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Shot of a young woman using a computer while working in a laboratory
Shot of a young woman using a computer while working in a laboratory

Pandemic Amplifies Postdoc Struggles

Postdoctoral fellows faced challenges before COVID-19 changed the way academia functions, and these early career scientists report that things have only gotten harder.

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Bianca Nogrady

Bianca Nogrady is a freelance science journalist and author who is yet to meet a piece of research she doesn't find fascinating.

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When the pandemic struck in the US last year, a group of researchers from the University of Chicago was in the process of analyzing the results of a 2019 survey about the job satisfaction and career plans of more than 6,000 postdocs.

“We realized that we needed to do another quick follow-up survey on the impact of the pandemic, because we thought that our 2019 results were not reflecting the situation at all,” says Andréanne Morin, a postdoc in human genetics who is involved in conducting the survey.

She and her colleagues resurveyed 1,942 of the postdocs who had participated in 2019 to see how the pandemic had affected their health and wellbeing, career progression and trajectories, and goals. That follow-up survey was conducted in October 2020, capturing postdoc experiences at a time when COVID-19 case numbers were soaring and vaccines had not yet been released.

The results, which have not yet undergone peer review, were eye-opening, even to the postdocs who conducted the research and were familiar with how global spread of SARS-CoV-2 had upended many plans.

“The thing that was most shocking was the number of postdocs who struggled with basic needs during this time,” says coauthor Britney Helling, previously a postdoc in human genetics at the University of Chicago and now a senior scientist at AbbVie. “We all understand that we don’t make a lot of money as a postdoc, but I’ve always been able to live comfortably.” Just over one-third of survey respondents said they weren’t able to meet their basic needs in terms of childcare, healthcare—particularly mental health support—food, and transportation. 

The survey also showed nearly one-third of postdocs said the pandemic had greatly affected their mental health. One in ten had delayed their job search, one-third had changed their career plans because of the pandemic, and compared with previous survey results, many more postdocs reported being unemployed.

The thing that was most shocking was the number of postdocs who struggled with basic needs during this time.

—Britney Helling, AbbVie

Even before COVID-19 emerged, postdocs were arguably a neglected group in the hierarchy of academia. No longer students yet not faculty either, they faced low pay, lack of job security and power, little dedicated institutional support, and a highly competitive career path. 

COVID-19-associated public health measures have thrown further complications into the mix. International postdocs have struggled with visa difficulties and border closures; parents juggled childcare and remote learning; and anyone involved in research that could not be done remotely weighed their personal safety against the possible career consequences of staying home.

The challenges that postdocs are now dealing with come as no surprise to Shirley Malcolm, senior advisor to the CEO of AAAS and director of the AAAS’s SEA Change initiative for equity and diversity in STEMM. Having played a key role in the creation of the National Postdoctoral Association in 2002, Malcolm is well acquainted with the hardships encountered during this phase of one’s scientific career. “What the pandemic has done is to reveal fissures that were already in the structure,” she says, describing postdocs as an “invisible part of the research enterprise.”

Helling says that while pay for these researchers isn’t particularly high—the average salary for a postdoc in the US is around $54,000—she believes many were previously able to manage if they had a partner who was also earning. “But during this time, a lot of people lost their jobs, and so now you have a family trying to sustain themselves on a postdoc income.” 

On top of that, early in the spread of COVID-19 many institutions halted yearly pay increases for postdocs as part of system-wide wage freezes. “Our rents continue to go up, the cost of a lot of food and other things continue to go up, and our pay bump wasn’t there,” Helling says. 

As the University of Chicago survey and individual interviews reveal, for a number of postdocs, the challenges brought on or exacerbated by COVID-19–related changes have been serious enough to prompt a rethink or even abandonment of their academic career goals.

The science must go on

Despite the pandemic, research continued, particularly where grant-associated deadlines had to be met. This created issues for laboratories trying to manage access to facilities while still complying with public health orders during lockdowns.

Chinyere Iweka, a neurology postdoc at Stanford University, says the head of her lab set up a schedule that rotated members in and out of the lab at different times to minimize the risk of SARS-CoV-2 exposure. Her advisor also got access to a nearby vacant laboratory, enabling staff to spread out and maintain adequate distance. But Iweka says that several other nearby laboratories shut down completely during lockdowns to manage the risk of transmission.

Not all postdocs had the same experience. Helling says their survey included responses from postdocs whose supervisors demanded they continue their laboratory work even in contravention of public health restrictions.

“People who aren’t at the top often feel a lot of pressure to do what is asked of them without any feeling that they have a right to say no,” Helling says. “These people really felt that they were required to come in when they felt unsafe, and continue to move their science forward, because they were bench scientists.”

That situation was further complicated in the case of postdocs with children, says Seetha Krishnan, a postdoc in neuroscience at the University of Chicago and collaborator on the survey. “They were expected to work a lot because they were remote and [perceived to be] at home without distractions, but that wasn’t true for parents,” she says. 

While many parents had to juggle working from home with parenting and supervising remote schooling, performing bench science posed special challenges. Iweka had to bring her two children, ages 14 and 8, into the lab with her when their schools were closed during the fall of 2020, and manage their schooling as she did her experiments. “It was terrible,” she admits. But she didn’t want to risk exposing her children to COVID-19 in childcare, and she felt they were too young to remain at home and continue their schooling unsupervised. “There was no other option.” 

Border uncertainties

For many international postdocs, COVID-19–related border closures have created yet another major challenge. Canadian Tanya Paes was finishing up her PhD in early childhood development at the University of Cambridge when the pandemic erupted. In February 2020, the university took the prescient step of advising its international students and staff to return home if possible. Paes returned to Canada and successfully applied to a postdoc position at Purdue University in Indiana. 

The move home may have saved her career. That’s because the travel ban implemented on March 11 would have prevented her from traveling from the UK to the US. It did not, on the other hand, prevent her from traveling from Canada to the States in September 2020. Even so, the entry rules were complex and constantly changing. At one point, she had to liaise directly with border authorities on the US-Canadian border at Niagara to determine where and when she could cross (she was eventually able to fly in).

Anaïs Tallon, a postdoc in chemical and sensory ecology at Virginia Tech and a French national, says the pandemic has increased the difficulty for international trainees to get visas to work in the US, particularly as embassies shut down or had restricted access during surges of infection. 

International postdocs in the US are now also under constant threat that they may lose their position if they travel home to visit family and friends and find themselves unable to return to the country due to new border closures. “This is the first time in my life that I’m forbidden to leave a place,” Tallon says. “It’s not that I can’t leave it, but if I leave it, I might lose my job because they don’t sponsor me anymore.”  

A spotlight on problems—and solutions

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic for postdocs, it’s that it has brought the problems they face into the light like never before, which makes them harder to ignore. “One of the things about the disruption that has been wrought by the pandemic is that it provides an opportunity for institutions to reimagine and reinvent themselves,” Malcom says. 

One positive note that came out of the University of Chicago survey was that postdocs who had postdoc associations on campus—which are largely run by postdocs themselves—generally fared better than those who didn’t. For example, 81 percent of postdocs with access to a postdoc association reported having access to mental health resources, compared with 61 percent of those without access to an association to support them. Postdoc associations were also associated with greater awareness of mental health resources, particularly those available through respondents’ institutions.

When Tallon arrived at Virginia Tech, there wasn’t a postdoc association, but one has since formed and Tallon is involved in its international support services arm. She says the association gave her a way to socialize with other postdocs. Similarly, when Paes arrived at Purdue, she helped set up an inter-departmental postdoc writing group, which has helped her form bonds with other postdocs.

Nancy Schwartz, dean and director of postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago and a coauthor on the survey study, says she would like to see institutions take greater responsibility for postdocs. “If you’re going to have this cohort of individuals as part of the community, you have to be able to guarantee them the same kind of dedication that you do for your undergraduate [and] graduate students, your medical students, your professional students, your faculty and employees,” she says. 

One issue is that many institutions don’t even know how many postdocs they have on campus, partly because postdocs have a range of titles, Schwartz says. “Unlike our graduate students—at least in this country—where institutions have to report to a central government agency how many students they have, what the outcomes are, how many get their PhDs and so on, we do not do that for postdocs,” she says. But they’re also not faculty.

This is the first time in my life that I’m forbidden to leave a place.

—Anaïs Tallon, Virginia Tech

That meant that many postdocs have little or no support systems, such as access to an institution’s human resources or student services. “It’s just this vulnerable, intermediate group that nobody takes care of,” Schwartz says. 

Helling argues that a human resources department specifically for postdocs is vital regardless of whether there’s a pandemic happening. “We’re not students anymore, so we don’t have the student services, and we’re not employees so we’re not protected under that,” she says. An HR department could help avoid situations such as international postdocs being fired with two weeks’ notice in the middle of the pandemic, as was described by one participant in the University of Chicago survey, Helling adds. 

There are other ways to help postdocs who have been affected by the changes brought on by COVID-19, particularly around training and advancement opportunities, and this doesn’t just involve academic institutions. The American Chemical Society went virtual for its career professional development programs for those looking for a job in the chemical sciences, says Joerg Schlatterer, senior manager in the ACS Student and Postdoctoral Scholars Office. “For example, career and professional development programming was provided virtually and focused on how to succeed in virtual interviews, how to efficiently network during virtual conferences,” he says. 

He says there’s also an argument for funding bodies to provide extra support to postdocs. “As many postdocs and their research advisors have struggled to identify funding sources to support ongoing projects, funding organizations such as the US National Science Foundation have recognized that additional financial support to postdocs to mitigate COVID-19 impacts on research career progress are important and necessary in these difficult times,” Schlatterer says. 

Z Yan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary neuroscience at Princeton University who is about to take up a position as assistant professor at the University of Washington, says the experience and challenges of the pandemic will influence how she views her future role and responsibilities.

“Especially as I start my own lab and I become a professor, I really want to strongly interrogate why are these the ways that our society has failed us before the pandemic,” she says. “Do I want to replicate these structures or do I want to create something new?” 

A dimmer future

Even before the pandemic, research suggested that fewer than 13 percent of postdocs in the US went on to find tenure-track positions in academia. Another study found that doing postdoctoral research doesn’t actually improve an individual’s chances of getting tenure in their lifetime, and the low pay as a postdoc can reduce overall lifetime earnings.

There aren’t yet data about what effect the pandemic has had on postdoc success. However, one in four postdocs surveyed by Morin and colleagues had changed their career plans as a direct result of the pandemic. Of those, around half said they were much less likely to seek an academic position, and many were instead considering a career in industry. Helling herself says the experience of the past almost two years contributed to her decision to go into industry rather than pursue a tenure-track position in academia. “I can go someplace where I’m valued and I feel that I’m being compensated appropriately,” she says. 

For those postdocs who are still determined to climb the academic ladder, the task just got a little more daunting. With the pandemic interrupting both research and publication, postdocs are falling behind in their journey toward a faculty position, Iweka says. “For academia you need papers, and for papers, you need to a lot of data, and if you’ve lost that momentum, it’s hard to get back on it.”

Schlatterer says that the pandemic may have helped postdocs to critically evaluate their possible career trajectories, particularly given the ongoing shortage of faculty positions. “Postdocs should recognize that their advanced training helps them become competitive for careers in all sectors, such as industry, government, and nonprofit organizations.”

Many are worried that the hammer blow of the pandemic has fallen particularly harder on certain groups, and that this will hinder progress being made to diversify science. “I’m also concerned about the instances of where we lost people from minoritized populations,” Malcolm says, highlighting the challenges that women in particular face. “I worry very much that a lot just give up on academia at a time when we need them not to.”

See “Pandemic May ‘Roll Back’ Women’s Gains in STEMM: NASEM Report

Wang is already seeing this among her own friends and colleagues. “Those who are participating or thinking of participating in the ‘great resignation’—it is primarily non-men-presenting people of color,” she says.

Correction (January 4): This article originally misidentified the university where Tanya Paes earned her PhD, and incorrectly stated that she was not able to fly from Canada to the US to begin a new job. The Scientist regrets the errors.

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