I am an international female postdoctoral researcher at UW. I left my home country 7 years ago when I was still too young to drink alcohol! Looking back, it seems like a crazy move: leaving the comfort of my home country, my parents and all the familiar things, to study biochemistry. Yet, that was the decision I made because I loved my work.
After completing my PhD, I decided that I wanted to do a postdoc. Not because I couldn’t find a job, but because I felt I needed more time and training to be ready for my own independent career. I wanted to learn new tools and techniques and become familiar with an exciting new field. I struggled a lot about how to tell this to my parents. Here in the U.S. many people don’t know what a postdoc is, and those who do know tend to think that it is a short, forced period in one’s career that gives them time to find a “real job”. Much to my surprise though, my parents took it really well. In fact, they already knew I deserved to get a “postdoc degree”! I think I like this view a lot better!
Now, it’s been a year since I began my postdoc position at UW. I clearly remember the day I got my offer. I was filled with joy and why wouldn’t I be? This was my dream for so long. I always wanted to be where I am now. I love my research. It is a combination of biochemistry and computational biology and I get to learn a lot of new experimental and computational techniques. I am working with a group of very intelligent and talented postdocs and graduate students to design small macrocycles and peptides as the next generation of selective drugs to treat diseases, and new materials for performing biomolecular recognition and catalysis. I feel fortunate to be in a big lab in which I can talk to many people with different projects and ideas, as well as people from various backgrounds with different interests and personalities. And it all is great!
But even my isolated, happy bubble can burst. The first small cracks happened at an event held by UW office of postdoctoral affairs. There, two of my postdoc friends and I were sitting at a table together talking when we were told by others at our table that they did not know any other postdocs in UW before this event. They said they felt very left out. Boom — I live in a bubble! I am surrounded by other postdocs everyday, but what if I were in a smaller lab? As a postdoc, it is much harder to meet other postdocs. You don’t share classes with your peers, there is no required introduction class for postdocs and you are constantly under pressure to get things done and leave, so you don’t get out of your way to meet new people.
The crack continued to grow and small holes appeared in my bubble over time. One of the postdoctoral fellows in our lab had to leave research and academia, maybe forever, because she recently had a child; the postdoc salaries of her and her husband were far from enough to make ends meet. Another “luckier” friend didn’t need to leave his position but he had to start his work almost right away after having his child because UW does not provide paid parental leave!
The ultimate shattering of my safe bubble happened at the beginning of 2017 as a result of a combination of changes in the political climate as well as some other random events. A lot of my friends suffered (or would have suffered) from the new rules pertaining to visas and immigration (that were ultimately rejected by federal courts, at least for now). One of the best scientists I know will not be able to work in a few months because the premium processing of H-1B visas has stopped and UW does not support (and by support I do not mean financial support but by signing their applications) green card applications of postdocs or even research scientists. I — a legal permanent resident with a green card — even had to cancel my trip back home due to the infamous “travel ban”. The current proposed cuts in research funding, changes in national lab hirings, and increased barriers to hiring non-US citizens as researchers in industries is scaring all of us, postdocs, who are seeking a job in any venue. Will we find a job? If so, can we get the support we need? If we cannot find a job, are we still supported as postdocs? The clear answer to these questions is we do not know and it seems that everyone else is too busy with their own problems to even care.
Now that I think more about my graduate school years, I feel like I had been protected from the dangers and insecurities of the outside world by my university. I did not need to worry as a graduate student. Our department secretary provided proactive assistance with these issues. The university assisted us in keeping track of each and every little form we need to fill out and informed us of precautions we need to take well in advance. We had access to a great collection of resources such as free counseling for both mental and legal support. We had our friends and our peers to talk to about our issues. And as soon as I transitioned to become a postdoc, I lost all that support. It feels very strange. As you get older and have more stress in your life (finding a job, supporting a family, even the fact of growing older) you seem to lose more support from the university. As a postdoc, I had to handle everything myself and I was only a month older than when I was a graduate student and had a lot more support! I needed to pay for all the services I wanted to get from the university, remember all the details of my visa process, figure out what benefits applied to me, and on top of all that, I had no say when it came to addressing any issues that seemed unfair or didn’t fit my needs.
While I love my lab and my research, it becomes increasingly clear that managing the postdoc life is not something to take for granted. What exacerbates the problem is the fact that postdoc period has lengthened. In fact many prestigious industry positions now require at least 3 years of postdoc, and a minimum 5 year postdoc is a common practice in many cell biology and molecular biology fields. During all these years, we are highly underpaid (many postdocs who are typically in our mid-30s are on contracts for $45,000 per year), insecure (many postdoc contracts are on an annual basis whose extension is highly dependent on the funding of their lab, which adds an extra burden to those international postdocs who need a contract for visa renewal), and unsupported (we do not have access to the university’s resources for grad students or professors).
When I heard the whispers of forming a union in UW, I thought: “that is it!”. This is the opportunity for us, postdocs, to gather together and help each other to do what is best for us. It is time that each one of us come out of our own individual bubbles and help make our lives better. It seems possible. In fact, the newly-formed University of California and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab postdoc union have already made substantial improvements in many areas including increased length of minimum appointment, better parental leave options, access to better health-care, and increased salaries.
We can also make a change in our life, and the life of our friends and future postdocs. I urge all postdocs to deeply consider joining the postdoc union and supporting its formation. It is our opportunity to work together to overcome the challenges we are facing. As a poet from my home country said: “Join me friend, don’t stay alone in pain. As this pain we all share will not be cured when we are lonely individuals.”
*The identity of this postdoc is being protected due to visa concerns.
 http://hr.uw.edu/ops/leaves/parental-leave/. According to UW policy you can take up to 4 months of parental leave but if you want to be paid during that period, you need to use other accrued pay leaves.
 And believe it or not, sometimes even less. In a city like Boston!