Postdocs come together to make their voices heard

Sonchita Bagchi didn’t want to just sit and cry over dreadful postdoc stories. That’s why she established Uppsala University Postdoc Association in 2017. Postdocs have begun to organise, and in 2018 a national postdoctoral researcher association was created.

Sonchita Bagchi left academia after having spent six years as a neuroscience postdoc with her own funding. She wanted to try something new, but was also tired of the injustices she experienced as a postdoc. As a researcher, she was also at a stage where she had to compete for funding with the giants within her field of research.
“If you don’t gain employment in academia within five to seven years, you’re screwed –  unless you want to move to another city or another country,” she says. “And I really didn’t want to do that.”

Sonchita Bagchi

Sonchita Bagchi defended her thesis at Uppsala University in 2011, and shortly afterwards, she was awarded her first major grant which was followed by a second. Having your own funding brings more freedom to explore the topics of your own choice, but the money was paid out as a scholarship.

Scholarships are tax-exempt, and the holder is therefore not entitled to sickness benefit, unemployment insurance, a pension or parental benefit. Sonchita Bagchi’s scholarship situation was the reason that she never had a second child.

As a scholarship-funded postdoc, she did not have the opportunity to teach either, but since she wanted to acquire further qualifications, she and the university came up with a solution that involved her teaching on a voluntary basis.
“I had status, but I realised that as postdocs, we needed to organise ourselves,” Sonchita Bagchi says. “Postdocs are very well-educated, highly competent people, which makes it hard for them to see themselves as victims. But they are completely invisible, and there is no support structure for them.”

She was a member of a group within Uppsala University’s National Junior Faculty which organises young researchers who lack permanent employment, but she felt there was a need for a group focusing specifically on postdocs’ needs.

Prior to the summer of 2017, she e-mailed the university’s postdocs to ask them whether they wanted to meet, and immediately received a positive response from about 40 people. In July the same year, they established the Uppsala University Postdoc Association (UUPA).
Besides being a support community for postdocs, UUPA has the important task of providing information on everything from rights to the way Swedish bureaucracy and academia work.

Sonchita Bagchi is originally from India, but since she did her PhD in Sweden, she felt quite at home within Swedish academia when she became a postdoc. Still, the transition was tough.
“As a PhD student, you feel part of a bigger picture, you can’t be exploited as easily, and you have access to information and people you can turn to for help,” she says. “As a postdoc, you are completely abandoned.”

Taking inspiration from UUPA, the postdocs at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU) formed their own association, SLUPA, in November 2018. Its goals are similar to those of UUPA – that’s to say: to create a postdoc community to increase their visibility and representation; and to support individuals in terms of both their career development and becoming established in Sweden.

Ozias Hounkpatin, Vice-Chair of SLUPA, was employed at SLU on a postdoc contract in 2018. He is from Benin, but he did his PhD in Germany. As a fresh postdoc in Sweden, he mainly lacked information – for example, that it could take several months to receive his first salary payment.

This problem is not uncommon – a university often can’t pay the employee any wages until they have a personal identity number. The postdocs have a short horizon: often only a two-year contract at a critical time in their career when they have to perform well in a new environment as well as paving the way for the future. Practical complications and worry can steal valuable time.
“The faculty focuses mainly on the job you do, but you also have to think about the future and gain access to information so that you can be proactive in terms of your career development,” Ozias Hounkpatin says.

The experience of UUPA and SLUPA is that the university leadership has a positive attitude towards the postdocs’ initiatives. SLUPA has, for example, organised a workshop with the HR department for new international postdocs.

But plenty more needs to be done – both on the university and the national level. That’s why the Sweden National Postdoc Association (SNPA) was established in 2018: a body comprising three university postdoc organisations. Besides the two aforementioned at SLU and Uppsala University, the postdoc association KIPA at Karolinska Institutet is a member. KIPA is the true veteran of the group, having already been established in 2012.

Neuroscientist Mathew Tata from England is a Vice Chair of KIPA and a board member of the SNPA. One of the issues that he is advocating for is that KI and the other 13 Swedish universities that have signed the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers, should live up to these guidelines.

The charter states that all those working in the field of research should be recognised as professionals and be granted equal employment terms and conditions – based on national legislation and collective bargaining agreements. The difference between the terms and conditions set for fully employed postdocs and those provided with scholarships is a major issue for the postdoc associations.

Among the 10 postdocs that Universitetsläraren spoke to, the majority feel that scholarships should not be totally banned. And since these are tax exempt, there is an understanding of the fact that they do not provide the same kind of social protection as proper employment does. But they believe that the terms and conditions should be levelled out as far as possible, that the differences should be clarified early on for the scholarship holder, and that the universities should do far more to ensure that the postdoc scholarship holders feel they are an equal part of the staff.

The obstacles met at universities range from everything from the scholarship holder not being included in certain e-mail lists because they are only for employed staff, to them not being allowed to take part in courses and career development efforts for similar reasons.

Mathew Tata

According to the European charter, all researchers – despite their contractual situation – should have access to career development support. The charter also emphasises the importance of representation, and the postdocs are a group that – unlike doctoral students – are rarely represented within the university’s decision-making bodies.
“The postdocs’ voices are needed in daily operative decision-making as well as in policy decision-making so that we have the possibility to say when decisions are incompatible with the postdoc situation,” Mathew Tata says.

He arrived at KI in 2018, and is now on his second scholarship there, but he was previously a postdoc at an English university. Besides the fact that there was much greater professional and career-development support for postdocs in England, academic career paths were also more linear and more clearly marked out there.

Navigating the winding pathways within Swedish academia is particularly hard on those from elsewhere who are unfamiliar with the way things work here. Mathew Tata is also critical of the fact that you have to apply for an associate senior lecturer position within five years.
“Postdocs can accept the inherent insecurity of academia, but not when restrictive legislation then creates other problems.”

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