Anyone walking through a bustling university campus is bound to encounter a vibrant sense of community. But for those elite few, working hours on end in the lab conducting the research that drives the innovation and prestige of the university, it can be an isolating place. For many postdoctoral fellows working at Canadian universities, this is the experience: long hours spent working in silos and isolation.
A postdoctoral researcher’s identity within their institution can be ambiguous. Are they students? Researchers? Instructors? Despite often being grouped with graduate students, postdocs are not students. Postdoctoral fellows accept their appointments at different points in the academic year and often lack a feeling of cohort or connection. Postdocs are not professors. Many teach courses, run labs, and guide undergraduate and graduate students, but they are not awarded seniority, tenure rights or the wage of a professor. The academy views them differently; they are shrouded by a blanket of ambiguity which can lead to feelings of isolation, invisibility and exclusion.
This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it something that has gone unnoticed. A recent 2023 postdoc survey in Nature identifies postdocs as “academia’s drudge labourers: overworked, underpaid, appointed on precarious short-term contracts and lacking recognition for their efforts.” Other publications have highlighted the rising epidemic of loneliness in academia. It is clear that our early career researchers are feeling the pressure.
When opportunity knocks, why are the postdocs not answering?
Canadian universities have heard the urgent cry from the postdocs and have created ample opportunities for engagement and professional development. Offerings for postdoctoral fellows to develop skills in academia, industry and beyond are accessible on campus and online. From a national postdoctoral appreciation week at the University of British Columbia, to specific programming like Western University’s postdoctoral competitive edge program, to the University of Calgary’s postdoctoral teaching certificate, there are many opportunities for postdocs to connect and learn.
This begs the question: Why are so many of our postdocs isolating themselves in their labs? Consider that a postdoctoral fellowship is a transient position that can be crucial to informing the next steps in one’s professional career. With a typical length of one to four years, the pressure to publish research papers is staggering. There is a ticking clock counting down to the end of their fellowship. Time limitations create reluctance for many postdocs to engage in social events or professional development.
How can Canadian institutions better engage these seemingly unreachable researchers?
In a “post-pandemic” landscape, many of the postdoc associations across the country are still feeling the devastating impact, but they do still exist. Some examples include the postdoctoral association at UBC, Simon Fraser University, as well as the postdoctoral association at Western. All offer a way to connect and network with other isolated postdocs. The good news is that a sense of community is slowly rebuilding post-pandemic. Universities must prioritize and support these associations. They should be given an active and impactful voice in the institution. It is not enough to merely have a postdocs’ association. They require power and influence to make important changes for future researchers.
Cohort-based programming offers another creative solution to engage postdocs. Weekly programming tailored for postdoc members from around the university enables collaboration. It creates a place, a presence, and an identity for postdocs in their institution. This ensures that professional development isn’t just “another thing to do.”
Supervisors need to recognize the value in investing in their postdoc’s professional development. When a supervisor actively encourages these opportunities, these programs allow individuals to expand their network beyond their silo and collaborate with postdocs from faculties across the institution. It is not only beneficial for the individual researchers but creates an environment in which innovation and creativity can thrive. When great minds can escape the confines of their research labs and actively devote time to their personal and professional development, the possibilities are endless.