Improving the plight of the postdoc during COVID and beyond

12 Oct 2021
12 Oct 2021

They also support and mentor junior researchers and undergraduate students, write grants, publish, teach, and present papers at international conferences.

On average, postdocs publish about two to four articles annually, adding significantly to knowledge generation. Moreover, they bring with them different skills and cultural backgrounds which create a more dynamic and diverse research environment and community.

Despite all the benefits postdocs bring to the research community, their position is rather precarious and uncertain.

Neither staff nor student, they often face administrative challenges, difficulties with having clear compensation structures and systems to manage this, unclear plans regarding professional and academic development, no health benefits and no clear guidelines on raising and dealing with grievances.

This is quite different from staff and students who have clear operating guidelines. For example, students have clear roles and responsibilities, as well as representation; staff members have clear paths for operations and progression and also have representation and support through functioning human resource systems.

Unfortunately, these support systems are lacking in most tertiary institutions for postdocs and can be considered one of the contributing factors to low numbers of postdocs, particularly in Africa.

Thomas Karikui of the African Academy of Sciences has highlighted the challenges faced by African universities in attracting postdocs, citing poor knowledge of the postdoctoral position, lack of mentorship, poor infrastructure support and lack of access to financial resources.

Not just a stepping stone

We should show our appreciation for the tremendous value postdocs bring to research environments through their work as highly skilled, creative and innovative scientists by promoting them and supporting them financially.

We should support postdocs for their roles in driving the strategies and research endeavours of higher education institutions and recognise the value of this position, not just as a stepping stone for the careers of future academic, government and industry leaders, but as a mechanism to drive research outputs and grow the number of PhD graduates.

I’m glad that my institution, Stellenbosch University, joined the international research community during the week of 20-24 September to celebrate Postdoc Appreciation Week, an initiative of the National Postdoctoral Association based in the United States.

The week focused on raising awareness around postdocs and their important contribution to research and innovation in higher education institutions around the world. It was jam-packed with activities, ranging from social events to awards, lectures, capacity and career development training and advice, network and some mental and health awareness campaigns to benefit postdocs.

We should not underestimate the role that postdocs can play in addressing the various needs of tertiary institutions and helping them to achieve their strategic goals.

In South Africa, for example, the National Development Plan Vision 2030 aims to achieve an increase in university PhD qualified staff from 34% to more than 75% by 2030, and an increase in the number of PhD graduates to 100 graduates per million people, especially in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

To achieve this, there is a planned focus on growing international partnerships, shared supervision of students in local institutions and growing partnerships with industry.

Postdocs can help

Given the current low number of academic staff members with PhDs, meeting this target will not be easy. But, at the same time, postdocs are underutilised and could support universities in increasing PhD outputs in terms of students and staff, thereby contributing to the national targets.

Postdocs can help South Africa reach its national targets in the following ways:

• Supervision support: Postdocs spend up to five years in contract and, in that time, they can support one honours, one or two masters and one PhD student;

• Teaching support: Postdocs can provide teaching support for staff doing their PhDs, allowing them needed time to focus on completion of their theses by reducing the teaching load, thereby shortening the completion time;

• Novel ideas, skills and innovative techniques: Through their international experience, postdocs bring new ways and ideas of doing things; and

• Establishing industry partnerships through short-term joint research projects.

We can enrich the experience of postdocs by developing bespoke programmes for their personal, professional and career development, as well as new funding models to help them have better career prospects.

There’s a need for career and professional programmes to build transferable skills in research, leadership, communication, time, project and financial management.

We should also develop new funding models to facilitate the employment of postdocs.

For example, the New Generation of Academics Programme, or nGAP, implemented by the South African Department of Higher Education and Training and managed under the National Research Foundation should target postdocs, as this will help to grow the cohort of staff with PhDs at South Africa’s tertiary institutions, in particular.

COVID setbacks

We need to also encourage engagement between academia, industry and government, and to promote entrepreneurship among this cohort of emerging researchers, especially during these trying times.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already difficult situation facing many postdocs as a result of reduced funding, challenges with travel and mobility due to immigration regulations, limitations around conducting research during the lockdown and reduced prospects of contract renewals for those unable to meet project targets for which they were funded, resulting in significant losses of important career development opportunities.

Postdocs who were impacted by the first hard lockdown have had nothing to show for their time, and this will ultimately affect their career prospects.

New models are needed. These include formalising remote postdoctoral opportunities by allowing onsite and offsite research stays, re-evaluating the compensation of postdocs to ensure they are commensurate with experience and skills, as well as re-evaluating policies relating to their positions at higher education institutions.

For the continent, we need to establish communities of practice to enhance the African postdoctoral experience, offer research and career development experiences – as Thomas Karikui suggested. We must also provide postdocs with some staff support and make it easier for them to become part of the research staff to gain exposure and learning opportunities.

Dr Palesa Natasha Mothapo is the head: postdoctoral research support in the Division for Research Development at Stellenbosch University, South Africa.