No matter the field, postdoctoral positions provide recent PhD graduates with opportunities to continue their training as a professional researcher. Essays about postdocs abound, such as how to develop a postdoctoral project, different types of postdoc positions and matching postdoc opportunities to career goals.
If postdoctoral training lines up with your career ambitions, you should also be assessing whether postdoc life fits with your personal needs. Unfortunately, most essays about this career trajectory focus on the negative, particularly the economic precarity of being a postdoc, which requires many to put certain aspects of their life on hold. Others focus on surviving as a postdoc, sharing strategies for work-life balance amidst the uncertainty that comes with holding a temporary academic position. In this column, I am going to attempt to bridge the gap between these two sides, offering reflections on postdoc life, which – while certainly precarious – is not just something to be endured; it also offers opportunities. I write from my experience as a second-year postdoc, which included juggling relocations and resources as well as accessing emotional support.
Postdocs are temporary positions, often one to three years. If your personal commitments and resources allow, moving for a job is an exciting option. Within academia, postdocs may work in multi- and interdisciplinary research units. You might choose to move to another region or an entirely different country. For example, with my current position, I was able to apply for Canadian permanent residency after one year of working as a postdoc. But due to many factors, relocating for a postdoc is not always possible. And due to the temporary nature of the position, you will usually have to move again.
Postdocs receive lower salaries than assistant professors in their respective fields as well as many people doing equivalent work in administrative or staff roles at universities. In addition, while postdocs do not have student status – and may even be considered faculty in some cases – they usually do not receive full benefits such as provisions for dental, mental health and vision care. They may not be eligible for daycare subsidies or pension plans. That being said, there are lots of different types of postdoc positions and you may be able to find one with sufficient salary and benefits. Even though my postdoc required me to move away from my family, I can work remotely on occasion to care for my mother. However, the privileges of having access to the varying resources that we depend on are experienced unevenly and can make or break postdoc life.
The temporary nature of a postdoc position as well as having to potentially navigate scarce resources may be stressful. It is vital to go into a postdoc with a plan for adequate emotional support – which may be difficult, especially for those arriving in a new country or city. Creating and recreating emotional support networks of family and friends, colleagues and mentors, and professional mental health care takes time. I know intimately how the lack of emotional nourishment can manifest as anxiety and depression. As you are planning your postdoc trajectory, consider if the position offers mental health support, and how to what extent your colleagues and mentors recognize mental illness and the need to support mental health.
It is not a given that all postdocs must live with heightened senses of economic and emotional insecurity. Buried beneath my reflections are personal accounts of supportive supervisors and postdoc packages (e.g., childcare subsidies, health care spending accounts, and immigration and relocation assistance), but these are not common. Unfortunately, they are often the result of individual supervisors, chairs or deans who are sympathetic to the challenges of our overall working conditions. As a social scientist I know that structural changes are the result of collective action and demands, not just individuals cultivating temporary solutions. Before starting your postdoc, reach out to the faculty, staff and student labour unions on campus (if they exist) and inquire about what they offer postdocs beyond a research position. Make sure you also reflect on how a postdoc will fit in with your broader life goals, particularly where you want to live, and the resources and emotional support you will need during the postdoc as well as beyond.