On the 'benefits' of Postdocs

Michelle Collins Apr 10, 2015

At the present moment, I am a postdoctoral Fellow, on my second postdoctoral position, and about to segue into a faculty position in the UK. This new phase of my career is something I've been thinking a lot about, as it will result in a fundamental shift in how I do research. Presently, I am free from any and all duties that are not research. I can work as I please, on whatever I like. Which is a great situation to be in. As a member of faculty, this will change. I'll be teaching, doing more administrative work, and I'll have less time to work on my research. Instead, I'll apply for grants, and try to attract excellent scholars to come and work with me as either PhD students or postdocs. Their work will be what drives my research interests forward. 

One thing I've thought a lot about is: How will I attract good, exciting, awesome people to come and work with me? I presume they will be somewhat in demand, and may be fatigued by the seemingly endless cycle of uprooting their lives to take jobs all around the World. Having overlapping research interests will be a big factor of course. But beyond that, I'd like to make the postdoc positions I offer as attractive as possible to these early career researchers. That means doing whatever possible to remove distractions so that they can be free to do the research they're excited about. So, protecting them from needless admin duties for one thing. And providing assistance so that they don't need to spend oodles of time navigating visa issues, tax problems or the subtle nuances of healthcare systems (although as I'll be in the UK, the NHS provides an easy solution for this) and so forth. One way to do this is to ensure they are entitled to reasonable benefits that accompany their salary. Another way is to mentor them, and help them move forward in their career to the coveted, permanent positions, which are in high demand.

This week, an article from Science Careers caused quite a stir amongst the scientific community (certainly, at least, amongst those of us on the Twitters...), because it seemed to be proposing an alternative way of dealing with postdocs to the one I outlined above. A letter, signed by 130 Faculty members in the life sciences department at the University of Maryland (UMD) and sent to the UMD President, argued that in order to be more competitive in research, they needed to hire more postdocs. With the limited funding available to them to do this, they recommended cutting the benefits available to postdoctoral researchers. The benefits they propose to cut or reduce include tuition reimbursement, retirement benefits, and changing their healthcare benefits to be those offered to all state employees, rather than the stipend they currently receieve to spend on the free market.

These kind of cuts are actually in line with how many other Universities treat their postdocs, but the proposals have troubled a number of people. In the Science Careers article, they quote Ellin Scholnick, UMDs faculty ombuds officer, who stated that the changes would be “taking away benefits from the least-paid individuals. … I’m deeply worried about the impact on the post-docs themselves, who already live on the edge,”. Others are also concerned that this is just another indication of the University system pushing to hire many 'cheap' postdocs, instead of hiring better paid, permanent research scientists. It is argued that, if Universities are to remain competitive in research, they need more people working for them, at a reduced cost. But this is a troubling direction to push in. As the Science Careers articles states:

"Within the logic of UMD’s needs—or any university’s needs—the argument makes sense. That same logic, though, if applied nationally and internationally, will perpetuate and worsen the current, damaging glut of early-career scientists. It’s an example of what ecologist Garrett Hardin termed the "tragedy of the commons" in which pursuing individual self-interest (or, in this case, institutional self-interest) leads to collective disaster."

Which may sound dramatic, but I agree. We should be working to improve the careers of early career researchers. We should be investing in more permanent positions, some which may focus more on research, others more on teaching, if we want to build strong, effective research environments. The rush for cheap postdoc labour to me is akin to chasing quantity over quality, and risks treating postdocs as disposable researchers, rather than highly qualified individuals. I personally know I work better when I don't have to spend time worrying about where I'll be in a few years time, whether or not I'll have health benefits, and if I'll ever be able to start properly saving for retirement. I'm sure that's true for many other people too.