March 5, 2006

Postdoc unionization

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at March 5, 2006 9:30 PM

Some excellent comments have been posted on my earlier entry regarding working in science and the gender gap. Much more insightful than what I wrote. On a related subject, I find via The Daily Transcript an article in Science describing moves towards unionization of postdocs. Berkeley is naturally one of the schools at the vanguard of this movement. The article is very positive towards this development and describes some significant improvements in conditions at one school (the University of Connecticut Health Center) that has unionized.

I think this is probably a good idea. The way postdocs are currently used as cheap labor strikes me as tremendously exploitative, and a union could alleviate this. Of course this will ultimately mean that it's more expensive to hire postdocs, and funding scientific endeavors will likewise become more expensive. But as a society we're willing to pay more for clothing that's not produced in sweatshops—we should also be willing to pay more for science that's not produced by overworked and underpaid scientists.

There is one problem that comes to mind, though: much of what currently drives the exploitation of postdocs is the scarcity of top-tier academic jobs in science, and the corresponding pressure to produce high-quality publications during the postdoc period. So you will get a lot of people who aren't willing to, say, go on strike, because they need to be taking data in order to advance their case for a tenure-track job. I'm not sure how to get around this.

Tags: Academia, Science

They could write papers on how not taking data affects scientific output.

The unionization is a positive step. There are other issues besides just low pay. One of them is postdoc housing. Many schools will help out students and faculty with housing but not postdocs, who end up paying "more" (relative to what they're getting) for housing than faculty at some schools (UC Irvine comes to mind).

Posted by: Mason | March 5, 2006 11:15 PM

Berkeley has the same policy. One common reason given is that postdocs are more likely to be married and thus have two incomes to apply to housing.


I don't think you could engineer a postdoc strike in the same way as the graduate students' strikes. It's not really a negotiable position.

Posted by: Wren | March 6, 2006 11:10 AM

I'm all for sticking it to The Man. Just make sure that before you do you've thought through what might could happen if he decides to stick it right back.

Posted by: JSpur | March 6, 2006 11:29 AM

Postdocs are cheap? I always thought we were relatively expensive after factoring in that mysterious "overhead" that institutions charge the PI...

Posted by: Justin | March 6, 2006 11:42 AM

Cheaper than faculty. Also, no tuition and fees, so possibly cheaper than graduate students. (That depends on the school, though.)

Posted by: Wren | March 6, 2006 12:03 PM

JSpur: I don't know if this is what you were referring to, but the NYU grad students have been going through a bitter struggle with the administration over the right to organize, and it has not been going well for the students. The federal government is also unsympathetic to grad student unions at the moment, but I don't know whether that would effect postdocs. (Of course the federal government is currently unsympathetic to most unions.)

Justin: I had in mind that postdocs are cheaper than workers with comparable training and education in other industries.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 6, 2006 1:03 PM

I was not aware of that specific case but, yeah, that's the sort of thing I had in mind. Employer resistance can generally be expected when employees seek to organize for purposes of negotiating a better deal for themselves. Just something to keep in mind, Norma Rae.

Posted by: JSpur | March 6, 2006 1:18 PM

As far as I can tell, academic postdocs are slightly more expensive than grad students, but not really by much. (We get a salary, but that is compared to a salary + other stuff for grad students.)

Justin, your JPL affiliation muddies up the waters as far as counting is concerned. My statement doesn't apply to such situations.

Yeah, sticking it to The Man definitely requires being willing to accept certain consequences. I have my own 'Prepare for WAR!' thing just starting after the most recent "vile provocation" from a certain party. I had to think carefully about whether I was willing to do it, but I ultimately decided that this was important enough to go through with it. I think this will work, but even in the worst-case scenario, I have made peace with myself over the possible consequences. It's still not as easy to concentrate on my work at the moment as I'd like it to be, but at least all the lights turned back on in the city after I did that. (During the last couple days, I've started to be able to focus on my work and temporarily ignore things, so I think I'll be ok.)

Posted by: Mason | March 6, 2006 1:20 PM

JSpur: Well, I will admit that it doesn't take much courage for me to sit here on my blog and tell postdocs they should unionize, knowing that if it doesn't go well for them I can go look for an industry job.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 6, 2006 2:24 PM

Wasn't questioning your courage at all. You'll be a postdoc yourself one day and at that point I imagine you'll be faced with deciding if the game is worth the candle.

I'm personally in no position to judge the merits of this sort of thing but, of course, in the tradition of fathers since time immemorial, an absence of any appreciation of the facts or the situation on the ground does nothing to discourage me from lobbing in advice.

Posted by: JSpur | March 6, 2006 2:34 PM

Ah, but it's far from certain that I'll decide to take a postdoc job (given that other career paths for physics PhDs are more appealing in a lot of ways). I thought you were cautioning me against giving out unsolicited advice to a class of workers I'm not a member of, without considering the downsides.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | March 6, 2006 2:39 PM

"No poor bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making other bastards die for their country." (George Patton)

Posted by: Mason | March 6, 2006 2:46 PM

I'm sorry. What were we talking about again? :)

(Leave it to Mason to provide the perfect quote.)

Posted by: JSpur | March 6, 2006 2:58 PM

George Patton? I thought it was George C. Scott.

Just kidding--don't kill me!

Posted by: Lemming | March 6, 2006 5:31 PM

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Posted by: Anonymous | December 28, 2006 9:54 PM
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