Tired researcher working a lab

Survey results show some senior scientists exploit the visa requirements of foreign postdocs.Credit: Getty

Most of the research and analysis on the fate and experiences of young scientists focus on PhD students. This is probably because these students, in theory at least, have a broader spectrum of opportunity. Many postdoctoral researchers tend to have chosen a path to an academic career. What determines the outcome? And what happens to those who choose a different route? Better information and tracking would help to inform those making this decision.

Some useful — and worrying — research on this issue was published last month by two US academics in the journal Research Policy. The study is based on interviews with 97 postdocs from 5 major US research institutions, as well as 35 principal investigators (PIs), university administrators and industry employers (C. S. Hayter and M. A. Parker Res. Pol. http://doi.org/cw62; 2018). The interviews were conducted in 2016 and 2017. More than half of the postdocs (52.6%) worked in the life sciences.

Many of the issues these postdocs report are familiar: chiefly, how hard it is to land a tenured full-time position in academia. But the research also revealed a new — and alarming — complaint from a handful of these young scientists. Some PIs are exploiting the fact that overseas scientists rely on them for continued visas. The responses suggest that senior scientists are using this reliance to force postdocs to work longer hours and endure unacceptable conditions.

The following was said to the study’s authors by a postdoc at a leading US university: “When I arrived at [the university] my PI explained to me that he approved my visa renewal … he then told me he was going to pay me 70 per cent of the salary he promised before I got here … when I asked him if this is normal, he just asked me if I was serious about working [at the university].”

And this came from another: “Our PI creates this pressure cooker environment in our lab … you see the foreign postdocs sleeping on the floor of the labs, working 100-plus hours a week … PIs know what they are doing … they take advantage of these guys.”

Here is the view of a university administrator: “I see something bad almost every week and it seems to be getting worse … postdocs come into my office and ask me if this or that seems wrong to me … the visa issue is a big one because foreign postdocs are afraid to report their PIs … these are small scientific communities and PIs will blackball their postdocs if you cross them.”

The paper labels such behaviour as socially irresponsible, but that seems too mild. It is exploitation. It is unacceptable. And it must stop. These are anecdotal reports, and we have no way of knowing how large the problem is, or whether the increased political scrutiny of foreign visitors to the United States has changed the situation.

Most estimates agree that about half of the postdocs working in the United States are overseas visitors who rely on short-term visas. Institutions typically sponsor the renewals and extensions. This is largely done by individual departments and lab heads, with universities’ central administrations having little formal role in the recruitment and experiences of postdocs. This puts senior scientists in a position of power. None should use this as leverage against less senior colleagues — many of whom are far from home and vulnerable. Colleagues who see such actions should report them.

Future assessments and surveys of postdocs should probe this issue further. “This was a qualitative study, so it’s important to recognize that our findings are not generalizable to broader populations of postdocs,” the study authors told Nature. Let’s hope not. Everyone should agree with the postdoc who told the interviewers: “[I] realized that students can really be taken advantage of and this left a bad taste in [my] mouth with academia.”