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The career costs of COVID-19: how postdocs and PhD students are paying the price

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Julie Gould hears how COVID-19 is jeopardising the postdoc career path.

Earlier this year, Michael Moore was due to start a permanent faculty position in Michigan, a move to his “dream job” that would have brought him and his family of five children closer to where their grandparents live.

Moore, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis, contacted his prospective employer after hearing that job offers were being put on hold at many places as a result of the pandemic. He was later told that, as a result of continued funding uncertainty, all new hires were cancelled.

Pearl Ryder, a postdoctoral fellow at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Boston, Massachusetts, and founder of the Future PI Slack channel, tells Gould that Moore's situation is sadly not unusual. She adds: “The group that has been most harmed by this pandemic are the youngest members of our profession, the graduate students who were hoping to move on to a postdoc … and the postdocs who were hoping to move on to new positions, but those new positions no longer exist.”

Can any positives be drawn from the pandemic? A kinder and more open research culture, perhaps? Shirley Tilghman, president emerita of Princeton University, New Jersey, thinks so.


This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day. Find out more about this content.


Julie Gould hears how COVID-19 is jeopardising the postdoc career path.

Sponsor message: 0:00

This six part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland. UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

Julie Gould 0:19

Hello, I’m Julie Gould and welcome to the third part of this Working Scientist podcast series about the postdoc.

So far in this series, I’ve tried to find out what a postdoc is. I’ve gone international, I’ve turned to metaphor, but I’m still struggling to figure it out.

What I’ve learned so far is that many plan to, or go into one, hoping that it’s a purposeful, intentional journey of discovery, both of a scientific and personal nature.

And sometimes this happens, but sometimes it doesn’t.

But whatever your experience of a postdoc, whether joyous or difficult, it’s not an easy journey, and it’s often not the fault of the postdoc.

The postdoc is filled with challenges and pressures, with metaphorical mountains to climb, oceans to cross, and walls to hit.

And the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, and probably 2021, has certainly exacerbated these. Pearl Ryder, a postdoc at the Broad Institute in the US has summarised the impact COVID-19 has had on the postdoc,

Pearl Ryder 1:30

It’s created, I think, even more anxiety in the academic job market for the candidates at least, with the sense that many searches were halted last spring, positions were revoked. That has just created even more sense of uncertainty.

Then the challenges for many people are needing to navigate the challenges of childcare or eldercare in the midst of really like this big upheaval and how we live.

So that has been a huge burden for people to try to figure out how to deal with that.

And it just has made, it’s made what was already a very challenging process, because I think many academic researchers, you know, we push ourselves and we like to push ourselves. But it's made that just even harder, so much harder.

Julie Gould 2:33

Many, if not all postdocs, have chosen this particular career path because they love science and research.

And many have dreamed of becoming an independent researcher for many years.

It’s what they see themselves being when they grow up. It’s part of their identity.

Now the pandemic has almost snatched this identity away from some. Pearl alluded to this a little earlier, that many universities around the world have put a hiring freeze in place as they’re not sure if they can secure the funds to support hiring new stuff.

Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University in the US, shares what this means for the academic career track. And for the people on it,

Shirley Tilghman 3:11

There is now going to be a backup in the planes that are circling LaGuardia and and if anything it is going to be worse.

So of all the people in science who have been harmed by this pandemic, I think the group that has been most harmed are the youngest members of our profession. The graduate students who were, you know, hoping to move on to a postdoc, but all the postdocs are full. And the postdocs who were hoping to move on to new positions, but those new positions no longer exist.

And whether, when the market will pick up again, is really unclear right now, simply because we don't know how long this pandemic is going to continue.

Julie Gould 3:51

Another consequence of COVID-19 is that labs have been closed for months this year, making it difficult for many postdocs to do their research says, Paula Stephan, who's a professor of economics at Georgia State University in the US.

Paula Stephan 4:04

So many labs, almost all labs closed, beginning the middle of March, and they didn't reopen until July or August.

And that meant that people really could be at home writing up their research. But it was very hard for them to be running experiments, or, you know, being active.

There have been articles on how many animals were euthanized, how many labs lost a lot of the resources.

So that also means that this group of postdocs in many ways has been less productive than one would have expected of them.

So people have less research going on and less publications going on.

The right kind of publications are key.

I sometimes call it your get out of jail free card to getout of postdoc position. You've got to have the right kind of, you know, publications to get out.

Julie Gould 5:05

One of those postdocs who had his "get out of jail free card," as Paula describes it, was Michael Moore.

His dream permanent position was snatched away because of the pandemic. He had a faculty offer at an institution in Michigan.

It was a department that he felt wanted him there. They would have allowed him the space and time to pursue the research he wanted to do.

And he would have been much closer to his parents, which would help him with supporting his family. He has five kids.

Michael Moore 5:33

And so I was trying to think about moving to Michigan, looking at houses where we can live. And then COVID happened.

And I started hearing through rumours that job offers were at least being put on hold, some of them may have even been cancelled.

So I emailed my department head, and I said, "You know, I know there hasn’t been any movement on the job, just checking in, seeing what's happening.

They said there's no way this would happen to you, you know. Our Dean really supports you coming here to do your research. You should be fine.

And about half hour later, I got an email from him saying, oh, basically, everything has been put on hold.

And he said, you should protect yourself, you should start looking for new positions.

Obviously, we want you here, but you should think about your future and what what you need to do.

And two weeks ago, as of today, I got an email saying that the Dean of his department was less than confident in the amount of money they were going to be pulling in so they just cancelled all hires that were on the table, and that included my position. And how sorry, he was, and what kind of he would trauma, you know, he knew that would cause and how that means had to turn around real quickly and look for a job. Essentially rescinded the offer.

Julie Gould 7:00

I know that Michael is not the only postdoc to have experienced this trauma this year. But he eloquently explained why losing this position is so tough for him. And I think that this would resonate with many other postdocs who have faced this as well.

Michael Moore 7:15

It was very emotional for me, you know, just thinking about departmental culture.

This is a department I felt like had the culture that would support me, that would be interested in growing me, and that I could have good connections. There was someone else who did motivation work, which would kind of dovetail with what I wanted to do really nicely. So I could see, you know, I had in my mind the trajectory that this was going to go. So it hurt.

Julie Gould 7:40

There would be many resources to turn to for support over the last few months. But one of them that has really helped Michael through the pandemic and its associated challenges is the Future PI Slack Group, which was actually set up by Pearl Ryder, who we heard from earlier in this episode.

The Future PI Slack Group is a safe space for future PIs to form an online peer network to get advice on anything related to their professional lives, whether it's about finding the next job or writing a paper, to relationships with mentors, and much, much more.

And during the pandemic, it's been a source of comfort for many because it's given them people to talk to, whilst they've been isolated at home.

Pearl Ryder 8:19

No one can understand better what you're going through than somebody who is going through something very similar and who's in a similar position.

And so I think peers can be, in many ways, one of the best resources for personal support, and building resiliency.

Julie Gould 8:41

Another form of peer support has come from the postdoctoral associations and networks around the world that are providing a voice for those who are suffering as a result of the pandemic.

Giulia Malaguarnera is the president of Eurodoc. Eurodoc is trying to help early career researchers in Europe by intermediating between them and funding bodies and MEPs to try and provide costed extensions to projects, as well as other support during the pandemic.

But she believes there's another way to help.

Giulia Malaguarnera 9:08

At the moment we we are just asking for extra funding or carreer development mindset from universities and industry in order to support a career and not the project anymore.

Julie Gould 9:23

So much has changed for many people as a result of this global pandemic.

People aren't taking the jobs they were expecting to, researchers aren't allowed back into the labs in the same way as before. And as Pearl said, there's a lot of anxiety around.

But not all changes from this pandemic are doom and gloom says Shirley Tilghman. There is a bright side.

Shirley Tilghman 9:46

I am seeing change that I think will be very hard to undo. I think the spirit of collaboration that has just permeated the way people have responded to this pandemic I think, is embraced by many, many people, but most importantly, young people.

And I think it's going to be very hard to go back to circle the waggons: This is my stuff, don't mess with me.

The second is in open science. Wow. You're seeing people, you know, using preprint servers in biology would never have would have thought about putting a paper up on a preprint server until the paper had been accepted by Nature, for example.

And people are now doing that. And I think that's going to be very hard to undo as well.

Julie Gould 10:31

In the fourth part of this series, I'm going to look at the transition period when academic postdocs move into industry.

As now more than ever, there will be postdocs around the world making this very transition.

So I'm doing a Giulia from Eurodoc is doing. I'm going to speak to industry and academic professionals and get some advice on how to make this transition as smooth as possible.

But until then, you can keep up with what the rest of the Nature Careers team is up to. You can follow their adventures on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and on the website

Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 11:19

This six part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

Nature Careers


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