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Butting Heads: Conflict Resolution for Postdocs, Part I

scientists working in a lab

About a year after leaving his postdoc, Rohit (a pseudonym) got an e-mail from his postdoc adviser about a paper he was going to submit for publication on Rohit's work. To Rohit's surprise, his adviser had made him second author instead of first author. The reasoning was that after Rohit left, another postdoc had reproduced some of Rohit's experiments and succeeded in another experiment where Rohit had not.

But Rohit didn't think that was fair, because he felt that he had done all the thinking behind the experiments and most of the work. He even offered to share first authorship with the other postdoc, although he wanted to be listed first. But his adviser could not be swayed. "What it boiled down to was I had to accept being the second author, or have my name removed," Rohit recalled.

Unfortunately, many postdocs have probably encountered situations like this. Conflicts can run the gamut including issues such as authorship, intellectual property, mentoring, a hostile adviser or lab environment, discrimination, harassment, salary, or vacation time. While many postdocs may privately fume, they ultimately accept the situation, not realizing what their options are and generally not wanting to jeopardize their career. Foreign postdocs, in particular, may come from cultures that discourage making waves, or they fear jeopardizing their visa status. It's not clear how many postdocs ever go as far as filing formal complaints, but the numbers are probably relatively small.

In Rohit's case, he already had a job at a biotech company by this time, and even though the paper wasn't important for his career, he decided to fight for first authorship out of principle. He found out that his department had set up an ethics committee for postdoctoral fellows, and the chair of the committee was very supportive and helpful about what to do. In a conference call with the full committee, Rohit discussed the thought processes and sequence of experiments that led to the paper, reconstructed from his lab notebooks and e-mails between him and his adviser over his time as a postdoc. On separate occasions, the committee also heard from his adviser and the other postdoc.

Ultimately, the committee sided with Rohit, agreeing that the work was essentially his, and recommended that both postdocs be first co-authors. Rohit was insistent on being listed first, which his adviser finally accepted after the matter went back to the committee, who agreed with Rohit. The paper has since been published.

Rohit took the path recommended by most institutions that have clear procedures on how to resolve conflicts, and he was fortunate that his department had already set up a committee to hear postdoc grievances. Generally, institutions encourage going through more informal channels first, trying to work out the problem with your adviser. If that doesn't work, go to your department chair, who can try to resolve the dispute, perhaps with the aid of a faculty committee.

You can also pursue avenues outside your department. For example, more and more schools fortunately now have offices of postdoctoral affairs or postdoctoral associations, which can be a great resource for help or advice. If your institution has one, an ombudsman also can help.

The human resources office may also be an option. John Leviathan at The J. Gladstone Institutes (an independent institute affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco), for instance, is a human resources manager whose job is to deal with postdocs. Postdocs are always free to call him about grievances, he says, and once every 2 weeks he meets with postdocs as a group to hear about any general issues they have, such as a lack of business cards. Leviathan also conducts exit interviews to help improve the lot of future postdocs, which is when "all the juicy stuff comes out." But he says he hasn't had to deal with scientific issues such as authorship, which are probably resolved at the level of the mentor or the institute's director.

If the situation still can't be resolved, depending on the kind of institution, the dean, vice provost of research, institute director, or similar administrator can get involved. If you think you've been subject to discrimination, another option is your institution's equal opportunity office.

At Vanderbilt University, Office of Postdoctoral Affairs Program Coordinator Susan McMillen says that they hold individual orientations with postdocs when they arrive, which has helped to reduce the most common complaints about salary, benefits, and visas. The orientations were originally done only for foreign postdocs, she said, but they found that each situation was unique enough that it was worth doing them for everyone. (Vanderbilt's postdoc policy can be found on the university's Web site.)

But the varied ways that postdocs are classified can leave them out in the cold on how to deal with conflict at many institutions. For example, at the Medical College of Georgia, L. D. Newman, who has a half-time appointment as the director of the 6-month-old Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (the other half is as one of the college's general counsels), says that their postdocs are limited in where they can go to resolve conflicts because postdocs don't fit into any of the university's three categories of people (students, faculty, and classified employees).

So far, Newman's office has been able to resolve some disputes through the university's policies on research misconduct and conflict of interest, which covers scientific issues such as authorship. "What we don't have at present is a policy that would allow a postdoc to file a grievance based on a human resources complaint," such as salary or an abusive mentor, Newman says. Right now, she says postdocs come to her and she acts as an advocate on their behalf, but she's in the process of drafting a new grievance procedure for postdocs.

At Stanford University, where postdocs are classified as students, they've been able to file grievances under the procedure for students. But Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SUPD) member Robert Busch notes that these procedures were meant to apply to academic matters such as grades and really aren't appropriate for the added workplace issues that postdocs have. The association is also in the process of drafting a new grievance procedure that would be more relevant to postdocs.

Still, disputes with your adviser can have a price. Although standing up to his adviser "validated that what I thought on principle was true," Rohit says the bridges are probably now burned on their once cordial relationship. He probably would not have done so, he says, had he not already left and been at a biotech company with no real possibility of professional consequences.

And that's a real consideration, says Daniel Zuckerman, former president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA). "To formally complain is essentially to burn a bridge that may be the only one to the kind of job the postdoc wants," he says. "It's kind of like family problems, once it gets outside the home, it's a whole different ball of wax," agrees current JHPDA President Pauline Wong. Wong says she knows postdocs with grievances who have left under the guise of, for example, having found another job. She thinks that more oversight over the mentor/postdoc relationship is needed, and the association is trying to implement yearly evaluations between the postdoc and mentor to try and identify conflicts before they get out of hand.

Next time, we'll talk about another resource that's often available for postdocs, the ombudsman, and a group of postdocs at Stanford who have formed a counseling group to help their fellow postdocs with conflicts. Stay tuned!

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