Academic Job Dilemma: My PI screwing me over?
May 11, 2014 10:48 PM   Subscribe

I have a staff position in academic research. I received a verbal job offer two and a half weeks ago for a higher position in a different lab, and I gave notice to my current PI (my boss) immediately. I haven't gotten the official job offer yet, and I think my PI might cause me to lose the offer... Also, I'm kind of just freaked out in general and need some fresh eyes. Am I freaking over nothing, or is trouble brewing here?

Two and a half weeks ago, I received a very explicit verbal job offer from new PI (i.e. he literally said "I am offering you this job" and I said "I accept!"). A few days after that, via email, he told me that he had been in contact with HR and spoke about salary and everything. He said that HR needed to check on some things about salary (to see what it would be since I am transitioning within the university) and that they would have to get back to him before he could give an official offer letter. He was also not sure of when his current staff person was leaving so he could not tell me when he would need me to start, though it would probably would be mid-June ish. This convo last up until two weeks ago. Two Fridays ago, I sent him an email asking him if he had an end date from his staff person, and he responded the same day that he would check in with her. That's the last we communicated.

My current PI does not want to accept anything less than 10 weeks notice for my leaving the lab. The reasoning for this is completely his fault, as he failed to hire additional staff (despite many, many reminders that it was necessary to do so) after my TWO former colleagues left one after the other a year and a half ago, leaving me to do the job of three people by myself since (basically) July 2012. I would like to give something more like 6 weeks; I gave notice on the April 26th and would like to start either June 9th or 16th. HOWEVER, without a start date from new PI, I cannot really give current PI a hard date. We are actually hiring someone who will be starting this month, so I'm not screwing him over with these dates at all. I HAVE made it clear to both of them that 10 weeks would not work, mind you, and that I would not let this get in the way of the new job.

I ALSO KNOW that my current and new PIs have communicated about my "transition" to the new PI's lab, and knowing that my current PI doesn't want me leaving until at least July, I'm wondering if current PI communicated this to new PI and if it's turned the deal sour for me. Current PI is tenured and full professor and new PI is associate and (I think) still trying to get tenure, so the situation is very delicate and my current PI is powerful in the department. Despite the fact that I'd like to have control over my own work life, including when I can leave my job, it's become clear that I do not! I've also heard that revoking a verbal job offer in academia is virtually unheard of in academia. I'm at a loss as to what's going on. I can't imagine why new PI would take so long giving me an end date for his current staff person, or how the current staff person wouldn't know this information. I'm suspicious that I'm getting pushed off... MEEP!

I would be devastated if my boss screwed me over here, as this is a dream job for me and a step in the right direction in so many ways. I need his recommendation for basically anything I do form here on out (most likely, anyway), but I am not staying in my current lab even if this new job falls through. I'm currently over-worked and my health is not doing so well because of it, and this job is no longer benefitting me at all. Tomorrow, I plan to drop a line to new PI to check in again (too soon?) to see if I can come to his lab meetings (or if there's anything else I can do) and also see if he has an end date. Is this timeframe or even this situation normal? Am I freaking out over nothing, or do you think I have a problem?

And a panic question: is this even legal? Would I have grounds for some kind of case against my current PI for screwing up this job opportunity by essentially intimidating/bullying my "new" PI into not hiring me? This new job is important to me and my future career. Needless to say, I'm anxious and emotional about it.

Anything you can offer is helpful, and I'm happy to answer questions. Thanks!
posted by your mom's a sock puppet to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Generally speaking, verbal job offers mean shit, so you probably should have waited until you received the written offer letter before giving notice to your current PI. Own your choice there, because if your PI does end up trying to block your transfer, it's may be because you moved too quickly without a solid offer to back you up.

Right now you need to get in touch with the new PI and say something to the effect of, "Checking in -- have given notice at current lab but would like to give solid official end date so as to facilitate the acquisition of a replacement. Could you please let me know when you might have more info about that plus an official offer? I am excited to be joining your team and look forward to working with you."

I would not mention your concerns about your current PI unless new PI brings them up. Your job is to keep moving forward and be diligent and vigilant about staying in touch with your new PI until you get what you need. Do not burn a bridge with your current lab by being visibly paranoid or by jumping to conclusions.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:35 PM on May 11, 2014 [8 favorites]

I hate rules-lawyering in Ask but I think the answers to this depend on a lot of stuff we don't know, like if the job was advertised at all and if so if it was advertised internally or externally, what the policies are around internal transfers in your uni, whether the Uni accepts verbal notice (bet it doesn't; I bet there's an online form; I also bet that there's a maximum amount of time your manager can demand if a transfer's been approved), and whether you're being paid off grant or departmental funds. For that matter, are you "staff" as in a classified position (i.e. one covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act including work hours, and usually not academic, research or higher administration)?

If this was a fast-and-loose handshake deal about a classified position ("Our admin Carrie is leaving this summer. Do you want to move over here? It'd be perfect for us!") then your new PI really doesn't understand how hiring works and jumped the gun. (And then you, understandably, jumped the gun along with him.)

If it's a thing where you interviewed for an advertised position internally and you know that there's paperwork (or electronic forms) waiting to be filled out until all the data are available but everyone's ready to sign off (except your current PI) then I wouldn't worry too much.
posted by gingerest at 12:14 AM on May 12, 2014

You absolutely have a right to check in with the new PI; having offered them fealty, and on their terms, it is now their responsibility to keep you from getting fucked by your current PI's greed and poor management even if it ends up hurting them.

If you will be leaving whether your current PI sabotages your new opportunity or not, that is certainly worth communicating to your current PI.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:49 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

"Would I have grounds for some kind of case against my current PI for screwing up this job opportunity by essentially intimidating/bullying my "new" PI into not hiring me?"

At least if you're in the US, absolutely not, and even if it were that wouldn't necessarily make calling it illegal a good idea. Being petty and shitty about how you treat your employees is perfectly legal so long as it doesn't run across a short list of bright red lines, and sabotaging careers out of greed or even malice is not one of them. The best you can hope to accomplish by talking about lawyers is demonstrate a lack of fluency with how academia works.
posted by Blasdelb at 3:03 AM on May 12, 2014

I work around lab researchers. I've seen a lot of situations sort of like yours. My first guess is that your new position is hung up in HR and you probably don't need to worry but you do need to nudge New PI. If your place is like mine, HR has a ton of process to follow before they can issue you an offer letter (and while it's a good idea not to give notice until you have the offer letter, intra-institution stuff like this is often more casual). I doubt that Old PI is screwing you - it's possible, I'm not saying it's not. But it's terrible, terrible academic manners and will torpedo his relationship with New PI. Usually people don't do that - they may get upset, but they just don't act that way. Check in with New PI.
posted by Frowner at 4:22 AM on May 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

In my limited experience, any staffing procedures at a university are SLOOOOWWW.
I took over a retired technician late 2012. I was the only one operating two machines fairly vital to our program. A "necessary" position, you might say. I was paid casually by the department for 14 months before I had an official full-time offer from the university. For the same necessary position!

Of course, they didn't need to pay me benefits for that year and the salary was $10k lower, so I'm sure there wasn't too much motivation on HR's end, but still - as soon as the previous tech retired, the department had applied for the position again. By the end of the year, the 4 professors I was working with were starting to get really apologetic and nervous I would leave. But millennials with a job right out of school can't just leave a job, especially one in their field. I love my job honestly, but it was definitely getting frustrating when it went from "we'll get you an offer in a month or two" to "it's in HR's hands, we can't do anything!".

I also had to go through the full HR process, including reapplying, waiting for two months in case of international applicants, and being interviewed by the people I'd been working for for a year.

Now, if it's a position funded solely by the PI, there's a good chance there aren't quite so many hoops to jump through, but ANYTHING in academia takes 5 times longer than normal.
posted by aggyface at 5:28 AM on May 12, 2014

Please understand that verbal offers and negotiations are just air and sunshine. Until you have an offer on paper, it's not an offer. So next time, wait to give notice and to discuss transition, etc until you have an offer letter. Even then, I know that some jobs fall through. There are no guarantees.

You may have put the hiring person in a very bad position by resigning to accept the 'offer' because that may have been a back-door conversation and who knows what crazy is going on behind the scenes.

At this point, explain to your current PI that you don't have a firm offer at this time, and as soon as you do, you'll work out a transition. Don't bring it up again. Train new hires, and push to get the lab up to full staff.

As for the new lab offer, that was TERRIBLE form on the part of the hiring PI. He/She is probably catching a world of shit from HR, the Dean and anyone with two brain cells to rub together. You don't make verbal offers. You can explore interest and you can discuss hypotheticals, but until the position is posted, and the process is complete and HR signs off, there's no offer.

Attribute no shenanigans to your current PI. But do touch base with the new PI every so often.

As for 10 weeks notice...well, that's not for you to negotiate, but for each of the PIs to sort out.

Although once, I was in that sort of position. "Look, we can do this nice and easy, or I can just quit and look elsewhere."

You have to be THE SHIT to pull that off though.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:44 AM on May 12, 2014

Response by poster: I'm interested in hearing mostly from people who have experience in academia, as a lot of conventions that are commonplace in academia are not necessarily true in industry. I am well aware that verbal offers are meaningless in industry and that you never ever give notice before you have an official offer. These things are not true in academia; they do happen quite frequently and are often a necessity of how things work. In fact, we just gave two verbal job offers two candidates, and neither have gotten the official offer letter yet. I'm not sure in what school (or world) a professor would need permission from the dean for offering someone a job, but that's certainly not the case here. And we didn't ask HR's permission either, though maybe that is what you are "supposed to do".

I don't understand the vitriol with which people are answering questions! "Anyone with two brain cells to rub together" (this made me laugh!) might realize that getting righteous about something that one has little experience with is not wise or helpful.

To answer some questions:

Yes, this was an official job posting that I applied to and interviewed for formally. During the conversation (the job offer one!), the new PI explicitly mentioned that he was worried about his future relationship with current PI within the department if we were too aggressive with negotiations over the start date. My boss (current and future) fulfills more of a mentor role in that he should not WANT to screw me over because it would hinder my career and possibly make HIM look like a bad PI (for not having successful RAs, etc). But if he thinks he's getting screwed over... I don't know. That's why I'm here! I'm panicking!

Let me know if you have other questions. And if you aren't familiar with academia, please refrain! Yelling about how EVERYTHING EVERYONE DID WAS WRONG is not helpful.
posted by your mom's a sock puppet at 6:19 AM on May 12, 2014 [4 favorites]

Another aspect - do you know how your new position will be funded? It's quite possible that they're negotiating funding, which can take some meetings. I have never seen a job offer to a postdoc dropped due to funding goofiness, but I have seen a lot of meetings about pulling everything together. (Say, does New PI have a secretary - or a department secretary? You might want to ask him or her in a discreet way if they've heard anything.)
posted by Frowner at 6:23 AM on May 12, 2014

Yeah, you're absolutely right, verbal offers are totally normal and demand respect while this is totally standard shenanigans. Academia is not industry. Is there any reason to think that there is anything genuinely terrible, say regarding the security of your funding, about having to stay for the full ten weeks that your current PI is trying to demand?

Also, Frowner is totally spot on, this is the kind of thing everyone loves to gossip about and your department secretary probably loves chocolate.
posted by Blasdelb at 6:29 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

(On preview... yeah, just deleted a paragraph about how rare it is for a lab PI to coordinate with HR!)

Unfortunately, I'm afraid all of the possible scenarios sound plausible. I do think that since the info is out in the open, offering to go to lab meetings for the new PI is a smart move.

Still, I have to wonder if things are indeed being held up by the old staff person. Do you know her? Can you talk to her? I can think of 100 reasons of why she might not be sure when she wants to leave - given most lab structures, as an incumbent she has total security in her position for as long as she wants. Maybe she's in a weird spot with *her* next job too! Or her schedule is somehow dependent on another person and/or life event (spouse, child, parent, etc.) Maybe she's waiting to hear about a grant?

The bizarre silver lining here is that you have some security yourself, since the old lab actually wants you to stay for longer. And since it's at the same institution, you can change jobs in 24 hours, so you *can* switch on a dime. So right now it's all about managing uncertainty, and managing your own (un)happiness.
posted by synapse at 6:30 AM on May 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've been academic research staff for 15 years. I would not give notice without the letter in hand. But that's done, so how to move ahead is the issue. I think you're probably fine, just held up in HR issues and/or funding issues. But you have every right to lean on the new PI to help you get this worked out. In fact, doing so might be a helpful gauge for you of how he will be as a boss. Can he communicate clearly to you about the problem? Will he go to bat for you to get you through the red tape, or if not, tell you honestly why not and what he expects the next steps to be? This might be good information.
posted by Stacey at 8:23 AM on May 12, 2014 [5 favorites]

I verbally accepted a position three weeks ago in academic research at a major R01 institution, and am holding off giving notice at my current R01 institution until I have the offer letter in hand. I'm also timing leaving for my benefit, so my health insurance coverage bridges the gap, because nobody really has your best interest at heart, but rather what benefits them, fits the grant budget, fill in the snowflake departmental/grant/PI blank. I don't want to be uninsured, and I sure don't want to have to COBRA. The new PI agreed to accommodate me, because not getting screwed is important to me.

I want my future to be controlled by me (as much as I can) and not by two competing bosses who have little reason to cooperate. If your current boss wasn't so dependent on you, you could really be screwed by giving premature notice. What if the new job somehow gets held up for several months?

From all the info you provided, it does sound like this casual job change happens at your University and is almost the norm. FWIW, that's how things worked around my University even 10 years ago, but not now. Academia went corporate around the time of FMLA and Obamacare. Now I have to provide copies of my marriage license so my spouse is covered for health insurance, and Social Security numbers for my kids so they are covered. Time off is scrutinized to a ridiculous degree, and I need numerous signatures to attend a conference. In fact, the oppressive, controlling atmosphere is a large part of why I am leaving, but also why I am so hyper about protecting myself. There is no tolerance anymore for gentlemen's agreements or informal arrangements, and if it isn't on paper to the lawyers or HR it doesn't exist. The atmosphere has really changed,and I find HR always has the final word. I hope this works out for you - it sounds like this is sort of typical where you are -but I'd think carefully about putting yourself at risk in this way in the future.
posted by citygirl at 6:56 PM on May 12, 2014

« Older Nursing job market in Atlanta   |   Accepting the things I cannot change Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.