Thursday, March 05, 2009

To answer your question: find another lab, ASAP

Someone asked:

I have a question (which is not related to your post): what can one do/think/expect from a PI who hired you without an official offer letter yet says he's funding is not clear at the moment? (when that "hired" postdoc already turned down a several positions with already funded projects)

Would be great to hear your and commenters opinions.

First of all, being "hired" without an official offer letter is NOT being hired.

That is what we call a verbal offer, which is NOT the same.

Second, do not EVER make plans based on a verbal offer. INSIST on a written contract before you make any plans.

Third, if you already made this mistake, and the PI is disorganized or disingenuous and jerking you around (good intentions or otherwise), get out NOW before you waste any more time.

If, in the worst case scenario, you already moved to a new university, try to find someone else in town if you don't want to relocate again.

If not, call everyone else back and tell them quite honestly why you picked that lab (seemed like a good fit for what you wanted) and that you really had a hard time choosing, but that the funding fell through on the one you picked and you're really hoping the position(s) you were offered before are still open.

In other words, suck it up, apologize, and beg if you have to. This is assuming, of course, that the other offers you had are actually good ones for good labs where you'd be happy to work. And you better hope it's not too late or that some of them have additional funding/enough interest in you to shuffle some things around and take you anyway.

My guess is that you thought PI #1 was a nice guy, and that's why you picked him, whereas the other labs might have been more organized and productive and potentially better for your career, but you didn't like the PIs or the location as much.


Take this as a good chance to avoid making a major mistake. "nice" is actually NOT the major defining quality of a good MENTOR or BOSS. The #1 thing you need in a PI is someone who is responsible, and #2 is someone who is going to keep your career prospects in mind and always communicate clearly with you. This PI has failed already on both counts, so I say GET OUT.

If a PI screws up on something as big as hiring a postdoc and making sure to have money to pay them, you can bet they're also going to screw up on even bigger things, like staying employed and funded in general, not to mention making sure YOU stay employed and have ample opportunities to succeed.

Good luck.

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At 12:01 PM, Anonymous Pain Man said...

I say get in there and write that PI an R01!

At 5:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ordinarly I'm plus/minus of YFS's advice, but this time she is precisely correct in every detail.

At 3:25 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

OMG, get out of that lab now!! You are a sitting duck, and it sounds like you are about to get screwed.

NEVER take a job without anything in writing. That is a rule of thumb. And certainly not a job that requires relocation!!! The fact that the PI hired you without a legally binding document already speaks volume about him. It is a great a way for him to get you to work when it's convenient for him, yet he can ditch you anytime on a whim. If he didn't do this on purpose and is just disorganized and forgot about it, that is also a red flag. It shows blatant irresponsibility and lack of concern for the people working for him. what else will he drop the ball on in the future, that will impact your career? Paychecks, visa issues, conference and fellowship deadlines, letters of recommendation for future jobs...??

Personally I think your PI did it to keep HIS options open, at your expense. I have seen PIs do stuff like this to postdocs. Basically the PI is the only one who benefits and the postdoc is the one whose life/career is derailed when there is a glitch in funding or the PI's personal whims. I know it's hard for PIs to get a continuous stream of funding coming in all the time, but that should be their problem not the postdocs'. As a boss, a PI has a responsibility to make sure that there are funds to pay an employee before hiring that employee. The fact that your PI didn't put it in writing formally, shows that he is avoiding this reponsibility. He wants to have his cake and eat it too. Bosses who are so happy to play dice with the employee's career and personal lives are scum.

When I was interviewing for postdoc positions, one lab kept telling me for over a year that they wanted to hire me and were waiting for my confirmation. I was eager to work for them too because it was a prestigious lab, but I also said fine put it in writing and with salary spelled out and all. Then I never heard from them again.

At 5:03 PM, Anonymous Gingerale said...

I might re-sort priorities #1 and #2 as #2 and #1. But other than that I agree.

At 12:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My postdoc institution, a large medical school in the middle of the country, would not provide a letter guaranteeing my employment or specifying my salary to verify my income for a home loan, even though I was supported on an institutional training grant - guaranteeing that I would be employed at a mandated salary for at least two years.

I think its shady to not get a written offer from a PI, but there may be some asinine institutional policy in place. I would just be very blunt and say, I am excited by this opportunity, but cannot take a position that doesn't exist. Make me a formal offer at a fair salary for two years and I'll be there.

At 1:24 PM, Blogger madscientist said...

Clearly there is not enough information here to actually provide good advice. First of all, no one knows what the offer actually was. Was a simple, "Hey, I have got a post doc position open and I was wondering if you are interested?" If this is the case, then it is obvious that things are quite tentative and the details still need to be hammered out. If funding fell through, then there is no more deal. This can happen for a LOT of reasons, such as Congress not passing the 2009 budget, so the proposal that was supposed to fund this person doesn't actually get funded (since NSF and other federal agencies can only spend 90% of last years money, on a continuing resolution). It could also be that the PI was more optimistic than they ought to have been. Or the PI talked to this person, then found out that they were not as great as they thought, so they were trying to gracefully back out of an awkward situation.

There is absolutely no way that this person could have been "hired" without a formal invitation. If they are receiving money, then they have some sort of a "contract" with the university. Unless they were hired as an hourly wage temporary employee, the PI would have to prove that they have enough money to support the person for the term specified. So, it is hard for me to believe that the person was actually formally "hired" by the university.

Another thing that can happen, that I have seen, is that a PI will talk to a senior graduate student and express all sorts of interest. Then when push comes to shove, it turns out that the PI actually has no money and wanted to write a Post Doc proposal with the grad student. I think that this is a pretty crappy thing to do, unless all parties are aware of the consequences of this (like, if the proposal is not funded, there will be no position, and that decision will take 6 months to make!) While it is great that NSF and other places offer these types of grants, they encourage some pretty shady deceptions by some PIs.

Ok, now in defense of PIs... I personally am incredibly busy. This is because I am constantly doing things for OTHER people. This seems to be the case with many other blogs that I read - the PIs are not just sitting around planning how they can ignore perspective Post Docs or grad students or other people. They are inundated by committees that they have to serve on or annual reports that they have to do or proposals that they have to write or other student's papers that they have to review or reading proposals/papers that they have been asked to review or meetings that they have to attend or classes they have to teach or e-mails from the 200+ students that are in their class or ... you get the point. Because a PI has not done the specific task that you want them to do does not mean that they are bad. It may mean this - I don't know the PI that being discussed - but most likely it means that the person is extremely busy and probably has a valid reason for not doing exactly what you/the person wants them to do.

It is my opinion that the best course of action is a phone call that starts with a "I know that you are extremely busy, but I would like to discuss [the issue] with you." Do not be antagonistic. Do not assume that the PI is being a jerk. Assume that there is an issue that you don't know about and that you need that piece of information.

E-mail is too easy to blow off if you are inundated by hundreds of e-mails already. Speaking from experience.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because a PI has not done the specific task that you want them to do does not mean that they are bad.

That's true if the situation were trivial. I hardly think that the OP's situation is so trivial as to warrant this dismissal though.

It DOES mean the PI is "bad" if the task in question is something important enough to screw up postdocs' lives as it sounds is the case with the OP (going from his/her description of the situation).

I know that PIs are super busy. That does not absolve them from responsibility. Being "too busy" to shoulder their responsibilities does make them undeserving of that position, even though many get away with it nonetheless since it's the postdocs who take the fall for the PI being "too busy." When PI's drop the ball it's the postdoc who has to go away and try to start over somewhere else possibly thousands of miles away or in another country altogether (how's that for a major disruption in your personal life let alone career??), while the PI will still be there to continue on as they have been.

I really hate how a lot of PIs have such non-committal attitudes to getting/keeping/letting-go postdocs, as if they are disposable objects that can be cast aside anytime the PI has a "oops" moment.

At 8:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not receiving a formal letter is not unusual in my experience. However, while as PIs we are amazingly busy, this sounds like a serious fuck-up. It could be lack of communication, such as the post-doc candidates taking a tentative offer as a done deal. Hard to say from the info we have.

At 2:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Notice how it's the PI's who are downplaying or dimissing the gravity of the issue here? speaks volumes doesn't it


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