Letters

The precarious position of postdocs during COVID-19

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Science  29 May 2020:
Vol. 368, Issue 6494, pp. 957-958
DOI: 10.1126/science.abc5143

Postdoctoral researchers play a crucial role in many research groups, serving as mentors, teachers, and leaders as they develop their skills and prepare for scientific careers (1). However, the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) crisis has put funding and support for postdoc positions at risk, threatening to upend the career paths available to these junior scientists.

Even in normal times, postdoctoral positions provide little job security (2, 3). Most postdocs are employed on yearly contracts, and the availability of research funds is highly variable (1). Postdocs receive little institutional support in comparison to undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty. The positions often do not provide access to affordable health care or child care, career counseling or resources, paid sick leave, or employee and student benefits such as alumni network membership or union representation (1, 2, 47). Before the pandemic, an ongoing national discussion among postdocs was taking place to address the benefits of collective bargaining and unionization, as many feel the working conditions and terms of employment are substandard or outright nonexistent (1, 3, 8). For 2 to 3 years (and sometimes much longer), postdocs tolerate these subpar conditions in hopes of using their experience to propel them into full-time jobs as professors or researchers outside academia (2).

However, the economic crisis resulting from COVID-19 stay-at-home orders has spurred a growing list of universities to implement hiring freezes and cancel new faculty hires (9, 10). This lowers the chances that postdocs can obtain coveted full-time positions. Meanwhile, experimental work has all but ground to a halt, visas are expiring with little clarity about the prospect of extensions, and continued funding has become uncertain, jeopardizing the time-sensitive research that postdocs are conducting during their short contracts.

Although many institutions have granted some form of pandemic relief to other members of the academic community, postdocs have been overlooked (11, 12). To protect the future and diversity of the scientific pipeline, universities and research institutes must take immediate action to retain these vital junior scientists. Institutions should implement programs to prolong fellowship positions (12), similar to stop-the-clock policies available to tenure-track faculty, and vigorously advocate for federal-level extensions to visa programs. They should also offer temporary assistance to help vulnerable postdocs cope with current child care and health care challenges.

References and Notes

Competing Interests

All authors are board members of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) Postdoctoral Association (CPA). The views expressed herein do not in any way represent the view of other members of the CPA board, postdoctoral individuals at Caltech, or Caltech.

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