The Pickpocketing of Postdocs

These are the times when folks all over the USA and beyond are concerned about the current state of academia. Early career researchers and allies are coming together to work towards improving academia and their situation within. The Future of Research conference in Boston kicked it all off for real and now we are seeing it snowballing from New York (NYU), MW-Madison, to the Bay (UCSF) and Chicago…hopefully many more to follow. Similar debates are held in other countries such as India and Australia. Even the glamor mags (here and here) agree that something needs to be done about the current dilemma. The NIH also is thinking about fundamentally changing their granting scheme. And of course there was Tim Hunt; no matter on which side you are on everyone seems to agreed  that there are problems with sexism and lack of diversity within the Ivory Tower.

In the middle of all this falls the current UC postdoc union (UAW5810) bargaining campaign with the University of California. The content of the second contract will define working and living conditions of over 6000 postdocs in California for the next several years. In addition, this new contract will set standards nationwide. So it appears the time is ripe to actually put the money where your mouth is and support early career researchers by creating progressive work environments for everyone. Work environments in which people  from all walks of life can flourish and express their academic creativity.

Well you would have thought so but these are the demands UC came up with. For sure their are not progressive, for sure they will not foster diversity.

  Article 3 Benefits

Article 3

UC wants to restrict the current benefit plan and increase the current postdoctoral scholar’s share of the benefit. In the absence of increased pay postdocs shall take a factual pay cut for worse benefits.

 Article 4 Compensation


UC wants to change the compensation scheme including introducing salary caps, exclusion of Paid Directs and more… WhatWhatWhat postdocs shall get salary caps? Show me a rich postdoc and I show you a unicorn. Each and every time I read this line I cannot stop laughing. Seriously an institution that pays its leadership and administration mid to high six digits paychecks wants to restrict pay for ‘lowly’ postdocs. The starting salary of postdocs at UC is about $43.000 per year. Seriously? The most frequent case that a postdoc makes more than the minimum salary is when she wins her own fellowship. In this case the funding agency provides the salary. Why restrict this when it isn’t UCs money anyway? Why punish the successful and independent? The only reason I can come up with is that other postdocs might see they are getting paid jack shit and demand more. The actually postdoc salary is less than the living wage for a family in 9 out of 10 UC campuses!

 Article 11 Layoff


UC wants to be able to lay postdocs off more quickly. Well short 1 year contracts are not enough let’s make the postdoc experience even more precarious and insecure. A postdoc might get too lazy otherwise and sit in the sun the whole day long.

Article 17 Personal Time Off and Article 22 Sick Leave

Article 17 Article22

UC wants to cut postdocs sick days and personal time off. Of course postdocs are too lazy and take too many holidays. They are not productive enough and should work more. Never mind stress and mental health. Also if a postdoc gets sick and shows some sign of ‘lack of work’ UC simply kicks him out under the proposed changes to the layoff rules (Article 11).

New Article

New Article

UC wants to practically do away with the minimum contract length of 1 year and introduce a 1 year probationary period instead. Of course if a postdocs boss doesn’t like her, bad luck. He lays her off and she and her family can go back to their home country after three months and her just having invested thousands of dollars to live the Californian dream. Visas are mostly linked to a postdoc’s employment status in the US so he is practically at his supervisors good will to stay in the country. From personal experience I’ve already seen too many postdocs that didn’t dare to speak up against discriminatory actions this would make their lives even worse. Also only perceiving the threat of contract termination and mandatory removal from a foreign country is very unpleasant as everyone knows that experienced it before.

Instead of being progressive, implementing measures to increase diversity of the postdoctoral workforce and reducing the ‘leaky pipeline’ UCs demands are simply regressive. UC demands factual pay cuts for postdocs, offers worse benefits, less rights and less job security.  This all in times when early career researchers are stretched to the limit and positive messages are scarce. I hope UC gets round. UC is a great place to work, has a vibrant postdoctoral culture and loads to offer to foster a postdocs career. Making this experience of a lifetime more accessible for everyone by improving childcare support, parental leave conditions and fair treatment of all postdocs is what UC really should be aspiring to.