Saturday, November 17, 2007

My job does not exist

After almost two years you would think I should have realized, but alas, no. A few weeks ago I got a questionnaire from the union I'm a member of, who were doing a survey among their postdoc members about work conditions. All fine and an excellent initiative. In one of the first questions the respondents were to choose their workplace among a list of institutions. My institution was not on that list and according to the explanation following below neither were any of the other non-university research institutes. Apparently according to the rules in this country one cannot be a postdoc if the position is not linked to an university. Huh?

Granted, nowhere on my contract are the words "postdoc" mentioned. My position says research scientist on a contract that runs out four years from the start date, but the name tag on my door and my business card says postdoc. How's that for confusion? I don't really care whether my particular position is called postdoc, or contract-based research scientist or worn out young scientist waiting in line for a permanent job, but I do care about the implications following from the postdoc position only being associated with universities*.

For one this brings up my favorite pet-peeve, about the postdoc being considered a second educational step beyond the PhD. This bugs me to no end and I have written about it several times on this blog in the past. I have no problem with the postdoc as a time to refine ones ideas, get the dissertation research published, get a foundation of new research to publish from in the future and to provide some preliminary results for the first big grant applications. But, emphasising that this must happen at a university, sounds to me like saying that one must be in a degree-granting learning environment under supervision of teachers in order to do so. Sounds to me like the next step will be the "postdoc degree" achieved by defending a set amount of research in front of a board of academics.

On the flip side, this rule might be well intentioned and signal the need for a training ground where postdocs can get experience with teaching, interaction with students, advising etc. If it is so, even I might agree that it makes some sort of sense. But as far as I know, the goal at many institutions and various associations with postdoc's best interest at heart is to shield post docs from teaching loads, student advising and too much interaction with students. The ideal postdoc in my field seems to be considered ample time for research and development, without "wasting" too much on taking part in department commitments.

Last, but not least, how on earth do the union people imagine the research institutes can be effective in churning out papers to the degree they are now, if postdocs weren't involved in the process? Do they have no idea how a research group or the grant proposal process works? I wonder who they think do much of the science in the government subsidised research institutes if not young contract researchers, and what these people are entitled to or not, if they are not postdocs? If the postdoc title somehow suggests that one is under training, does that give the university real-postdocs access to development tools, that the research institute contract researchers haven't? Or is it the other way around that the non-postdoc contract researchers have more freedom as scientists because we are considered average slaves rather than people in training? If that is so, I'd like the title on my business card to be changed.

*I should emphasise that I am at a research institute, in a department with a strong emphasis on basic science. We are not associated with a particular university, but many senior (and some junior) scientists hold associate/ full professorships at universities in addition to their position here. We do not do commercial science and compete for grants from research councils and other public funding bodies on equal terms with the universities.

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