Scientists Are Opting For Remote Postdoc Positions

Technology and family constraints are making the “ghostdoc” more popular, but the setup is not without costs, researchers say.

By Ashley Yeager | May 1, 2018

© JULIA TIM/SHUTTERSTOCK.COMOn a warm September day, paleoecologist Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie and her colleagues hiked to a lake in Maine’s Acadia National Park, set up a floating research platform, and drilled deep into the sediment in the lakebed, pulling up a meter-long shaft of soil. “It took us . . . maybe three and a half days to actually get our cores out of the lake, and then we hiked everything back down,” she tells The Scientist a few months later. “Right now, that core is sitting in a cold room at the University of Maine waiting for me.”

McDonough MacKenzie, who uses the pollen in these cores to reconstruct the biological responses of plants to past climate change, is a postdoc at the institution. But you might not immediately realize that from looking at her schedule. Although she typically spends weeks at a time in the Maine lab of her advisor, paleoecologist Jacquelyn Gill, in between research trips around the state, the rest of McDonough MacKenzie’s time is spent working from her hometown, Boston. After all, while she needs lab access for sample preparation and analysis, the rest of her activities—reviewing data, reading research papers, writing up notes of the results she’s gotten, and preparing for her future fieldwork—she can carry out from anywhere.

This arrangement is no accident: McDonough MacKenzie officially holds a remote postdoctoral position. To ensure her “ghostdocing” gig would work, McDonough MacKenzie says, she and Gill had many detailed discussions in person and over the phone about the project before she applied for the position. “We talked about the possibility that I would not actually move to Maine. My family is in Boston, my husband works here, I have a two-year-old daughter,” she says. “I was finishing my PhD and going on the job market, and my husband and I agreed: if I did a postdoc, we would not move, but if I got a job, we would move.” Eventually, McDonough MacKenzie was awarded a fellowship from the Society of Conservation Biology and started her remote postdoc in the fall of 2017.

Her situation is hardly unique: The Scientist has found that a number of prospective postdocs and their advisors are exploring the possibility of remote work, citing the opportunities afforded in terms of work/life balance and other advantages. Although data on the number of postdocs working remotely are scarce, the phenomenon appears to be part of a broader trend across the US workforce. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the number of Americans working at home grew by 115 percent between 2005 and 2015 among non–self-employed individuals, with 3.7 million employees now working from home at least half the time.

Compared to traditional postdoc jobs, remote positions may offer a better work/life balance.

The setup is not without challenges, from simple communication difficulties to feelings of isolation, leaving postdocs to come up with bespoke solutions to their unusual situations. “The PI-postdoc relationship is about the same,” Brian O’Meara, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, tells The Scientist by email. “But there is a cost in terms of other interactions. My postdoc in Texas is not going to bump into an ecologist in my department while getting coffee and strike up a conversation.”

Family first

O’Meara’s remote postdoc is David Bapst, a paleobiologist who builds computational tools to improve the construction of phylogenies for extinct species, including dinosaurs and birds. Bapst lives in College Station, Texas, with his daughter and his wife, who has a tenure-track position at Texas A&M. Like McDonough MacKenzie, he didn’t want move away from his family for a postdoc—a situation O’Meara is sympathetic to. “A postdoctoral fellowship is of finite duration,” O’Meara says. “Not everyone can move for their career for a one- or two-year position.” When O’Meara offered Bapst the position, fully funded, Bapst says he leapt at the chance.

Family considerations such as these can substantially influence a scientist’s ability to remain in academia. If a postdoc applicant has a spouse, or is caring for children or parents, it can be hard to move—an issue that tends to affect some sectors of society more than others. For example, research by Mary Ann Mason of the University of California, Berkeley, and others has shown that marriage and the birth of children are major reasons why women leave science between receiving a PhD and earning tenure—an effect that is less pronounced among male researchers.

And a recent report by attorney Jessica Lee and colleagues at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, found that many US institutions offer postdocs no parental leave at all, with parents from ethnic minorities reporting greater discouragement from taking leave than their white counterparts.

Employer flexibility regarding the need for postdocs to be onsite has the potential to allow scientists from a wider range of backgrounds to take up postdoc positions, notes Henry Sauermann, an associate professor of strategy at the European School of Management and Technology Berlin who studies the scientific workforce. “There may be a benefit of ‘flexible’ formats or arrangements in that it allows certain groups of individuals to pursue this path,” Sauermann writes in an email to The Scientist, noting the lack of data on the subject. “So, there could be a benefit in terms of increasing diversity.”

O’Meara says he believes that remote postdocs may be just as beneficial for PIs as they are for early-career scientists. “The advantage [of remote postdoc positions] for me is both short-term—being able to pull from a broader pool of potential folks than just those who can move to where my lab is—and long-term: helping to reduce barriers that rob the field of important voices,” he says.

Ultimately, any hiring decision should come down to choosing the right person, says Jack Williams, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is currently working with two remote research scientists who had been on-site in Williams’s Wisconsin lab but couldn’t continue there for family reasons. In both cases, these individuals had “a lot of deep skill sets and knowledge, so it just seemed to make the most sense that, if we could be flexible and give them a way to keep working with us, that was the best way to do it,” he says.

Williams notes that for him it is not ideal to have people unable to be present regularly in the lab, “but it works, and if it lets you have someone who’s really good work with you and in the place where they need to be for their own personal life or family reasons, then it seems like a reasonable compromise.”

Expanded opportunities

Sometimes, instead of restricting scientists’ contributions, remote postdoc positions can broaden their horizons. Computational microbiologist and immunologist Kevin Bonham, for example, tells The Scientist that his motivation for taking a remote position in the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), lab of microbiologist Rachel Dutton was to continue to do bench science while pursuing teaching. In 2014, he started a curriculum fellowship at Harvard Medical School, where he designed and taught courses in immunology. He also started working with Dutton, who was then at Harvard but moved to UCSD in 2015. Bonham opted to stay with Dutton in a remote postdoc position, where he could focus on studying horizontal gene transfer in microbial communities. The distance was difficult, but the post helped Bonham realize he wanted to pursue research.

By working remotely, postdocs may also end up with access to the scientific community at more than the home institution—a relative rarity for scientists working onsite. In addition to teaching at Harvard, for example, Bonham attended seminars there and at other Boston-area institutions to discuss his work with colleagues in his field—a move mirrored by several remote researchers, notes Brian McGill, an ecologist at the University of Maine. Some remote postdocs even find local labs to work with. “Every person who has worked remotely for me has been able to find a college town nearby, and find somebody who’d be happy to let them come in for free,” he says. “They’re a postdoc, so they’re already experienced.” And those networking opportunities introduce whole new groups of people to collaborate and share ideas with.

Meanwhile, for some remote postdocs, the limited time spent in a supervisor’s lab brings its own advantages. McDonough MacKenzie, for example, notes that being remote makes her “super-efficient” when she’s at Gill’s lab in Maine. “Because I know I have a limited amount of time, I am way more present and productive than I probably would be looking at a two-year postdoc versus a two-month visit,” she says. “My thinking was: I’m just here for two months—what needs to get done?”

Dealing with the downsides

It’s not all positive, of course. Remote postdocs have to contend with missing out on being part of day-to-day lab life. For a start, Williams explains, you can never connect completely with your labmates, despite chatting on Skype, Slack, Zoom, and other communication platforms. “As a supervisor and mentor, there is that value of being able to go out for a cup of coffee and check in and see how things are going,” he says. “So much of communication is body language.” When someone comes into the office and has had a hard day, he can see it, he says. “Some of that stuff just doesn’t communicate well over the phone or over Skype.”

This lack of personal interaction often makes the relationship between advisor and postdoc particularly important. As a postdoc, remote or not, “you’re sort of in this liminal space where you’re not really a student and not really faculty or staff, so often the university doesn’t know how to handle you—what email lists to put you on, or how to integrate you or connect you with others,” says Gill. “That can be great for sort of getting your head down and banging out a bunch of papers, but it can also be lonely, both personally, socially, and also intellectually.” McDonough MacKenzie and Gill have worked out their own solutions to get around the added distance involved in remote postdoc positions; for example, they frequently text back and forth about research. It’s McDonough MacKenzie’s way of tapping her PI on the shoulder, as if she were right there in the lab, McDonough MacKenzie says.

Not everyone can move for their career for a one-or two-year position.—Brian O’Meara
University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Remoteness also highlights the importance of having a support network outside the lab. At institutions where remote postdoc positions have become commonplace, researchers may find communities of people with similar situations, and feelings of isolation can be somewhat assuaged. Through her fellowship program, for example, McDonough MacKenzie notes that “you have a cohort, and even though you’re not too geographically close together, you spend three weeks of the year on these one-week professional development retreats, coming together.” The same is true of engaging in the local community, she adds. “I’ve been going to a bunch of job talks at Harvard, just because I want to see more of them. . . . Just being a part of an academic community feels really nice.”

Nevertheless, there are some downsides that are difficult to get around, whatever the effort of the researchers involved. With remote positions, Sauermann notes, it’s difficult to reproduce the managerial, relationship-focused aspects of postdoc work—often seen as important preparation for a future faculty career. “Spending too much time outside the lab may mean limited opportunities to develop those skills,” he says. Bapst came up against this problem as he was applying for a second remote postdoc position. Many advisors turned him down, explaining they wanted a person on-site who could add to the culture of the lab or advise graduate students, he says.

Gill hopes that such attitudes will soften. From a PI perspective, “having the right person who’s long-
distance can be better for you, your lab, and your project than having a weaker fit that’s close by,” she explains. “Much as I love having a strong lab culture with people who are close and able to interact informally a lot, I’d say, at the end of the day, it’s also the projects that need to get moved forward. I would encourage people to think about it, even if they’re sort of feeling like, ‘Oh, I would never do that.’”

Even so, the remote postdoc is unlikely to be a good solution for everyone. Individuals thinking of doing remote postdocs have to know themselves extremely well, and they have to be honest with themselves, Gill says. “If your mentor is super hands-off and isn’t checking in with you and you tend to need a lot of encouragement or structure and you know you don’t work well at home, then this is going to be a bad fit for you.”

How to Work Well From Far Away

Self-reflect first: Remote work is not for everyone, says the University  of Maine’s Jacquelyn Gill. “You should really checkin with yours elf about whether or not you’re self-motivated, whether you have the local resources and support, whetheryou’ll feel isolated, or you have a strong community.”

Find a local base: Brian McGill, also of the University of Maine, suggests trying to come to an arrangement with a local institution, to gain access to a university library, seminars, and other people with whom to talk about ideas face-to-face. Finding researchers with similar interests nearby can prevent a sense of isolation,
he says.

Stay connected: Reach out to your PI regularly and often, says McGill. “It’s easy to get busy and say, ‘Oh, we don’t really have anything to talk about this week.’ But then you miss the casual interactions, finding out what’s up in the person’s life, or randomly bouncing science ideas off of each other,” he says.

Make time for face time: Visiting your lab every few months or so is essential, McGill says—not just for lab work, but to get to know your colleagues and to feel connected. “That’s most important at the beginning, to get the relationship established.” he says. University of Maine paleoecologist Caitlin McDonough MacKenzie agrees—as a remote postdoc, she packs her days when she’s in the lab. She’ll attend lab meetings and seminars and “dive into the lab lifestyle.”

Clarification: This article has been updated from the print version to include the source of the postdoc survey on parental care as a report by attorney Jessica Lee and colleagues at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco.

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