Breaking the Curse of the Postdoc


This week I had a bittersweet achievement. I started a great new job, moved in to my beautiful new office, and then immediately moved home to work for the foreseeable future, amid the simmering anxiety of this global pandemic.

Readers who follow my blog know that I moved to Armidale three years ago to start a postdoctoral fellowship at University of New England. Before that, I was at Charles Sturt Uni in Albury, where I did my PhD followed by my first three-year postdoc.

This week I started as a Lecturer in Ecology & Biology at UNE. The position was advertised in November last year; I applied, interviewed and found out I was successful a few weeks ago. I’m so excited!

But it’s a really strange time to be starting a new job – my thrill at joining the teaching team has understandably been overshadowed by the ongoing stresses of COVID19.

Hope you’re all keeping safe and well and sheltered.

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This post is about postdocs generally…that mysterious transitional treadmill between your PhD and your first permanent or tenure-track academic position. No one really prepares you for it, and no one really shows you how to stay on, or get off, the treadmill.

There are no ‘rules of postdocing’. We all need to find our own journey on the postdoc treadmill…and it won’t work out for everyone. But, in most countries, postdocs are now an essential step in the academic career path. So I think we can do better at helping postdocs prepare for their future, whatever path they choose.

Most people don’t know what a postdoc is

When I started my first postdoc 6 years’ ago, I was so proud of my new title: Postdoctoral Research Fellow! I put it on my email signature, in my social media bios, and would use it whenever I was asked for my job title. (If you’re scoffing at this, I’m a first-generation academic, so I had no experience with ‘how academia works’.)

Gradually, I learned that I had to explain my job in detail to non-academic family and friends and complete strangers. Some family members thought I was still a student, because I wasn’t teaching. Most people didn’t seem to know where to place a postdoc in the academic spectrum – if you aren’t a ‘student’ or a ‘professor’, what are you actually doing every day?

I started telling white lies to strangers on planes, in shops, or at the hairdresser, saying I was a Lecturer (for some reason, everyone knows what a Lecturer is) because it was easier than having to explain why I was an academic that didn’t teach.

From Twitter, I learned that there is a lot of variation around the meaning of a postdoc, depending on the country you work in and many other human factors. Some countries legally treat postdocs as students, in terms of salary and access to benefits. There is no standard definition across countries or institutions, and the role is largely a mystery outside academia.

This might not sound like a big deal, but it can have huge impacts on the mental health and career future of early career academics.

If they do know what a postdoc is, they probably don’t think of you as an academic

Even within academia, some people have trouble including postdocs in the academic system. It’s only been relatively recently that postdocs have become almost a mandatory stepping stone to getting a permanent academic position, at least in the sciences. Postdocs in the humanities have only really been a thing for the last few decades. Most of us know senior academics who stepped straight into a permanent position after their PhD, never experiencing a postdoc at all.

At some institutions, postdocs aren’t even considered ‘official’ academics – they don’t get put on staff email lists or included in staff meetings. Some fellowships don’t allow you to teach, which can affect a postdoc’s career path – you simply can’t get a permanent/tenure-track academic position without teaching experience.

Insecure, itinerant, isolated

There’s no such thing as job security when you’re on the postdoc treadmill. Most postdocs are short-term contracts associated with other people’s grants, usually 1-2 years, occasionally 3-5 years if you get lucky – absolutely no guarantee of any further work at the end of the contract. This means you’re expected to move around a lot, which is pretty taxing on most people’s mental and financial health and can also get very lonely (I recommend Jasmine Jane’s Lonesome Postdoc series). Expectations that you need ‘a stint overseas’ to be employable are also unfair on those who can’t easily move across international borders.

This means that a postdoc rarely gets the chance to commit to place-based research and community service with enough depth to demonstrate your skills. And after a few postdocs, you might find people unfairly judging you on some biased idea of a ‘use by date’.

Supporting success

These days, succeeding in an academic career depends on a few things. Of course quality peer-reviewed publications are important, and not just because of sexy metrics. But you also need to be a human, get independent funding, support students and colleagues, teach, engage with people beyond your peers, and contribute meaningfully to your institutional and academic community. Learning how to balance all these things meaningfully doesn’t just come with a PhD, it depends on life experience, good mentors, and institutional support.

Yes, postdocs are academic trainees. Yes, they should prove themselves capable, like any other sector expects its trainees to do. Yes, academics should move at least once in their career to enhance their life experience and worldview. No one completes a PhD and is instantly ready to take on the world as an independent academic (I certainly wasn’t, my confidence and skills grew rapidly during my first postdoc, with the support of a great mentor).

So let’s break the cycle and lift the curse of the postdoc. There are many ways to nurture and support postdocs to learn the academic ropes while also learning to become independent academics, without limiting their access to the systems and support they need to put down academic roots (if that’s what they choose).

A few things I think are important to help postdocs get off the treadmill:

  • Public awareness – this is a community effort. In general, we need more science communication about the processes of science and academia, not just the results. Growing public understanding of the academic career system is an important part of this.
  • Teaching experience – this goes without saying, but isn’t allowed on some contracts. Sometimes it’s just oversight, rather than the institution intentionally holding postdocs back. If you’re a postdoc in this situation, ask about options.
  • Access to non-academic training/networking opportunities – this should always be available and is essential for postdocs who choose a non-academic career path.
  • Independent operating funds – postdocs employed on someone else’s grant often don’t have access to any funds for their own research and professional development. This means they can’t go to a conference, pay publication fees for their own papers, or collect their own data if it’s not budgeted for in the PI’s grant.
  • Good mentors – this is so important and might not always be your direct supervisor. It also doesn’t need to be one person. Academic blogs can provide a connected support network for isolated researchers.
  • Grant support – either by naming postdocs on grant applications, or supporting them to write their own.
  • Internal community service – some institutions have rules about who can join internal committees (e.g. based on minimum contract length or salary level) and these rules often exclude postdocs. Allowing postdocs to contribute to committees and internal processes is valuable for their own professional development, and also increases the diversity of perspectives that benefit the institution.

© Manu Saunders 2020

4 thoughts on “Breaking the Curse of the Postdoc

  1. Finola March 27, 2020 / 7:59 PM

    And we could add a living wage and health care coverage to that list.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Black Sea FM March 27, 2020 / 10:52 PM

    Excellent post. Spot on. One point I’d add: I have plentiful experience of helping postdocs write applications for lectureships and further fellowships and I note that they often interpret ‘teaching experience’ very literally/naturally. Sometimes interpreting that phrase quite broadly enables people to see that they might have more experience than they realise.

    Like

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