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The times they are a changing – improving the postdoc experience

We are delighted to welcome Benjamin Cain (@BenCainPhD), a Postdoctoral Researcher in Astrophysics at UC Davis, CA, USA and member of the UC Postdoc Union, UAW 5810, to our guest blog. We’ve covered a few other stories about Earlier Career Reseachers and some from Post Docs on our blog, so we’re delighted to carry another one. And, just as a reminder, co-founder Alexander Grossmann, waived fees for Earlier Career Researchers for Open Access Week 2014, offer expires end of Nov 2014. Now, over to Ben.

I have a job proposition for you.

You’ll be making less than $4000 per month, time off and sick leave aren’t guaranteed, you’ll probably have to pay for your own healthcare, and, let’s be honest, you’ll probably be working well over 40 hours a week (meaning you’ll probably be earning less than $20/hour).  You need to be innovative, at the cutting edge of scientific research, be a leader in your field, train your junior co-workers, and you’ll probably have to do this for at least 5 years before you can even think about moving up the ladder, which may or may not be an option.  And did we mention that you’ll need a PhD?

Image credit: walking out the door. woodley wonder works, Flickr, CC BY
Image credit: walking out the door. woodley wonder works, Flickr, CC BY

Sorry, where did you go, are you still interested?

If this sounds like your life, you’re probably one of the 60,000 or so postdoctoral researchers at numerous institutions across the US.  And if it sounds like a bad deal, you’re not alone. The right to stable benefits, well-defined minimum salaries, guaranteed annual pay raises, discrimination protections, sick leave and paid time off, a fair and transparent system for resolving grievances, were among the many reasons that postdocs at the University of California began building a union in 2005. And while scientists probably aren’t the first thing people think of when they think of union workers, UC postdocs join a long tradition in the labor movement of academics coming together collectively to improve their working conditions.

Since ratifying their first contract in 2010, myself and other members of the UC postdocs union, UAW 5810, have made significant improvements to the postdoc experience at UC.  Not only has the average salary for a UC postdoc risen by 14% to ~$47,800 over the past four years, postdocs are guaranteed health insurance for themselves and their partners/dependents or term life insurance quotes without a medical exam, are guaranteed access to career development resources, have increased paid time off and better job security than ever before.  In addition to these direct gains, having a union has increased UC postdocs’ ability to advocate for the interests of postdocs and scientists in California and across the country.  We’ve met with legislators at both the federal and state levels to advocate on issues like increased science funding, comprehensive immigration reform, and gender equity in the workplace, among others.  We’ve also communicated directly with funding agencies like the NIH to make sure that the postdoc voice is heard.  With our union we’ve been able to marshall a much stronger collective voice than would have been possible otherwise.

It’s clear that we’ve made significant progress for UC postdocs through our union. But taking a step back, it’s clear that there is a lot more work to be done. Though salaries have increased, the fact is that postdocs are still significantly underpaid relative to similarly qualified workers in a variety of industries. The University of California takes in over five billion dollars (yes, that’s a “B”) in federal research funds every year, and postdocs are involved in the majority of the research work that represents. Postdocs do research, train undergraduate and graduate students, maintain lab equipment, help apply for funding, and keep the science enterprise rolling. Postdocs are an essential component of the scientific research workforce, but are not compensated to match.

These economic issues have important implications for academia more broadly. The low level of postdoc salaries relative to other opportunities can have the effect of pushing postdocs with families, and women in particular, out of science research careers. As the amount of time to get a PhD has risen, this is affecting a larger and larger portion of the postdoc pool. For international postdocs, which is well over half of postdocs at UC, this is a particular concern since some visas do not allow spouses to work and therefore require many postdoc families to survive on a single income.  The lack of childcare benefits puts additional pressure on postdocs, and again especially women, to drop out of research careers because of the strain of balancing work alongside parenting responsibilities. This is exacerbated by the fact that most of the UC campuses are located in the most expensive cities in California, where housing and childcare are increasingly unaffordable on postdoc salaries.

In the context of the open access publishing movement that has exploded in the past few years, these economic issues highlight an important misalignment of priorities. Consider what might be achieved if the funds spent on for-profit publishing were instead invested in the labor that goes into producing scientific results. Instead of spending hundreds of millions of dollars inflating the profit margins of a few publishing companies, we could be funding new areas of research, making sure that the researchers who did the work were better paid, and overall improving the diversity and vibrancy of our academic community.

So where do we go from here? We’ve made important gains but postdoc working conditions need further progress that reflects our contributions to UC’s research. At the end of September, 2015 the first contract for the postdoc union, UAW 5810, will expire, so next year we will going back to the bargaining table with UC.  What we’ll be fighting for goes beyond just what is good for postdocs at UC.  We don’t accept the status quo in academia as good enough for postdocs at any institution, and we’ll be standing up for a change in how postdocs are viewed across the US.  We’re an essential part of the research workforce, and by standing together we will make sure that our voice is heard and improve the lives of postdocs at UC and across the country.

Want to know more about the UAW 5810 story and how postdocs have benefitted from building a union?  Check out our Point of View piece in eLife. Also, Plant Scientist Benjamin Schwessinger (@schwessinger) has posted a blog at the ASPB entitled How UC postdocs benefit from building their own union! (Who’s next?)