". For how long?

Oh, a "year or two"? Is that all? Well I suppose that is better than the equal time DLister is calling for.

and why should the PI take this responsibility for postdoctoral stints past the fellowship duration?

Yeaaaah.

This may be correct for certain subfields. It may take you 5 years of postdoctoral work to get a paper. But 1) that's your choice and 2) you and the mentor should have had a decent discussion about this stuff before you joined the lab. You should have a mutual plan in place. Don't depend on some expectation that the PI will share your view or even have the capability of fulfilling his or her best intentions three years down the line.

Talk early, talk often.

And work as if you expect not to have a job in that lab past the most obvious end point. I.e., your fellowship end, the end of the grant that is funding you or the end of the "well I think it should be about a three year postdoc" conversation you had with the PI at the start.

Naturally at this point the conversation turns ad hominem and I am accused of being a horrible bastard of a PI.


That may be but I have explicit conversations with my postdocs all the time. About my view of their training arc when they start in my lab (3 years is the target, with some description of average duration being longer), about sources of funding (on starting with me, and as we go along), about upcoming funding cliffs (I've weathered more than one and less than 5 imminent lab-is-closing funding scenarios in my time) and about what results need to happen with which grant reviews along anticipated timelines for me to continue to keep them in the lab. I work to structure my lab so that no postdoc goes three years with no first-author pub in sight- that would be an abject failure within the sphere I operate. Total dereliction of my duty and/or complete failure to produce on their part. We have so far avoided this fate and I plan to continue this path. But things happen.

To recap: Don't. Bloody. Expect. Or. Assume. That. Your. PI. Can. Float. You. After. Your. Fellowship. Ends!

39 responses so far

  • Dr Becca says:

    I watched this conversation play out on twitter with great confusion and wonder. In what world is getting hired a guarantee of employment until YOU decide to move on?

    I had an F32 and when that was over, my PI graciously scraped together another year's worth of salary for me. But when that ran out, I was unemployed. It sucked, but never for a second did it occur to me that there was anything PI could or should have been doing differently. The work I'd been hired to do simply wasn't funded anymore, so it made sense that I had to go.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Also, you may just have to work on another project if that is where the $$$ in the lab resides. So if there's a new grant funding...you'll want to chat about that. Don't assume that you will be the postdoc that the PI has in mind for it....

  • E-roock says:

    Academics at all levels should have a 5 year plan. On it should be when you plan to start applying for which job, grant, award, promotion, etc. be aware of your field's seasonal flows of job market and deadline. Adjust plan as needed. No surprises. I admit to learning this the hard way.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Anyone who is funded by NIH grants should have an every year plan if you ask me.

  • pinus says:

    I always talk about funding. every year, we have a formal assessment of budget and outlook and where each person is getting paid. if any of them assume continuation, they are insane. open lines of communication are key.

  • Heck, us 100% soft-money folk supported by multiple grants have an every *month* plan.

  • Crystal Voodoo says:

    I had the exact opposite situation. My PI explicitly told me I had a job until June 2015. At the beginning of May the department secretary asked me if I realized I didn't have a job as of June 1. My PI had planned to use my impending career implosion as leverage to get the department to pay my salary and hadn't bothered to tell me. When I got another job (because rent is a thing) he was super pissed because I had undercut his negotiation with the department chair.

  • odyssey says:

    Apparently some postdocs are woefully (or willfully) ignorant of all things to do with lab funding. Le sigh.

  • E-roock says:

    I'm just sayin you need a long ish term outlook and what you do each season/month to hit those milestones. Should definitely be aware of grant deadlines that are beyond the current month. Targets for pub acceptance assuming 1 revise and 6-8 weeks of review each. Makes a 2 year grant/fellowship seem VERY short. This includes post docs & grad students ... disclosure that I learned the hard way.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    That's why I blog Odyssey.

  • DJMH says:

    Agreed the PD should not have *assumed* there was funding to continue but....isn't this a two-way conversation? I think if the PI did not have funds to keep the postdoc on, s/he should have said that, explicitly, at a couple of times. The tweets above make it sound as though the postdoc didn't know, which is at least 50% the PI's fault. And given that the PI is the only party who knows what the lab budget is, I think the fault lies more there, if the postdoc had no warning. (Obviously the situation may not have been that, just guessing from the tweets above, that the PD was surprised.)

  • Dave says:

    Kill the blooooody post-docs

  • Dave says:

    Heck, us 100% soft-money folk supported by multiple grants have an every *month* plan

    Yeh, no shit. Strolling around the corridors trying to find someone to pick up 20% of my salary is a daily ritual.

    Becausebillstopay!

  • dsks says:

    Yes, there has to be an ongoing conversation. My postdoc PI was always pretty clear on what the time frames were, and giving me a heads up when a possible crunch time was coming (need this grant renewed to keep you on, etc). Back-up options were also discussed should a faculty position not be secured before the music stopped, including worst case scenarios of moving into a collaborator's lab etc.

    Where I'm willing to bet things get tricky is when the PI is not certain they want to keep that particular postdoc on (perhaps regardless of funding). THAT conversation is a harder one to have, and the kind that PIs might be too inclined to put off until crunch time has arrived (perhaps even using an end to a certain project's funding as an objective reason for the lay-off... "It's out of my hands, see..."). I've seen a number of situations where I suspect this played into the surprise aspect of the revelation for the postdoc. Of course, we're responsible for our own careers ultimately, and it's only through regular conversation with one's immediate employer that one can get a feel for how the working relationship is going and what the future holds one way or the other.

  • becca says:

    And this is why it is incredibly morally corrupt for NIH to offer fellowships that aren't portable.

    "In what world is getting hired a guarantee of employment until YOU decide to move on?"
    A unionized one. A tenured one. A world in which the basic relationship between Labor and Capital is not skewed ridiculously to one side. (NB: Not saying we LIVE in this world, or any postdoc would be wise to behave as if we do... but really, how broken is it that you are implying another world is *unimaginable*???)

  • Industry Scientist says:

    When I started my postdoc I had to sign a form which stated I understood I had only four years of support and I could not remain at that institution longer than four years. This was actually very helpful in that it gave me a deadline and forced me to start applying for jobs after my first year. Took two and a half years of job hunting, but I finally got a position with six months left to spare.

    Sometimes a deadline is the best way of gaining foresight.

  • Spiny Norman says:

    "And this is why it is incredibly morally corrupt for NIH to offer fellowships that aren't portable."

    Absofuckinglutely. F32's should be 3 y renewable to 4 and fully portable.

  • clueless noob says:

    I thought F32's were portable. At least, there are some recent Type 7 F32's in Reporter.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I've have known of people moving F32s from one institution to another as well. so yeah, they are portable. If you do it within institution who would even really care? Your PO? not so long as you were reasonably productive and were in the domain of that IC

  • Wah Wah says:

    Great to see that everyone on here is so open and transparent. I sit on a budget committee and know that many PIs are not so open with their trainees. Have seen several occurrences where PD (or technician) did it right - had the conversation - and was given "optimistic" information about funding situation. Sometimes some other PI stepped up, sometimes the department cobbled together some money, but sometimes the PD was out on their ass. So should the PD expect a job as long as they like? Obviously not. But are they in a fundamentally weak position that can be easily taken advantage of by unreasonable PIs? Hell yeah.

  • drugmonkey says:

    ok so we now have two things on the table that may be of additional interest.

    "optimistic" information from a PI and the possibility that the PI is taking the easy way out when s/he wants to be rid of a postdoc for some reason.

    I would deduce that in either scenario, the PI might like to have the postdoc continue to work at the job until the last possible minute instead of slacking off in a pique. Or, presumably, instead of going out and getting a new job months before the money actually runs out.

    Is this so horrible? Should the PI risk even less productivity out of a bad postdoc as they slouch towards a departure date? Should the PI risk a good postdoc leaving several months early? A year even? just to give "fair warning"?

  • Wah Wah says:

    Is it crazy to suggest that a PI should never lie to the trainee - even in the interest of their own productivity?

  • DJMH says:

    DM, now you're just sounding like an outright douchebag. Especially given that for a postdoc to find a new position could easily take months, even a year, what with all the constraints about funding, location, spouses, etc.

    PIs should be as open and honest with their trainees as possible about funding issues. Many of them aren't, and the problem is that a postdoc has no way to know if there's money for another year or not, so it's totally asymmetric information.

  • NotAMillennial says:

    DM-- leaving aside the ethics of knowingly misleading people you're supposed to be mentoring, there are two huge potential issues for trainees in this case:

    1. Foreign trainees' ability to remain in the country may be dependent on their employment status. Not giving them time to make arrangements to keep themselves and their families on the right side of immigration law is unconscionable.

    2. Trainees paid from fellowships do not have earned income, do not pay into unemployment insurance, and are therefore unlikely to be ineligible for unemployment benefits. They don't have the legal protections of employees and shouldn't be treated as such with respect to termination practices.

  • rxnm says:

    Other than that, though, manipulating people and their careers to avoid irritation or awkward conversations is cool.

  • E-roock says:

    If the PD leaves before the money is out, isn't that exactly what the NCE is for? I doubt it's >25% of the annual DC, so you should be able to take that money and use it productively toward next year. Would the PD really slouch their way to the end date knowing that you will be writing LORs for a while?

  • E-roock says:

    As the end date approaches, don't they know they can still contribute to the lab in ways that would warrant co authorship .... I just don't think any sane person would act the way (I am reading) that you suppose here.

  • Idiot postdoc says:

    DM, in regards to your view of the training arc for a postdoc being 3 years, at least in your own lab, do you build in some flexibility, if possible wrt $$$, depending on the postdoc's productivity? You said it yourself, typically 3-5 years for a good paper, so if said postdoc is coming up on 3 years with good data and a promising story (lets say 3/4 complete, tough project, but which ones aren't?), and you have the money, where do you go from here? Is this an obvious answer? It didn't seem so from what you wrote earlier...

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I didn't say anything about "typical" or "good paper". I said if I don't have a plan where they are publishing in 3 years one or both of us is screwing up.

    My suggestion of training arc is an advance plan, mostly a minimum in my view and as I said, the key is ongoing assessment and discussion. Can't say I've ever booted a postdoc that was productive when there was $$ to support. Can't think why I would.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Whoa. "Lying"? "Intentionally misleading"? Who said anything about that? Being optimistic about a grant landing isn't a "lie". Nor is assuming the postdoc knows the fellowship is ending being "misleading". Again, the notion a PI owes an equal number of years to the fellowship is absurd.

  • Wah Wah says:

    DM - You're really off the deep end on this issue. I don't think the PI owes the PD anything more than openness about their financial situation and the creation of a realistic plan about how to move forward scientifically and financially. As the senior individual in the relationship, one who is presumably interested in mentoring the PD to become an independent scientist as opposed to simply extracting their labor, I believe that the PI should take the initiative in this respect. Excusing the PI of this obligation because their own personal productivity is at stake, as you seem to do above, is reprehensible. Unfortunately, it happens with regularity.

  • I just don't think any sane person would act the way (I am reading) that you suppose here.

    You don't think a sane post-doc would ever "slouch towards the finish line"? Hahahahahahah!

    I said if I don't have a plan where they are publishing in 3 years one or both of us is screwing up.

    That probably makes sense for squeezing out microturds in sub-dump journals. But completing and publishing high-impact multidisciplinary studies in journals that people actually read must be expected to take longer than three years.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Quoth the exploiter

  • You're the exploiter: You force your post-docs out as their salaries increase, leaving with only microturd pubs in sub-dump journals, just so you can pad your competing renewals and then hire more junior post-docs at cheaper salaries to squeeze out more microturd pubs in sub-dump journals.

    I allow my post-docs to stay long enough even as their salaries increase so they leave with high-impact publications that give them a shot at getting their own labs.

  • Dave says:

    DM = sweatshop PI
    CPP = google PI

  • Even if there is money, why should you keep a postdoc who is under-performing? I just had this conversation with my postdoc coming up on his 3 years this coming December. He was pissed. He asked, "Is there no money?" I said, "There is money, but there is not money for you." Over the past 3 years, I routinely talked to him about performance, needing to get his papers out, job applications, no papers were materializing.

    I had optimistic conversations. In January, I said, "OK, you have one year left, but, if it looks like you are going to get a faculty position, I would be able to keep you until the summer." Guess what? No papers. Also, he changed fields when he came to his postdoc, so he also doesn't have any grad papers in this field, so it doesn't look like he is going to get a faculty position. So, Monday's conversation, I said, "You will be finishing December 31." When he asked if money was present, and I told him it wasn't for him, he acted very entitled, like he deserved that money. But why? He did not write the grant application. He did not come up with the ideas. He did not even want to work on these cool new science ideas, despite their timeliness and hotness in the field. So, I ask, why should I keep him past the 3 years we discussed when he came to the lab?

  • drugmonkey says:

    That seems fine to me.

  • becca says:

    "Is this so horrible? Should the PI risk even less productivity out of a bad postdoc as they slouch towards a departure date? Should the PI risk a good postdoc leaving several months early? A year even? just to give "fair warning"?"
    Yes, it's really so horrible. Any PI that does this should not only be subject to their institution immediately firing them via dissolving their department, taking over all their grants and assigning them to someone else, banning them from using institutional resources such as email/health insurance/library access, preventing them from filing for unemployment, freezing their bank accounts and seizing their 403b ect., but they should also be immediately deported to Abu Dhabi with no money, or phone or passport.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    I didn't expect anything beyond the end of my fellowship and can't imagine why anyone else would. I also can't imagine an environment where the PI and PD would be so disconnected that a 'do you have funds to cover me past xyz date?' wouldn't happen. I know there is a lot of bad mentoring out there but...really? I'm actually shocked that a PD would be so naive and a PI would be so callous as to not speak about this the first day or days as well as every few months throughout the term of the PD.

    I guess after a few years of reading the blog-o-sphere I shouldn't be so shocked but as a new(ish) PI that horrifies me. Still, I've known a few trainees that had amazing ability to mentally stick their fingers in their ears with the in-brain version of "I'm not listening!!" thing going on.

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