Living in the Void: The postdoc “contract”

Prompted by a discussion on the Twitts…

You got the offer for the postdoc position you wanted. The letter outlines your salary and benefits, and it notes that you’ll have a one-year appointment with an option for renewal. You take it.

You show up and find out that there’s only salary support for six months. Unless something else comes through (and chances aren’t looking good), you’ll need to find another lab, after barely starting in this one.

Sadly this is not an unfamiliar scenario for a number of postdocs. Maybe it happens when they show up. Maybe it takes a few months for the realization to hit. Or maybe it comes just after being reappointed for another year. No doubt it’s a shitty situation. In many cases I’ve heard of, it’s not that the PI wants to boot the postdoc out of their lab. It’s just the plain, simple, bleak reality of finances. They were expecting (or hoping desperately) something would come through, but it didn’t. And now the postdoc has to scramble to find another lab or job.

An understandable reaction is, “How did this happen? What about my contract?”

The devil is in the details.

I can’t generalize (and I’m not sure these things really can be generalized). This is what I have seen in my limited experiences and have heard from some others. (In other words, take the following to apply to “some institutions”.) Postdocs often exist in this weird void between “student” and “employee”. Institutions have separate policies dealing with postdocs, which are sometimes laid out in a postdoc handbook (this is, in fact, one of the practices recommended by the National Postdoc Association). Even with that one-year appointment in hand, postdocs can be terminated at any time without cause. Supervisers may be expected or required to give you a notice of early termination, maybe somewhere between 30 and 90 days before the termination date. But they are well within instituional rules to kill your appointment before the year is up.

So if you’re considering, starting, or in the midst of a postdoc, find out what your institution’s policies are. Find the documents and read them for yourself. Don’t rely on the best guesses and reassurances of others (even PIs can get it wrong). See if your institution has a postdoc handbook; this will likely also have other important information dealing with benefits, vacation, and extended leave. Don’t know where to look? Check in with your institution’s postdoc association or office for postdoc affairs. Don’t have one? Offices for training and education or career development might be good places to check.

Bottom line: Know your institution’s policies. That “contract” might not be quite what it seems.

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5 Responses to Living in the Void: The postdoc “contract”

  1. The Dude says:

    What are thaw postdoc’s rights on the other side? Can they leave early without penalty? What would a penalty be anyway?

    • biochembelle says:

      Ime, postdoc can leave early without penalty (except maybe the loss of a good rec from their adviser), and as with PIs in post, fellows are expected to give “sufficient notice” (some academics have interesting interpretations of that, but that’s for another discussion, another day).

      The major caveat for fellows arises from the source of salary support. If it comes from a training grant, for example, it’s subject to a payback agreement. It doesn’t prevent someone from leaving, but it does place some restrictions on the what they do next if they don’t want to pay back the salary (& fringe?) they received. The terms are fairly broad, so most don’t have anything to worry about. But it’s still important to know they exist and what they mean for your own situation.

  2. einpoklum says:

    Just about my post-doc in the Netherlands. Taking your advice and reading the contract very carefully… let’s see how open these guys are to negotiations.

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