Postdocs matter and must be united

When I completed my PhD and became a postdoc, I knew that I had to be prepared to work long hours, overcome intellectual challenges, and make individual sacrifices to stay competitive in an international field. But I did not expect I would have to deal with a different problem: what to do when my position was suddenly eliminated with no warning. I want to tell my story, so that other Postdocs can take steps now to protect themselves by forming a union.

I have worked as a postdoctoral researcher for five years. Since I joined the University of Washington’s BIOE department, my work was in synthetic biology and bioengineering, where we are working to develop a clearer understanding of how genes change due to genetic instability in different conditions so we can better identify, treat and cure disease. I have published more than a dozen papers on my research, given numerous presentations, and received consistently positive feedback about my work from previous and current advisors.

I started at UW in March 2016, and in January of 2017, I accepted an offer for a second year of funding (Mar 15 2017-Mar 14 2018), to be paid by a grant from the National Science Foundation to study gene regulatory networks. After I received my new DS-2019 document on February 16, I visited Korea from Mar 22-April 7 so that I could renew my J-1 visa to make my status eligible to enter U.S. in the future. In mid May, I was informed by my PI that there had been a “mistake” and that I could no longer be funded to do research in his lab. I was given 60 days before I would be forced to leave and lose my visa status by August 1.

Mistakes do happen, and so I was willing to try and find a way to make things right. My official PI was not interested in helping. I explained that, if I could not find another position to transfer my J-1 visa in the U.S., it would create great hardship for me because when I committed to come to this lab in UW BIOE, I gave up the ability to receive research funding in Korea for five years. If I was forced to return, I would be unable to find work in the field I love and have trained in for so long. This did not change the minds of my official PI or my department chair. One University administrator worked hard to try and provide me with an extension so I could have more time to clarify my options. But my official PI would not sign off on an extension, nor would he provide any assistance in helping me find another lab. My former PI, who left UW, did respond to my request for recommendation letter to my interviewer. I was basically on my own.

I then reached out to other Postdocs on campus, as well as the union for graduate student employees at UW (UAW Local 4121). This is where I found great support. Other Postdocs could best relate my work situation, and were ready to do whatever they could to help. Second, through other Postdocs I learned that I was not the only Postdoc in my department to experience such treatment. In fact, five Postdocs in the past six months — none of them U.S. citizens — had their funding suddenly taken away. Third, the grad employee union’s involvement started to attract the attention of the administration, who became even more responsive to my persistent request for help. Soon thereafter, I was finally able to secure a position at another University and ensure that I would be able to stay and continue working in the U.S.

I’ve become convinced that, if I hadn’t begun to work collectively with other Postdocs, the UW Postdoc Association, and the grad employee union, I would not have had the same outcome. But I also believe that there is much more to do. As Postdocs, we need a way to collectively advocate for ourselves, but we also need a clear, legally enforceable contract in which we have clearly defined rights and strong, fair process for protecting ourselves. Currently people like me only can hope that our supervisors will help, and if they won’t the University’s dispute resolution process is not set up to be favorable to the Postdoc. For instance, situations like mine (loss of funding with notice that had been provided 60 days out) are ineligible for review. The process is complicated, and requires knowledge of multiple rules — including the University’s Faculty Code. If you want help navigating through the process, there is one person to assist: the Vice Dean of the School of Medicine (one of the people involved in making final decisions when there are complaints). And the process doesn’t allow for review by a neutral third party. UW administration decides unilaterally who will hear the appeal, which questions will be considered, and which rules will guide the process.

I hope other Postdocs will do everything they can to correct this situation and help build a Postdoc union at UW. I unfortunately am not be able to stay at UW to help directly. But please do not take pity on me. Instead, dedicate yourself to creating a common purpose and organize together. As science needs scientists, our profession will do better if we can foster dignity and respect for everyone. Postdocs matter and must be united.