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Postdocs ponder missed opportunities caused by the coronavirus pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic threatens to derail scientists at a critical point in their careers

by Bethany Halford
July 19, 2020 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 98, Issue 28


An illustration featuring a woman imagining meeting with colleagues, giving a presentation, and working in a lab.
Credit: Molly Ferguson

Terry McCallum didn’t expect to spend this summer creating a personal website and growing hot peppers in his in-laws’ garden in North Carolina. In February, he was a postdoctoral scholar at Cornell University studying the chemistry of organic radicals. After spending the months prior interviewing for academic jobs, he was negotiating the details of a position as an assistant professor. His future seemed nearly squared away.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

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All McCallum’s plans seemed to evaporate. The school where he was supposed to work hadn’t yet made its formal offer. With budget cuts looming, the university’s chemistry department told him the position was on hold. And because McCallum is Canadian, the university told him it could no longer sponsor his visa to work in the US because of new restrictions from President Donald J. Trump’s administration.

McCallum is married to an American, so he decided to apply for a Permanent Resident Card using his marital status. But this change in immigration status meant he could no longer work while waiting for the green card to come through—a process that could take more than a year. This meant he had to leave his postdoc at Cornell.

“I kind of feel like a fish out of water, not being able to be in the lab,” he says.

McCallum and his wife moved in with her parents in May. He says he’s lucky to have their support and is doing his best to stay positive despite the uncertainty. But he and his wife no longer have health insurance. Their savings are largely depleted, so they can’t afford to pay a lawyer to help them navigate the green card application process. “I can only imagine if I wasn’t from a country like Canada, where there’s a very good visa relationship, this would be much more difficult,” he says.

When you do a postdoc, you want to be able to produce something out of it. You want to have something tangible you can put on your CV so you can get a job.
Vanessa Béland, postdoctoral scholar, York University

McCallum’s tale is not unique. Things have been tough all around for scientists during the COVID-19 crisis and the resulting economic downturn. Scientists have been locked out of their laboratories, universities and companies have instituted hiring freezes, and scientific meetings have been canceled or moved online. But for postdocs, the situation seems particularly dire.

Even in normal times, postdocs have a tenuous existence. Their employment often hinges on yearly contracts with variable funding based on their mentor’s grants. Without the institutional benefits enjoyed by students or faculty, they exist in a sort of professional limbo. Most postdocs tolerate the situation because it’s temporary and because the postdoctoral period is also a launch pad they can use to expand their skill sets, mentor students, and do the science that will help set the stage for the rest of their career.

“When you do a postdoc, you want to be able to produce something out of it. You want to have something tangible you can put on your CV so you can get a job,” says Vanessa Béland, who started a postdoc doing materials science at Canada’s York University in January. She had only been in the lab for about 2 months when the pandemic prompted the university to shutter its labs. That’s not much time to accomplish any sort of synthetic chemistry, she says.

She tried to keep busy during the lockdown, thinking about her project and helping to organize a meeting about equity, diversity, and inclusion to be held at the Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition. That experience helped her with networking—something that most postdocs do by attending scientific meetings, where they present their work and meet others in the field. With most scientific meetings moved online, Béland says, “you have to be more outgoing to reach out and make those connections.”

Still, she felt like time was slipping away. “Everything I had to do at that point was in the lab. I tried to find things I could do to fill the time that would help my career, but there’s only so much background reading you can do.”

“You spend a lot of time trying to find things to do,” agrees Juan Pablo Bolletta, a native of Argentina, who started his postdoc at France’s Crystallography and Materials Science Laboratory (CRISMAT) in October. The lab’s shutdown abruptly put an end to his experiments. “I had to become a theoretical scientist, looking at data—those little obscure things you thought you’d never publish.”

After a 2-month lockdown, operations at CRISMAT slowly began to resume in May, and his lab is now working at full capacity. “I’m trying to make up for lost time, but it’s really hard,” he says. Focusing on organization, by devoting time to how he would execute experiments while the lab ramped up, helped Bolletta rebuild momentum on his project, he says.

COVID-19 “definitely made an uncertain situation feel more uncertain,” says Danielle Fagnani, a second-year postdoc at the University of Michigan. When the lab she was working in shut down in March, Fagnani was gathering materials for her job search in the fall, and after working for a year on a high-risk project that didn’t pan out, her new project was picking up steam. The project was progressing well until the lab shut down, she says. “I definitely needed those 3 months to get data.”

Fagnani returned to the lab in late June, but she thinks she will probably extend her postdoc for an additional year—an option she’s grateful to have—because she’s worried about what the job market will look like in a few months.

That concern is shared by many postdocs, particularly those looking for faculty positions at a time when university funding is so tight. The academic job market is tough in normal times, but the next couple of years promise to be rough, says Allan-Hermann Pool, a postdoc studying biology at the California Institute of Technology. “People have been training for 10 to 15 years for these research positions, and these are effectively being eliminated,” he says. Pool wonders how the COVID-19 fallout will impact young scientists’ decisions to enter an academic career track.

Even extending a postdoctoral fellowship, an option many would like to take to make up for lost time, is uncertain. “One thing that would help would be for funding agencies to pledge to extend existing grants to account for changes in productivity or access to resources so that there would be funding on hand to allow postdocs to continue,” says Ian Mahar, a postdoc in neuroscience at Boston University and president of the Boston Postdoctoral Association. “That might also prevent postdocs on those grants from losing their positions.”

As postdocs return to their labs, Mahar says, they’d like to see safe reopening plans that include provisions for COVID-19 testing and personal protective equipment. They also want clear guidelines on how to share space safely.

Another concern for postdocs as labs reopen is that some no longer have access to childcare or elder care because of shutdowns. “It puts postdoc parents in such a difficult position,” says Caroline J. Charpentier, a postdoc at Caltech studying neuroscience, “especially if both parents are postdocs and are now expected to return to the lab.”

Pool, who is from Estonia and has a 4-month-old child, says he’d planned for his family to come to the US to help take care of the baby. Travel restrictions have now made that impossible.

Focus on your self-care, especially during this time—your mental health, your physical health, your well-being—because all of those things are going to help you approach your next career step with a little more clarity.
Barbara Natalizio, chair of the board of directors and interim executive director, National Postdoctoral Association

Visa issues also have become an area of uncertainty. In 2018, more than 35,000 of the nearly 65,000 US-based postdocs studying engineering, health, and science were temporary visa holders, according to the US National Science Foundation.

Aisha Bismillah is a postdoc working in the US who is struggling with visa issues. Bismillah, who is from the UK, started a postdoc studying molecular switches at Dartmouth College in September. She came on a year-long fellowship with hopes of finding additional funds to extend her stay. Because her visa was tied to her fellowship, she needs to transfer its sponsorship to Dartmouth, and it’s not clear to her how to do that.

Bismillah has secured some funding to continue her work, but if that runs out, as a worst-case scenario she plans to use her savings to pay for her living expenses and health insurance while she extends her postdoc. “It would be tough, but I think I can afford a year,” she says.

Kyong Fam is hoping to join the ranks of foreign postdocs in the US. Originally from Ukraine, Fam earned his PhD in chemical biology last year at the University of Strasbourg. He’s continued in his doctoral mentor’s lab as a short-term postdoc while looking for a longer postdoc in the US. Although he’s received and accepted an offer, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to actually come to the US to start his position because of the current travel restrictions. He’s hoping he can make the move in January, when his visa in France expires.

Fam says his future mentor in the US is holding his spot, support that Fam notes he’s fortunate to have. He also says he’s lucky that his PhD mentor has been able to keep him on for the last few months. “I understand that’s not the case for everyone,” Fam says.

“Postdocs are always a vulnerable community as a whole,” says Barbara Natalizio, chair of the board of directors and interim executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. “COVID and all of what’s going on in the world right now have amplified their vulnerability.”

As postdocs everywhere try to cope with the increased uncertainty, Natalizio has some advice. “Be flexible and adaptable with what you envision for your career trajectory,” she says. “It might be a time to explore different options” beyond the academic positions many postdocs are chasing. She suggests reaching out to mentors and university professional development offices for help in figuring out next steps.

Also, Natalizio says, “focus on your self-care, especially during this time—your mental health, your physical health, your well-being—because all of those things are going to help you approach your next career step with a little more clarity.”


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