Is A Parasitic Postdoc Trying to Steal Your Project?

Dear Dora,

It has been a few months since I started my first postdoc after finishing my PhD in a different field. Initially I used to discuss my experiments with a senior postdoc on the project (who works part time) to help with the interpretation of the results. However, now after a few months of catching up with the literature I seem to have a handle of the project and my experiments are working very well. I openly share my experiments and thoughts for future experiments. But during meetings and in private discussions with our PI this postdoc has labelled my work as “our work” and has been passing off my ideas as his own.

To top it all off I found out that he has started writing the manuscript for the paper whose majority of data has come from my work. I now do not know how the authorship will work especially because this project has had a high staff turnover but my PI has said that whoever contributes more gets first author. Do I confront this postdoc about the authorship or should I head straight to the PI? Other lab members have warned me that this postdoc has taken credit for work in the past. I will need to work closely with this postdoc in the future and would like to settle this is the most painless way and would rather do science than manage office politics. Please help! 

-Newbie Postdoc


Dear Newbie Postdoc,

If you think you deserve to be first author, you need to make a case to your PI that you were the lead scientist on this project. For example, did you do most (or all) of the lab work? Second, did you make the most significant intellectual contributions? There are publications where the first author did very little (or none) of the lab work, but he or she came up with the ideas, directed the project and maybe generated the funding too. If you believe that your intellectual and lab work-related contributions exceed those of the other postdoc, you have a good chance of convincing your PI that you deserve to be the first author.


Dora Farkas, Ph.D. is the author “The Smart Way to Your Ph.D.:200 Secrets from 100 Graduates,” and the founder of PhDNet, an online community for graduate students and PhDs. You will find links to her book, monthly newsletters, and discussion board on her site. Send your questions to [email protected] and keep an eye out for them in an upcoming issue!


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1 comment so far. Join The Discussion

  1. [email protected]

    wrote on October 18, 2012 at 11:09 am

    I agree with Dora- you need to make a rational case for your role as first author to the PI. Sadly, these types of situations are all too common and could easily have been avoided with clear ownership defined by the PI prior to the first experiment being performed. In an ideal world, I think a PI would say "Ann will be responsible for A, B, and C, while Jim will help with D. This is Ann's project and she will be first author if things unfold as we anticipate. Of course, the project may move in a different direction, at which point we can reevaluate the contributions and authorship." To me, it's all about clear expectations and communication.

    However, usually the water is much murkier, which leaves openings for scavengers like this postdoc. Normally, I prefer resolving these issues with the lab member directly, without involvement of the PI, however authorship issues can be difficult and so can these types of personalities who see someone else's good idea and jump on it. I've seen it before too many times.

    In my opinion, you would be best served taking a step back and looking at the project as a whole. Lay out how *you* envision the paper shaping up (you can literally sketch out anticipated figures as placeholders for the story), what your contribution has been to date, and what you would like it to be with the rest of the work left on the paper. This is the case for your first authorship.

    It's important that when you deal with the PI you're calm, not emotional. Calm and clear shows the PI you're in control and that you have obviously thought a lot about this. Emotional often gives the PI the feeling that you're "territorial" and difficult to work with. Although the latter is not the case in reality – think of it from your PIs point of view: they just want the publication. Regardless of who is listed as first author, the PI still gets the same amount of credit in the end.

    Not knowing the exact situation, usually when a postdoc is part-time, it means they've been there a while. Very few (if any) PIs will hire a *new* postdoc on a part-time basis. The part-time thing usually happens after a relationship has been built and some circumstance arises. The point I'm making is that from your PI's point of view, they don't know the details of what's been happening day-to-day between you and the postdoc, but they have a known individual that they trust enough to allow to work part-time (the thief…) and then they have an unknown commodity in the new postdoc (you). If it comes down to an emotional he-said-she-said situation, who do you think they'll side with? It's your job to explain that *you're* the one who can drive this to completion.

    The situation may seem unfair (it is…), but if you don't stand up for yourself now, it will only get worse and you'll start resenting the postdoc, the lab, and the PI. At least this way, you'll know if the PI has your back or not. If nothing else, it will give you a strategy for dealing with your *next* paper (setting clear ownership, boundaries, etc.).

    Good luck!

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