Andrew Thaler

CEO at Blackbeard Biologic

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The Postdoctoral Bait and Switch

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We need to talk about fake postdoctoral fellowships. The positions are real enough, but they’re not actually postdoctoral fellowships.

The ads for fake fellowships say things like “must have expertise in comparative genomics, genome analysis, assembly, and RNA sequence data analysis,” and “$40K per year; 9 month position (note, that means that you won’t actually be paid the full $40K) ,” and “cannot provide moving expenses.” If your aim is to acquire professional research skills and scholarly mentoring so that you can carve out a successful career in the sciences, those kinds of fellowships can be hazardous to your future.

A postdoctoral fellowship is, first and foremost, a training opportunity. It’s a position designed to give new Ph.D.s additional skills that they may not have mastered in graduate school. It’s an opportunity for early-career scientists to ease into the more bureaucratic aspects of academic life and to engage with their university leadership as peers, rather than students. It is also an opportunity for the postdoctoral adviser to get highly trained labor for a fraction of the cost.

That’s the tradeoff: Postdocs accept the typically lousy pay but in return are trained and advised in a well-managed fellowship designed to benefit both their own career growth and the professor’s lab.

Increasingly, though, postdoctoral fellowships are not being designed to benefit new Ph.D.s but to use them as cheap labor. So how can you spot one of these potentially exploitative fellowships?

Here is one big red flag: The fellowship call requires applicants to already possess all of the skills necessary to complete the entire scope of the work. Calls like that are basically seeking lab technicians. But technicians are supposed to be university employees, with all of the rights and benefits extended to other full-time employees. Postdocs — wrapped up in myriad administrative loopholes that universities can apply to fellowships — frequently have few benefits and even less bargaining power.

Postdoctoral fellowships — even the good ones — are structured in such a way that they create a revolving door of academics who may constantly fail to achieve financial and professional stability. For the most part, the professors have very little control over how this system has evolved: Remember, senior scientists aren’t impervious to the science-funding crisis, either. But it’s still a system antagonistic toward the career advancement of new Ph.D.s. — especially when it comes to short-term (less than a year) fellowships that give applicants no chance to breathe before they have to begin applying again.

A string of one-year fellowships can hamper your future in a variety of ways:

  • No upward negotiation of salary. Postdoctoral fellows aren’t on a promotion cycle. They’re on temporary contracts. Postdocs don’t get to renegotiate their contracts, and every new fellowship is a lateral move, often to a new institution. There’s almost no room to negotiate salary because the terms are generally fixed by a grant agency. Did you get $49,000 as a fellow at your last institution? Tough, ours only offers $38,000.
  • Minimal or nonexistent benefits. As I noted, postdocs can be classified differently from other full-time employees. Often, institutions will try to pass the responsibility to provide benefits back to the grant agency (even when the universities collect massive overhead on the grant!) or try to roll postdocs into the student health-care plan, with high premiums and no guarantee for things like paid maternity leave. And because every fellowship is different, postdocs at the same institution may have different benefits, depending on how savvy their advisers were in fighting for those benefits and how well-funded the grant agency was when the fellowship was created. The university HR office will often have no idea which benefits you’ll actually get. You may go into a new fellowship thinking you have a stellar medical plan, only to see it vanish the first time you file and someone checks the paperwork.
  • Continuous relocation. Every time you move, you’re uprooted from your support network. That creates a continuous feeling of isolation, and it can take months in a new place before you feel comfortable again. Moving is also expensive, often wiping out any savings you accrued from your last post. And coming into a new institution means you’ll have to build relationships with faculty, staff, students, and administrators from the ground up again. That is generally manageable when a fellowship lasts for three or four years long, but not for jobs lasting only nine months to a year.

So what can you do?

Seek stable postdocs that last for a few years (or more) and that offer real training opportunities. Find universities where the postdocs are unionized and can negotiate for transparent benefits packages. Get all promises from HR in writing. And think about whether moving cross-country with no relocation expenses for a nine-month position is really in your best interest.

Unfortunately, it’s an employer’s market out there. You got your Ph.D. to do science — so when that postdoc offer comes, you’ll probably take it, even if the offer just isn’t very good. Maybe it’ll work out. There are some decent short-term postdocs out there. There are even some great ones that can help launch a career. But you could still end up back in the revolving door, bouncing from institution to institution.

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