Talk to my agent

Those who inhabit the increasingly crowded and dark metropolis of Postdocingham know that the life of a research postdoc is not 9 'til 6. Weekdays get filled with admin, teaching (voluntary or forced), admin, telecons, admin, group meetings, and admin. Evenings and weekends will be spent analysing data, writing code, writing papers, and writing grant proposals. Every two or so years of this they compete against the best minds the planet has to offer for the few jobs that still exist. Even if they think their short contract is secure, when a government funding crisis hits the postdocs are often the first to be sacrificed. The fun bits of science - the discovery, inspiration and playfulness - can get squeezed out. All this doesn't do much for job satisfaction.

Today, Sarah commented on a Nature article about the emergence of postdoc unions in the US. The arguments for and against are interesting. People don't become postdocs for the money so I don't think a union would necessarily lead to demands for higher salaries or strikes. I think postdocs are actually after more stability, more academic support, or simply the feeling that their work is valued. They would also like to be left to get on with doing science. Unions might be one way to attempt to achieve these things. However, a big hurdle for a postdoc union is the difficulty of fighting for relatively small numbers of people in such diverse jobs, institutions and countries. The individualism of postdocs won't help either. Are there alternatives? Maybe.

In recent months I've jokingly likened postdocs to actors. Actors also take on a series of short term jobs for different employers spread around the globe. They solve some of their problems by employing agents, managers and even personal assistants. These support roles help an actor to find appropriate jobs, negotiate contracts, organise their travel and fill in paperwork. Could postdocs benefit from something similar?

An experienced manager/agent would help find jobs, provide advice on moving country (visas, how to rent accommodation etc) and could act as a consistent intermediary between the postdoc and their succession of employers. Perhaps the travel/consumables money within research grants could be administered by a postdoc's manager/agent rather than University administrators who might care more about following inefficient procedures than getting value for money. A postdoc manager/agent would presumably have more incentive to help as their income would be directly connected to that of the postdoc.

I realise that managers/agents wouldn't solve everything and would bring their own set of problems. Still, there may be something useful to learn from the way other professions do things.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Oct 2010 (22:15 BST) | Permalink
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