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The Effect of COVID-19 on the Postdoctoral Experience: a comparison of pre-pandemic and pandemic surveys

Andréanne Morin, Britney A. Helling, Seetha Krishnan, Laurie E. Risner, Nykia D. Walker, Nancy B. Schwartz

Preprint posted on November 21, 2021 https://www.biorxiv.org/content/10.1101/2021.11.19.468693v1

Pandemic postdoc precarity; a survey of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on postdoc mental health and career trajectory

Selected by Jonny Coates

Background

Postdocs make up a significant proportion of the academic research workforce. However, this population is often neglected compared to faculty or students (1), particularly with regards to support for mental wellbeing. Moreover, this is one of the most precarious populations within the academia, with postdocs existing on short-term contracts, underpaid relative to those with comparable experience and education in other sectors and whose (academic) careers require the publication of “high impact” papers in a short time frame (2,3).

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit all workforces across the globe. Within academia, the majority of labs shut down or switched to COVID-related efforts for the early phase of the pandemic. Combined with lockdowns, this left many scientists unable to perform lab work or otherwise be “productive”. For established faculty, this is not a career-ending event and many PhD students experienced funded extensions (4). However, postdocs have generally not received funded extensions to contracts and their careers perilously hinge on being “productive”.

It is well established that postdocs within academia experience significant mental health challenges, perpetuated by the academic culture (5–7). A number of surveys have recently demonstrated that the pandemic has negatively impacted PhD students and early career faculty (e.g. (8,9)), particularly female academics (10,11). However, postdocs have largely been neglected in these surveys. Here, Morin et al surveyed US-based postdocs who were predominantly based in the life sciences with the majority of respondents being 30-34 years old and with >4 years postdoc experience.

Key findings

  1.   The pandemic had a negative impact on mental health of postdocs

76% of respondents stated that their mental health had been impacted due to the pandemic with 32% stating that the impact was high or very high. The stressors relating to mental health appeared to be largely related to home-working, childcare and a worry over productivity, with keywords such as; family, home, working, childcare, job and uncertainty being amongst the most prominent. This perhaps reflects other surveys that have found a particularly negative impact on female academics who, traditionally, have more caring responsibilities (10,11). Indeed, the authors demonstrated that traditionally disadvantaged groups (females, LGBTQ+ and ethnic minorities) experienced higher mental health impact due to the pandemic. Moreover, the open-text responses confirmed these stressors and demonstrated a particular grievance with PIs who had become more demanding.

More optimistically, the survey revealed that more postdocs had engaged with institutional mental health resources and that those who did engage reported being more satisfied with their needs being met. Conversely, those without access to these resources reported higher levels of unmet needs, including mental health needs, childcare and healthcare.

Interestingly, the US political situation (ex-President Donald Trump) was a significant feature impacting mental health for postdocs in this survey – particularly international postdocs. These reasons include travel bans preventing postdocs from seeing family or leaving the country, worries over visas for current and future work.

  1.   The pandemic impacted the career trajectory of postdocs

For most respondents, long term career plans remained unchanged, with 70% stating that they intended to remain in academia. However, career uncertainty increased as a result of the pandemic. There were fewer respondents actively looking for positions and postdocs were less confident in achieving their career aims. A minority (11%) specifically delayed their job search due to the pandemic. Additionally, 23% changed their career plans as a result of the pandemic citing reasons such as the difficulty of obtaining positions, insufficient job security and poor work-life balance. Of the proportion of those whose situation changed due to the pandemic, there was a higher number unemployed, reflecting the hiring freezes and difficulties in obtaining new positions observed during the pandemic. Of those surveyed, the pandemic had decreased their views on the academic job market but increased their views of the non-academic job market.

Why I selected this preprint

I’m deeply interested in the academic culture, including the working environment. These surveys are vital in providing evidence to the poor working conditions that early career researchers (primarily postdocs) experience on a daily basis.

Questions for the authors

  1. The open-ended questions suggest a significant deterioration in relationships with PIs and reveal many PIs as being difficult, increasing pressure on postdocs and having unrealistic expectations. This is supported anecdotally across academia. Did you more directly assess this or is this something you want to more directly address in future surveys?
  2. “Getting behind” or “lack of productivity” are big concerns throughout the open-ended questions. We know that (initially) this was supposed to be taken into account by hiring committees and funding bodies. However, there are many examples where this is no longer being accounted for with some funding bodies and senior academics seemingly discounting any lack of productivity during the pandemic. What can postdocs do to combat this behaviour?
  3. 70% of respondents state that they intend to remain in academia, yet this is not possible as there is a scarcity of permanent positions and the academic career is not structured in a way to facilitate this. Is this a sign that perhaps a greater emphasis is needed on non-academic jobs? How can institutions or PhD training programmes better combat this?

References

  1. National Research Council. Report on the Conference on Predoctoral Education in the United States [Internet]. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 1969 [cited 2021 Dec 5]. 105 p. Available from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/20503/report-on-the-conference-on-predoctoral-education-in-the-united-states
  2. Ålund M, Emery N, Jarrett BJM, MacLeod KJ, McCreery HF, Mamoozadeh N, et al. Academic ecosystems must evolve to support a sustainable postdoc workforce. Nat Ecol Evol. 2020 Jun;4(6):777–81.
  3. Shen H. Employee benefits: Plight of the postdoc. Nature. 2015 Sep;525(7568):279–81.
  4. UKRI. Our evolving policy for COVID-19 doctoral extension funding [Internet]. [cited 2021 Dec 5]. Available from: https://www.ukri.org/our-work/tackling-the-impact-of-covid-19/guidance-for-applicants-and-awardholders-impacted-by-the-pandemic/supporting-students-through-the-pandemic/policy/
  5. Woolston C. Postdocs under pressure: ‘Can I even do this any more?’ Nature. 2020 Nov 23;587(7835):689–92.
  6. Woolston C. Postdoc survey reveals disenchantment with working life. Nature. 2020 Nov 18;587(7834):505–8.
  7. Woolston C. Uncertain prospects for postdoctoral researchers. Nature. 2020 Dec 1;588(7836):181–4.
  8. American Educational Research Association, Levine F, Nasir NS, Rios-Aguilar C, Gildersleeve R, Rosich K, et al. Voices from the field: The impact of COVID-19 on early career scholars and doctoral students [Internet]. American Educational Research Association; 2021 Mar [cited 2021 Dec 5]. Available from: https://www.aera.net/Education-Research/Voices-from-the-Field-The-Impact-of-COVID-19-on-Early-Career-Scholars-and-Doctoral-Students
  9. Woolston C. Pandemic darkens postdocs’ work and career hopes. Nature. 2020 Sep 8;585(7824):309–12.
  10. Myers KR, Tham WY, Yin Y, Cohodes N, Thursby JG, Thursby MC, et al. Unequal effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on scientists. Nat Hum Behav. 2020 Sep;4(9):880–3.
  11. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. The Impact of COVID-19 on the Careers of Women in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine [Internet]. Higginbotham E, Dahlberg ML, editors. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press; 2021 [cited 2021 Dec 5]. 194 p. Available from: https://www.nap.edu/catalog/26061/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-the-careers-of-women-in-academic-sciences-engineering-and-medicine

Tags: academia, covid, covid-19, covid19, mental health, pandemic, postdocs, pressure

Posted on: 8th December 2021

doi: https://doi.org/10.1242/prelights.31111

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