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Guest post by Faten Taki. 

Leaving work late the other night, I crossed paths with a tearful postdoc colleague. The encounter left a scar in me. I was tired after what was for me a long day. But for her, it was after yet another mandatory four-hour meeting that ended at 10 pm. As she shared her story with me, I could see on her face how she was calculating and anticipating the different consequences of each decision she could make: “What will happen if I tell my boss I can’t make it to regular late night meetings? What will my husband say? How will my kids feel?”

I have been very fortunate to have bosses that are considerate of my personal life and even encouraged me to have a family. But seeing my colleagues go through this tug-of-war has reaffirmed my decisions not to have a family during my graduate and postdoc years. I often feel that our biological reproductive optimum is out of sync with the expectations of academic career culture, pushing many women out of research-intensive roles in academia.

Afterwards, I couldn’t stop thinking about this late night interaction. I was reminded of a TED speaker, Margaret Heffernan, who discussed a study that found that the most successful groups had three characteristics: First, they had high degrees of social sensitivity to each other as measured by the Reading the Mind in the Eyes Test—a test for empathy. Secondly, they gave equal time to each other. Thirdly, they included more women. With this in mind, I believe we have to actively work towards integrating the skill of social sensitivity into our work setting. It is our duty to promote empowerment and enrichment for trainees in science.

A postdoc position is a temporary training position that prepares you for a career, be it within academia or other sectors. For many postdocs, this period of career and professional development is full of demands on time and energy.

Postdocs often bear enormous stress, thanks to societal and personal pressures to conform to an assortment of unrealistic expectations. In higher education, these pressures are felt strongly by postdocs trying to balance their family and research commitments. Early career scientists feel pressured to dedicate long hours to their job and may find they need to work around the schedule of their mentor—not always an 8-5 schedule. As a result, they are at times thought of as loving their work more than their family. Low wages add additional pressure, as postdocs struggle to establish savings or afford childcare. Often unable to find affordable housing, postdocs move further away from research centers, adding the extra stress of longer commutes. It is quite difficult for those who must find childcare or work around school schedules.

In reality, most hope that the postdoc lifestyle is only a transition; if they work hard they will find a permanent position and things will get better. However, sometimes the experience is so stressful that many postdocs end up leaving their training for good and shifting careers altogether.

Remember that postdocs often feel unable to share their concerns due to fear of negative repercussions. Postdocs lack job security, have little leverage to negotiate, fear that they could be relieved of their position at any time with no questions asked, and often need their mentor’s support to get their next job. For those with families, this pressure is devastating.

If you are a scientist who has not worried about these pressures, you are most likely in the minority. Because of the prevalence of these issues within our community, it is important that we all have empathy for one another. We should be conscious of how our peers manage not only their day, but the pressures to find childcare at the last minute for an unanticipated meeting or an experiment that runs long. Before scheduling meetings after normal business hours, consider the potential impact and stress on many postdocs as they struggle to juggle work and life responsibilities.

Anecdotal stories from postdocs suggest that many colleagues are not empathetic to their situation. Postdocs perceive little consideration for their time or daily responsibilities and often feel invisible and lonely. It saddens me to say that the escalation of such burdens have cost my community the lives of several talented trainees by suicide. Something has to change.

It is important to stress that we are not asking for special treatment, lower expectations, or reduced productivity. Postdocs strive for self-fulfillment and to be good scientists. Many of us have left our native communities and travelled abroad for the opportunity to conduct scientific research. Postdocs are dedicated. And small changes like holding one-on-one meetings and work-related discussions within standard 8-5 business hours, as well as small acts of kindness like simply noticing each other’s well being, will reduce the stress and keep everyone motivated and excited about their work. It will also increase their focus, allowing them to become more productive.

“If the only way the most productive can be successful is by suppressing the productivity of the rest, then we badly need to find a better way to work and a richer way to live… What people need is social support… What motivates people are the bonds and loyalty and trust they develop between each other. What matters is the mortar, not just the bricks.”  

—Margaret Heffernan

About the author:

Photo of Faten TakiFaten Taki is a Liasion for the Early Career Scientist Career Development Subcommittee and a postdoctoral associate at Weill Cornell Medical College. Her goal is to be able to give back to the scientific community while still growing as an early career scientist.

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  1. Many of the social-stress issues that occur in a grant-funded research lab devolve from the funding mechanisms that support public-sector, grant-funded research. As everyone who has had a grant funded knows, the typical award involves conditions that translate to, “we will give you less money than you requested, but we expect you to deliver more science than you proposed.”

    Financially, every grant-funded project operates as a more or less separate business, on its own fiscal year, with its own deliverables. Because the home institution cannot provide off-setting support for the proposed work without either increasing the scope of the work or returning some of the grant funding (or violating the terms of the award), almost every grant-funded project operates in a condition of severe resource constraints.

    The career success of a PI depends on being able to deliver the proposed science, on time and within budget, even when the budget has been cut and the scope increased. Consequently, the typical PI must pass that pressure along to staff, resulting in late-night meetings without additional pay, etc.

    Most US funding institutions roll up support for people (salaries), projects (identifiable research activities), and places (facilities & administrative costs, or F&A) in one funding mechanism, such as the R01 awards from NIH. In these awards, people are supported through salary allocations, projects through the budget for the proposed work, and places through the allowable F&A costs that accompany these awards.

    When indirect methods are used to accomplish goals, there are often (usually, always?) unexpected consequences. By indirectly supporting people and places through project awards that are evaluated solely on the merits of the proposed activity, not on the needs or merits of the involved people and places, there is basically no feedback mechanism available to allow the needs of the affected people and places to have any influence on the evaluation, and thus on the funding, process.

    Result: huge unmet personal and institutional needs, accompanied by great uncertainty.

    With institutional budgets also under pressure, the main force of these unmet needs lands on the research personnel with the least ability to resist, either through protest or through finding alternative career paths. This, of course, is mainly the post-doc population. Since the long-term goal of most post-docs is ultimately to become independent researchers, they pretty much have no alternative career paths available to them, without abandoning that long-term goal.

    In short, the current design of public-sector research funding (in the US) sets up mechanisms that put severe adverse pressures on the lives of most post-docs, and this occurs (and will occur) no matter how well-intentioned the PI or the home institution.

    Given that these adverse pressures stem primarily from the structural mechanisms of the funding process, not from personal mal- or misfeasances, it seems unlikely that they will be susceptible to remediation without significant changes to the funding process.

    The entire funding apparatus for the public-sector support for research would benefit from a careful evaluation and assessment (perhaps a National Academy or NRC study) with an eye towards (1) examining the unexpected and undesirable consequences of current funding models and (2) examining the possibility of significant changes that might ameliorate those unintended consequences.

    Because the current funding mechanisms provide the life blood of all the major grant-funded research institutions in the United States, and because all reasonable people will exhibit concern about changes that might constitute an existential threat to their way of life, we can expect that there would be substantial resistance to efforts that would make for real change in the public-sector funding mechanisms of US research.

    Does this mean that the problem is insoluble? No. But it does mean that real solutions will, at best, be difficult to achieve and slow in coming. Furthermore, any proposed solutions will themselves produce effects that some will perceive as adverse to their interests, creating a political struggle whose ultimate outcomes will be difficult to predict.