Managing and Resolving Conflicts in Postdoc Programs

Conflicts are unavoidable, so postdocs should consider learning skills to deal with them, and institutions should offer conflict management training and support, writes Vipul Sharma.

June 21, 2022
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Conflict is common when people are working toward a shared goal yet simultaneously trying to meet their own needs. Needless to say, postdoctoral training can be full of conflict. The position is a transitional one, and it’s an environment where you willingly compete with colleagues while, at the same time, supporting each other.

In addition, postdocs have conflicts with—and are vulnerable to—those who evaluate them, all while working to develop and maintain their identity as professionals. As a postdoc, you try as much as possible to avoid any conflicts with a grad student, fellow postdoc, lab manager and, most important, your faculty adviser, sponsor or supervisor. But as time goes by, conflicts are unavoidable—they’re a normal part of any relationship and happen naturally between people who work together.

Conflict can happen when an individual fails to meet the needs and expectations of another person because of a lack of information, a lack of useful feedback, a lack of openness and honesty, a supervisor who exerts excessive control, unaligned expectations, discrimination, and more. According to a study on lab dynamics, the majority of people spend time on “people problems” and “uncomfortable interactions,” and they report that interpersonal conflict has hampered progress on a scientific project between one and five times in their career.

Some common conflicts postdocs can experience concern salary issues, work hours, benefits or vacation time, restriction to nonresearch professional development opportunities, lack of support to travel to research conferences, reference letters, intellectual property, mentoring, cultural differences, a hostile adviser or lab environment, discrimination, or harassment. While postdocs may privately express their concerns, they might have to ultimately accept the situation—not wanting to jeopardize their career or, in the case of international postdocs, their visa status.

Postdocs are often left wondering how to best navigate this environment diplomatically—how to achieve personal and professional goals while building and maintaining strong relationships. Many postdocs might choose to—or have to—sacrifice personal needs and obey the supervisor’s demands instead. If you are a postdoctoral researcher, you are at a distinct career transition stage: you are not a student admitted to a department or other unit, nor are you a staff or faculty member hired by one. Instead, you are generally hired by an individual faculty member. That in turn makes the department or unit not take as much ownership and accountability as it might in the case of a student or faculty member.

A good relationship with your supervisor can, of course, be crucial when it comes to successful career progression. And in addition to conflict with the faculty supervisor, postdoc peer conflicts are unavoidable, too. Conflicts can erupt over everything from transitory disagreements over cleaning the clutter in shared space or the use of supplies or equipment to more permanent issues like authorship disputes and research misconduct.

Thus, it’s a good idea to for postdocs to learn conflict management skills, as those skills can help you address personal needs without burning any bridges with the people with whom you have to work for a long time both during and after postdoctoral training.

What’s more, even though we generally tend to view conflict negatively, it has some positive aspects and can help you personally and professionally. It can be uncomfortable, but when managed appropriately, it can also help you achieve your goals, express opinions, learn new ideas and points of view, and, in fact, strengthen your relationships.

Offering the Support That’s Needed

Some people are better at conflict management and resolution than others, but given the ubiquitous nature of conflict, when a department or institute provides postdoctoral training and a support system for managing conflict, it can be beneficial. To manage conflict with the supervisor, for instance, one must acknowledge the hierarchy, power dynamics and dependency that come into play. Power dynamics can impact postdocs who are international, women and underrepresented minorities more than others, given the added challenges of visa issues, financial support and the like. Yet every postdoc can experience self-advocacy and self-efficacy issues. That is why postdocs need training and institutional support about how to prevent conflict as well as resolve it.

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Institutional or unit programs should educate postdocs on some of the basic theories of conflict management and how they can put them to use in their daily lives. For example, one theory of conflict management makes a correlation between the “relationship” and the “goal” when it comes to how a person should approach a situation. You can avoid (in cases when both the relationship and the goal are not important), accommodate (in cases when the relationship is very important, but the goal is not), compete (in cases when the relationship is not important, but the goal is), or collaborate (in cases when both the relationship and the goal are important). In other words, depending on how important a relationship is to you compared to the goal you are pursuing, you can decide which strategy to pursue.

As part of these programs, the institution or unit should organize seminars and trainings for their postdocs on how to communicate effectively and advocate for themselves, with case studies to encourage discussion and analysis from the perspective of the postdoc as well as that of the supervisor. Introducing individualized development plans for postdocs, as well as compacts leading to discussions with the supervisor, can also be tools to encourage open dialogue and help align expectations.

When specific conflicts arise, an active and involved postdoc office or an ombudsperson can also discuss the issue with the postdoc, give informal advice and help them think through various scenarios and consequences. One’s perception of a conflict is often based on a person’s assumptions, values and previous experiences. Such a perception is not always objective, so these informal and semiformal discussions can help a postdoc make an informed decision on how to effectively move ahead with the conflict.

To deal with situations in which no resolution occurs, the institution or unit must develop a channel and process where postdocs can put forward their grievances in an unthreatening and unintimidating environment without the fear of retaliation. This is where institutional or departmental ownership particularly comes into play. A semiformal solution would be to establish an advisory committee that not only can guide postdocs in their research progress and professional development but also act as an unbiased mediator during conflicts. Or the institution or unit could put in place a formal complaint process, with accessibility and approachability to a research dean or academic affairs head.

Faculty members need to be open to these ideas, as they provide feedback to postdocs and can play a crucial role in their professional development. Again, conflicts are unavoidable and are bound to happen, so having a system in place to manage and resolve them—and a culture that supports that system—is key. Taken together, these types of institutional or unit supports ensure that postdocs can do their research, develop professional skills and go on to become effective and inclusive leaders.


Vipul Sharma is assistant director for postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago and the diversity officer for the National Postdoctoral Association.


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