Z Yan Wang, incoming joint Assistant Professor in Biology and Psychology, was quoted in an article in The Scientist on the challenges that postdoctoral fellows faced before COVID-19 changed the way academia functions, and early-career scientists report that things have only gotten harder. Also quoted in the article is UW Biology alumna, Shirley Malcom, who currently serves as senior advisor to the CEO of AAAS and director of the AAAS’s SEA Change initiative for equity and diversity in STEMM.
Even before COVID-19 emerged, postdocs were arguably a neglected group in the hierarchy of academia. No longer students yet not faculty either, they faced low pay, lack of job security and power, little dedicated institutional support, and a highly competitive career path.
COVID-19-associated public health measures have thrown further complications into the mix. International postdocs have struggled with visa difficulties and border closures; parents juggled childcare and remote learning; and anyone involved in research that could not be done remotely weighed their personal safety against the possible career consequences of staying home.
The challenges that postdocs are now dealing with come as no surprise to Shirley Malcolm, senior advisor to the CEO of AAAS and director of the AAAS’s SEA Change initiative for equity and diversity in STEMM. Having played a key role in the creation of the National Postdoctoral Association in 2002, Malcolm is well acquainted with the hardships encountered during this phase of one’s scientific career. “What the pandemic has done is to reveal fissures that were already in the structure,” she says, describing postdocs as an “invisible part of the research enterprise.”
If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic for postdocs, it’s that it has brought the problems they face into the light like never before, which makes them harder to ignore. “One of the things about the disruption that has been wrought by the pandemic is that it provides an opportunity for institutions to reimagine and reinvent themselves,” Malcom says.
Z Yan Wang, a postdoctoral researcher in evolutionary neuroscience at Princeton University who is about to take up a position as assistant professor at the University of Washington, says the experience and challenges of the pandemic will influence how she views her future role and responsibilities.
“Especially as I start my own lab and I become a professor, I really want to strongly interrogate why are these the ways that our society has failed us before the pandemic,” she says. “Do I want to replicate these structures or do I want to create something new?”
Read the full article in The Scientist.