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hejduk

Ever leave a postdoc early?

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Say that I have a 2-year postdoc, but along comes an opportunity for my dream job (permanent faculty position in my disclipline in the desired country). Is it okay to leave a postdoc early? Postdocs are temporary in nature, but what can you do to not burn bridges?

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I mean, it's pretty much expected in some places. I know many postdocs/VAPs that have left before their multi-year contracts were complete because they were offered (and ultimately accepted) their dream position. If this is about applying, then I'd say apply for sure. If you've already landed the dream job, congratulations! Be gracious, give them plenty of advanced notice about when you will leave, and do your damnedest to wrap everything up (data collection and analysis, publications submitted or a plan for doing so) before you leave and make that timeline and plan available to your supervisors.

 

(Also, nice to see you! I haven't seen you around much lately!)

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I have a 2-year postdoc but I'm applying to TT jobs this year. Everyone here knows and is supportive of me. If I do get a TT job, I hope to negotiate to be able to stay here for my second year (it's a nice fellowship with some bells and whistles so I think it might be possible) but obviously I'd take the job over the postdoc if I had to choose. Good jobs don't come along every day. I think that's clear to everyone, so there is no awkwardness at all.

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fuzzylogician makes a great point. I do know of cases where people have negotiated to do their postdoc first or finish their postdoc and delay the start of the TT position. That way, you'd get the benefits of both the postdoc and the permanent job. 

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In my field, it seems like most 2 or 3 year postdoc contracts are actually a "one year contract with option for renewal based on performance and funding" and from talking to many postdocs, it sounds like the unspoken agreement is that both parties have the option of continuing or not each year. Also, it seems like very few TT jobs in my field would be for an immediate start. It's most common for people to be hired at least a year in advance (or sometimes two years). Of course, non-academic or non-TT jobs might work on different timescales, so in that case, I think you just have to give as much advance notice as possible.

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A late response, but updated with my current situation (feel free to PM if I can provide more details or incidences I've experienced that are creating doubt in my mind of taking this position). Some clarification of a postdoc i'm scheduled to start soon:

 

In the US, it's common to ask questions prior to joining the team, but I have been getting a lot of evasive answers. When I've asked my PI if I could converse with previous postdocs, he deferred my question to another coworker in the lab. When I ever I attempt to email that person, he/she always CC's the PI. Basically, there is no opportunity to ask current or previous workers about their work experience with any sense of anonymity. It just seems really weird to me, as well as my faculty mentors, and almost sets off red flags.

 

I¹ve asked my coworker for some communication with previous postdocs, and again, no response. Additionally, my PI made a comment during my Skype interview asking, "Are you committed to the full two years?" When going into something such as a postdoc, you are committed to seeing through the project, but you are also aware of it¹s temporary nature, and therefore must constantly look for jobs. I need to speak with previous postdocs so that I can learn if postdocs left in bad circumstances? Or have they left early for "greener pastures" and not given the support to pursue those opportunities?

 

Working for the lab would be a great opportunity, but I need to be ensured the work environment is supportive, that mentorship is available from PI, etc. I also know that by asking my PI and my coworkers these questions, it has created some doubt regarding my commitment and abilities to be reliable. At this point, maybe I've created so much doubt in their minds I should just not take it and move on? The last I want to do is move, take on a new position, and start with the reputation of "the wish washy, non-commital, unreliable researcher from that other country". I don¹t mean to create any such perceptions within my new lab, but again, it's normal to ask these questions in US labs, and I must before moving my entire family to a new culture! 

Edited by hejduk

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Also given my above response, anyone have suggestions on how to possibly salvage my reputation before even arriving in the lab? Is it even possible at this point? Stressed beyond belief, but don't want to give up on such a good opportunity (VERY difficulty and not very common to find a postdoc in my field, and the credential will help my ultimate goals of working permanently in Europe). However, these red flags and feelings in my gut are hard to get over. 

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Personally, I find taking the "apologetic" route makes some awkwardness smoother. Like, "Sorry for all these questions, but this is a big move for me and my family etc. etc." But perhaps I say sorry a lot due to Canadianisms :P.

 

I also think it is not a lie if you answer "Yes, I am committed to 2 full years" at this point because you have not made any other commitments. Also, you might want to mention that you are used to seeing contracts that are for 1 year + renewal so you might want to negotiate for that. Maybe your field is different from mine, but you can negotiate postdoc offers to get things that are important to you. It sounds like some questions/negotiations you might want to make are:

a. How much of your time can be spent on your own research vs. working for this PI/lab?

b. Moving costs for you and your family

c. A research grant for your own work (in my field, good postdoc positions usually offer ~$10,000/year or so for research expenses). This could be really important for you in order to travel a lot while in Europe to develop the connections you need to get that permanent job in Europe. Or if you change your mind later and want to stay in North America, that could be the funding required to fly back regularly to maintain old connections.

d. Startup fund for your office/lab bench if necessary?

 

Also, I would not worry too much about a 2 year commitment since academic jobs tend to appear on an annual cycle. So, the earliest you can get that dream job is probably a year from now, at which point it might be easy to negotiate for starting after your current postdoc ends. Or, if you have to break a temporary contract for a permanent job, I don't think anyone could fault you for that (can't make everyone happy and you have to look out for you and your family first).

 

And finally, can you talk to the other postdocs in the group via Skype or phone call? Send them an email and ask for an appointment. Or, can you track down former group members to their new locations and email them to talk to them? Most group research websites have lists of alumni and where they are now! Or look for papers with the PI from a few years ago and see who the first authors are and where they are now. 

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