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Falling Backwards: A Graduate Student to Postdoc Story

Falling Backwards: A Graduate Student to Postdoc Story

BY STEVEN DAVIS

It has been eight years since Dipayan Sarkar came to the University of Massachusetts Amherst campus. Entering as a graduate student in 2004, in the department of Plant, Soil & Insect Sciences, Sarkar graduated with his PhD in 2009. Upon graduating Sarkar stayed on campus and joined the Food Science department as a postdoctoral researcher, or “postdoc.” A member of the Graduate Employee Organization (GEO) union as a graduate student, Sarkar did not expect that his life would be so different when he became a postdoc. No longer did he have a community, no longer did he feel a part of the university, and gone were the benefits of being a unionized employee.

Postdocs are “… treated much worse,” Sarkar reflected when he spoke about the differences between being graduate student and postdoc employee. “I was more comfortable, felt more secure, and optimistic about the future.” Into his second year as a postdoc, Sarkar and many of his peers no longer feel the same security.

For the past year and a half since organizing with the United Auto Workers (UAW), postdocs have been fighting to win a union contract with UMass-Amherst. There are nearly 200 postdocs currently at the UMass-Amherst campus. These are academic workers who have completed their PhDs and are now working in laboratories across campus. Their research helps lead to advances in biomedical sciences, industrial technologies, and many other areas of the math, science, and engineering fields. The work postdocs do helped bring in $170 million dollars in research grants for the UMass-Amherst campus in 2010. Postdocs clearly play a huge role in the academic achievements of the university, which also attract faculty, students and funding to our campus.

Postdocs are typically at a stage in their lives when they are starting families and facing tens of thousands of dollars in loans after many years of undergraduate and graduate education. However, despite their enormous contributions to the university, UMass denies most of these workers a living wage. Two-thirds of postdocs on campus are paid a lower hourly rate than the lowest paid graduate research assistants at UMass.

The health insurance plan offered by the university for years is so sub-standard it actually violates the law. For example, the plan includes a cap on the maximum amount of expenses the insurance will cover, which is in violation of the Federal Health Care Reform Act. UMass agrees it will have to switch to a plan that meets the minimum requirements of the law but wants to make postdocs pay 25 percent of the costs. Half of postdocs currently get no health insurance from UMass. But for the other half, this will be effectively a pay cut. Most postdocs do not get any paid vacation, sick or personal leave.

“I’m working a lot more … yet my salary when I first started was less than when I was a graduate student TA-ing and I have no benefits,” Sarkar said.

Sarkar is currently paying $600 a month, about 25 percent of his salary, to include his wife in his university provided health insurance plan. Piling this large expense on top of credit card debt adds to his insecurity.

Sarkar, who is currently on a J-1 working visa, started the long process of obtaining his H1-B visa eight months ago, a process made more complicated because his university salary falls below the visa requirements. But with many industry jobs refusing to hire international workers on a J-1 visa, it is a necessity for Sarkar and therefore he’ll need to continue to try to obtain an H1-B visa.

Postdocs signed union cards to join the UAW almost two years ago so that they could improve these conditions. The administration is resisting the postdocs’ major demands for fair wages, an affordable health insurance plan, greater job security protections for international postdocs working here on a visa, and other critical issues.

The situation facing the postdocs matters for the graduate students on this campus. For many graduate students who want to work at universities or in other research settings, it has become a prerequisite to do postdoctoral work. Universities are cutting back on faculty nationally, meaning researchers have to spend longer and longer periods as postdocs while competing for a smaller number of jobs.

Graduate students on this campus have been unionized for many years, and receive many benefits as a result. However, grad students who go on to become postdocs themselves at UMass or at many other campuses can expect to lose these benefits unless the postdocs here and elsewhere are successful in setting higher standards through collective bargaining. Graduate students often face a difficult future if they want to go on to postdoctoral work, which is why it is critical to support the struggle of the UMass postdocs for fairness and respect in their jobs.

When asked to provide any advice to graduate students who will be pursuing postdoctoral work, Sarkar offers that they should find a good objective in their work; make sure they feel financially secure with the position they take; have a good understanding of your lab, department, and university; and, most importantly, “postdocs needs to organize, find their common goals, and help each other as a community,” he said.

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