By Maria H. Park

Workhorses of the Lab

After the Ph.D., Harvard's researchers face tight finances, stressful working conditions, and uncertain job prospects.
By Kenton K. Shimozaki and Leah S. Yared

They’re the workhorses of Harvard’s laboratories. They help run experiments, mentor undergraduates, and advance groundbreaking research.

More than 5,000 postdoctoral scholars work at Harvard—the largest population out of any American institution. A stepping stone to academia, postdoctoral research is open to those who have completed a Ph.D. and come to Harvard for work and on-the-job training.

In an effort to centralize the oversight of these thousands of researchers, about 80 percent of whom are in the sciences, offices of postdoctoral affairs have cropped up over the years.

James Gould, the director of the Medical and Dental School’s Office for Postdoctoral Fellows, oversees 940 postdocs in Longwood, and four or five thousand working in affiliated hospitals. Stephen Kargère, who directs the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, serves as a resource for more than 1,200 postdocs across 44 departments.

If something goes wrong between a postdoc and their principal investigator—the faculty member who is essentially their boss in the lab—there are avenues that the postdoc can take, Kargère said.

But for one postdoc in an FAS science department, whom The Crimson granted anonymity because she feared professional retaliation, none of those resources were enough. After her relationship with her PI soured, she was advised to resign to avoid being fired.

“I used all the resources that I could find, and even found more, and at each point I found that I had no protections,” she said.

In addition to navigating what can, at times, be a contentious employer-employee relationship, postdocs at Harvard face challenges outside of the lab, including exorbitant child care expenses, a rising cost of living, and a non-existent University health plan for those who get external funding. They also lack many of the resources available to graduate students, such as access to the Office of Career Services.

While newly-formed postdoc-run associations and postdoctoral affairs offices have sought to plug these holes and organize advocacy, some are still left to struggle behind the scenes.

Room for Improvement

In a survey of FAS postdocs last year, 199 respondents reported that they worked an average of 55 hours per week, and a majority said they make between $40,000 and $55,000 per year. Slightly over half of the respondents said they did not make enough money to cover their living expenses.

Nearly three quarters of those with children said they were dissatisfied with childcare options, and one respondent wrote that he was living paycheck to paycheck because of the high cost of childcare.

false By Megan M. Ross and Leah S. Yared

Another issue raised in the survey was health care coverage. University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 said the health care package is updated each year for all faculty and staff not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.

But some postdocs are not eligible for Harvard employee health insurance at all. Kargère said postdocs receiving external funding—meaning ones paid directly by an outside institution instead of through a PI or stipend—are ineligible.

This affects a smaller subset of the postdoc population: 7.73 percent of survey respondents were ineligible for the University’s health plan. But these postdocs are forced to find an outside provider. One respondent said health care costs take up more than a quarter of their salary.

Finding healthcare is a requirement for those with an international visa. Ömer F. Örsün, a postdoc at the Institute for Quantitative Social Sciences and the co-president of the FAS Postdoctoral Association, said the International Office offered him several outside providers to choose from.

Many postdocs also complain that few career resources are made available to help postdocs move on to careers in academia or the private sector. Postdoc office directors like Kargère act as a substitute for OCS, offering to read resumes and answer questions.

“[Kargère] will read stuff for us, but I think he is inundated with people sending things for him to read,” Organismic and Evolutionary Biology research associate Sevan S. Suni, a co-chair of the FAS Postdoctoral Association’s advocacy committee, said. “I mean, it’s one person for 1,200 people.”

One postdoctoral fellow in the Psychology department, Calvin K. Lai, said the burden of scouring the academic job market, combined with research responsibilities, can be “incredibly time-consuming.”

“For most of us postdocs, we’ll be on the academic job market for many of the years that we're on a postdoc,” Lai said. “That’s a lot of time and energy and emotional work that is going on... in addition to the responsibilities as a postdoc to your PI.”

Many of the postdocs interviewed said the cost of living in the greater Boston area is expensive given their salaries. Giuseppe Ugazio, a Psychology postdoctoral fellow, said that he doesn’t think he could afford to live alone in the area if he was not married.

“I’m living with my wife, so we’re sharing the cost of living in two, but I wouldn’t be able to live by myself. I would need to find a cheaper accommodation and that’s something that is not ideal,” Ugazio said.

The PI-Postdoc Relationship

Beyond the common financial struggles that postdocs face, the day-to-day experience of working in a Harvard lab can also be challenging.

From the outset, the relationship between postdocs and their advisers is isolated. Unlike Ph.D. students, who are accepted into a department, postdocs are interviewed and hired by the single professor they do research for. And if that research is funded through the professor, they have less academic independence in publishing.

There are different avenues to becoming a postdoc, Kargère said. One could, for example, apply to a postdoctoral fellowship at the Mahindra Humanities Center, or find faculty who are hiring and submit a resume directly.

Kargère said the relationship between postdocs and their PIs is “more professional” than the adviser relationship for Ph.D. students.

“Postdocs could obviously ask for advice from somebody else, but typically, it's just their faculty member is the PI,” Kargère said. “From that perspective, there's less faculty oversight.”

Jefferson Laboratory is home to Harvard's Physics Department.
Jefferson Laboratory is home to Harvard's Physics Department. By Cynthia Guo

Suni said the adviser relationship at the postdoc level differs from the one Ph.D. students experience.

“I think it’s really important to find a good postdoc adviser because, unlike as a graduate student where you have the support of the whole department and it’s really the department that’s accepting you, with a postdoc it’s really just a one-on-one relationship,” Suni said.

Suni said she “got lucky” and has a great relationship with her PI.

“I sought out a good postdoc advisor,” Suni said. “She ended up being really great and I do feel lucky because I have heard a lot of stories of people that have had difficult experiences.”

One such difficult experience was that of former Harvard post-doc Alexander Arefolov, who sued his PI, Chemistry professor Matthew D. Shair, earlier this month for omitting his name from the inventor list of what became a lucrative cancer drug patent.

Kargère said he encourages postdocs to “come see me with anything.” Still, he said in an earlier interview, “it’s tricky.”

“It's a tricky world because PIs are faculty members, and ultimately they're the ones who are in charge,” Kargère said.

Leaving Harvard

Each year, postdocs are constantly entering and leaving Harvard’s campus.

In the best case scenario, postdocs leave for another job. Other times, the lab may have run out of money. If an appointment is not renewed because, for example, the money ran dry, they are not asked to return.

“Every year we have about 200 postdocs come in, and about 200 postdocs leave, for various reasons,” Gould said of the Medical School, adding that the average length of stay is 4.25 years. Gould said that only in rare cases is a departure due to termination.

The turnover is even more stark in FAS; of the more than 1,000 working in FAS departments, about 50 percent are coming and going in a given year.

Kargère said his office does not track the number of postdocs who quit or are fired, and Gould was also unable to offer numbers. But both said their offices plan to administer an exit survey for postdocs leaving the University.

Professor Masahiro Morii is Physics Department Chair at Harvard University.
Professor Masahiro Morii is Physics Department Chair at Harvard University. By Thomas W. Franck

“In a sense, whether a person is leaving happily or successfully, or is being pushed out, is impossible for me to determine,” Physics department chair Masahiro Morii said, adding that postdocs come and go in “odd intervals.”

Morii added that of the 106 postdocs he oversees, there have been about two cases in the past two years involving a postdoc’s termination before their contract renewal.

Some science funding agencies, such as National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation, have begun requiring a postdoc mentorship plan in addition to the usual grant proposal. Since the FAS postdoc granted anonymity was allegedly notified that she would be fired after her contract was renewed, she believes mandatory reviews—which allow the PI and postdoc to know where they stand—help prevent miscommunication and avoid situations like the one she experienced.

The postdoc worked with as many of the resources available to her as she could think of: Kargère, the ombudsperson, Assistant Dean for Science Zoë Fonseca-Kelly, the University’s Human Resources office, Chief Research Compliance Officer Ara Tahmassian, and the head of her the department, among other offices.

Kargère and Fonseca-Kelly declined to comment on the case, writing that they cannot discuss personnel matters. Tahmassian did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Speaking generally about the resources available to postdocs, Kargère said, “If it doesn't seem warranted, and they haven't done anything wrong, then we try and see if there's anything we can do to help out in this case.”

But the postdoc said none of these resources were enough to protect her from a PI who worked to fire her and keep her name off of publications.

“I honestly never felt the entire time that I had any real resources, or someone that was helpful,” she said. “I honestly felt that it was always what was in the best interest of Harvard and this professor.”

The postdoc said she was urged to resign by University officials, who told her it would be worse to be fired and have that show up in her Harvard records.

Her mentors, the postdoc said, advised her to never openly speak about the circumstances surrounding her resignation until her career is secure. Several postdocs interviewed for this story declined to comment on the record about workplace issues.

Come the fall, hundreds of new postdocs will arrive to work in Harvard labs.

—Staff writer Leah S. Yared can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @LeahYared.

—Staff writer Kenton K. Shimozaki can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @KentonShimozaki.