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Topics: Clinical & Translational Research, Education & Training, In the News

Postdocs in the Pandemic

Harvard Medical School research fellows navigate myriad challenges at work and at home.

The 2019-2020 governing board of the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association
The 2019-2020 governing board of the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association.

Harvard Medical School postdoctoral fellow Joseph Zullo spent years honing his research skills, using the tiny worm Caenorhabditis elegans to investigate the nervous system. Last fall, he was listed as first author on a paper published in one of the top scientific journals, Nature.

The academic job market largely runs on an annual cycle, with openings posted in the fall and hiring decisions made the following spring. With the bulk of his project published, Zullo began applying for positions to teach and run his own lab.

Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and everything slammed to a halt.

Travel bans cascaded into the tail end of the spring interview season. Hiring freezes at universities decimated the already small number of available faculty positions. A few candidates’ verbal job offers were rescinded; others are still waiting to find out whether their salaries or startup funds will be reduced.

Zullo had been interviewing with two institutions, one of which he was “very hopeful was going to make an offer,” he said. Then they told him they were indefinitely pausing their faculty searches.

“That was a really bad couple of days,” he said.

Now, Zullo and many senior postdocs like him are in limbo, unsure how long they can stay in their current positions and unsure where to go.

From all directions

The global rise of SARS-CoV-2 has altered countless lives, including those of postdocs—trainees who have earned their PhDs and are gaining more research experience before launching academic labs of their own, becoming staff scientists, starting medical residencies, or pursuing careers in the pharmaceutical or biotechnology industries or other fields.

More than 1,000 postdocs work at HMS and Harvard School of Dental Medicine. Another 4,000 are based at the school’s affiliate hospitals and at research institutions in the Longwood Medical Area, according to the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association.

These trainees have confronted not only a disrupted job market but also limited lab access to conduct experiments during statewide stay-at-home advisories, uncertainty about visas and green cards, childcare needs, social isolation and other challenges.

“The COVID-19 slowdown has had far-reaching impacts on our postdoc population, some of which we can’t yet even anticipate,” said James Gould, director of the HMS/HSDM Office for Postdoctoral Fellows.

When public health advisories mounted and HMS began ramping down on-campus activities in March, subsets of postdocs were able to either continue their research remotely, such as those who do computational work, or launch projects related to COVID-19. The rest salvaged what they could from the situation. Some even discovered silver linings.

Like the faculty members they work under, postdocs got busy analyzing data, writing articles and book chapters, reading backlogs of scientific literature, applying for grants and pursuing professional development.

“For some, it is an excellent time to reinvent how they approach their work, to reveal new opportunities or to reaffirm their passion for science,” Gould said. “There is a chance to slow down and look up from the lab bench.”

“The COVID-19 slowdown has had far-reaching impacts on our postdoc population, some of which we can’t yet even anticipate.”

Both the postdoc office and the postdoc association rapidly transitioned from in-person to virtual programming and expanded resources to help their community navigate these unfamiliar waters.

Gould reports that unprecedented numbers of postdocs have requested and attended online seminars on everything from grant writing, job searching, entrepreneurship and immigration policy to work/life balance, homeschooling and exercise routines. Virtual social events have also helped postdocs meet and support one another across labs and institutions.

The groups have also been advocating to ensure that postdocs are taken into account as HMS and Harvard University make process and policy decisions throughout the pandemic.

“Our office has never been busier,” Gould said.


With a scant few exceptions for essential operations and pandemic-related experiments, research physically conducted on the HMS campus took a three-month pause. In mid-June, with coronavirus cases ebbing in Massachusetts and rigorous safety measures in place, labs began cautiously reopening.

Postdocs unable to advance their work from home are getting back to the bench. The rest have been asked to continue working remotely for now.

But life has not returned to normal. Some experiments will take months to ramp back up. The need to maintain physical distancing means working in carefully orchestrated shifts, with smaller than usual shares of animal and core facility time and no clear opportunities for putting in extra hours to catch up. Not everyone who needs to can resume in-person work, whether because their projects involve still-restricted activities or because they lack access to child care. New protocols for preventing SARS-CoV-2 infection in lab spaces bring with them a new set of anxieties.

As local coronavirus cases peaked in April and May, some hospital-affiliated postdocs sacrificed research time to help in the clinic, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes as required.

And everything could stop again if COVID-19 resurges.

Davide Valeriani, HMS research fellow in otolaryngology head and neck surgery at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, studies brain function to better understand decision-making and improve diagnosis of neurologic speech disorders. His group had to stop collecting data from functional MRIs and electroencephalogram (EEG) tests in March.

“We collected one data set right before the lockdown, so at least we’ve been able to work on that,” said Valeriani, a member of the HMS postdoc association advocacy committee.

Fears and frustrations aren’t just personal inconveniences. Not only has general scientific progress been set back around the globe, but research delays affect researchers’ ability to win and maintain grant funding, publish papers, get jobs and fellowships and, in some cases, even remain in the U.S. Many agencies and institutions, not least the National Institutes of Health, set limits for the number of years within which postdocs can apply for funding after earning their PhDs, and it’s not yet clear whether any of those deadlines will be extended in light of the pandemic. A slowing economy exacerbates worry and competition over funding.

Some researchers working on topics other than COVID-19 report that review processes in scientific journals seem slower, perhaps because editors have received a glut of submissions related to the coronavirus or because so many other scientists have been stuck at home and catching up on writing papers. Others, however, haven’t faced delays.

A few postdocs are also concerned that when the dust settles, the effects of research slowdowns might disadvantage those in states that were harder hit by the pandemic or that took stronger precautions.

That said, even postdocs confronting significant challenges say they appreciate the need to adjust research practices to protect community members from COVID-19.

As for returning to campus labs, “I feel very confident that our building has prepared to keep everyone safe and that people are putting our safety first,” said Emily Moore, research fellow in developmental biology at HSDM and safety officer for her lab shift.

Moore works with dental and skeletal stem cells to regenerate tissue and treat diseases. Although she put her hiatus to good use, writing a manuscript and co-writing a grant application with the head of her lab, she said, “I’m ready to go back.”

One and many

Worries are also circulating that the pandemic will disproportionately hamper the progress of researchers with children, particularly women, who already struggle for equity in science.

Postdocs with young children can’t necessarily spend a full day working, whether at home or in the lab. Those who planned to work on campus until they or their partners gave birth this summer or fall had to stop earlier than expected and for longer than their colleagues, as the pandemic-driven hiatus extended into parental leave.

Not only family responsibilities, but also roommates and other disruptions can intrude on postdocs’ ability to work at peak performance from home. On the flip side, social isolation can threaten those who live alone. Postdocs new to campus this year or whose families live thousands of miles away may be separated from social support networks as well as their work.

Combined with grief and worry about the pandemic itself, economic and career insecurity and more, some postdocs grapple with depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues.

“Some are thriving. Some are surviving,” said Gould.

Labs, research departments, and the postdoc office and association mobilized to help on the social front in addition to their other efforts. They continued or expanded event rosters, holding virtual happy hours, games, trivia nights and other informal get-togethers. A postdoc association-sponsored buddy program in which incoming postdocs are matched with those who’ve been at HMS for a few years now operates over video chat.

Still, newer postdocs have a harder time when normal lab interactions are interrupted, said Yulu (Cherry) Liu, research fellow in cell biology at HMS and outgoing chair of the governing board of the postdoc association.

“It’s hard to engage comfortably in virtual happy hours when you don’t yet know your lab mates well,” she said.

First-year postdocs were further susceptible to frustration during the ramp-down because those who hadn’t gotten their lab projects going couldn’t always work as purposefully from home as more experienced postdocs with data to analyze, papers to write, and new ideas to hone, Liu said.

For these and other reasons, she added, “We want to engage more postdocs who don’t know as much about HMS or the association.”

Lost in space

Arijit Adhikari, research fellow in biological chemistry and molecular pharmacology at HMS, planned to apply for a work visa to replace his student visa, which was set to expire during the first week of May. Without the new visa, he wouldn’t be allowed to continue his studies on the chemistry of human-associated gut bacteria or stay in the U.S.

In March, however, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services temporarily halted several kinds of visa processing in response to the pandemic. Instead of a premium application review lasting a few weeks, Adhikari faced an unpaid leave of up to nine months.

“I felt helpless,” said Adhikari. “If things didn’t work out, I would have to leave not only the lab but also the States and my wife here. Thoughts about that, and about having to drastically change my career trajectory or undergo a great ordeal to reenter the country, consumed me.”

Adhikari was not alone. About 40% of HMS/HSDM postdocs are international, according to Gould. With agencies and in-person lab access on pause for what was until recently an indeterminate amount of time, a portion of these postdocs found their visas or green card applications in jeopardy. Some need visas in order to work; others need to work to keep their visas. Yet it hasn’t always been clear which new home- or clinic-based activities count as “working.” Canceled green card interviews put job applications on hold.

Meanwhile, some international postdocs who visited their countries of origin pre-pandemic have had to remain abroad because of travel restrictions. Their visas—and careers—may be at risk if they can’t rejoin their labs in Boston upon reopening.

Postdocs have turned to the Harvard International Office for guidance. The HMS postdoc association has also hosted question-and-answer sessions with immigration lawyers, one in-person before the campus ramp-downs and one online in May.

“We’d like to repeat events like those every couple of months,” said HSDM postdoc Moore, chair of advocacy for the association, who helped organize the sessions. The next one is planned for July.

As of mid-June, U.S. visa processing, at least, appears to be resuming. Adhikari was able to keep working without interruption.

“Unbelievably, I received my new visa just two days before my current one ended,” he said. “After a horrid few months, a huge burden has been lifted and I can focus again on doing exciting science that can hopefully one day be beneficial to humankind.”

Even if those problems resolve, however, international postdocs who experienced a three-month or longer research gap may not be able to finish their projects before their visas expire and they must return home. They can try requesting extensions, but extra time isn’t guaranteed, and not everyone has the flexibility to stay longer even if allowed.

The same holds true for grant and fellowship funding. “Everyone understands that this situation is unique, that plans have been delayed, that it’s not the fault of the researcher or the agency,” said Valeriani, who is from Italy and on a visa himself. “We hope agencies will be understanding in offering no-cost extensions or other solutions.”

What color is my parachute

The pandemic has disturbed careers in other ways. Conference cancellations mean fewer venues for postdocs to present their research and make professional connections. On the bright side, postdocs have new opportunities to participate in virtual conferences they may not have been able to attend in-person.

“I was supposed to travel to three conferences in June. Two got canceled, and one is being held online,” said Valeriani.

But it’s the job market that most worries those approaching the end of their postdoc years.

Numbers aren’t yet available on how many postdocs looking for faculty positions squeaked through this year compared to average. Anecdotal evidence suggests that most who had verbal offers progressed at least to formal contracts, said Cherry Liu, who signed the paperwork to start this fall at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland, just a few days before universities began ramping down.

Those who were in the midst of interviewing or comparing or negotiating offers—best practices for postdocs at the top of their field—may have lost out or settled for imperfect packages, said Liu.

Misty Riddle, research fellow in genetics at HMS, was one of the lucky ones. After submitting 45 applications and scoring five in-person interviews, she received an offer from the University of Nevada, Reno, at the end of February. Riddle decided to chance a second look at the campus and request salary and lab space upgrades before accepting, even as hiring freezes and flight cancellations loomed.

“It made it scarier to negotiate,” she said. “I was anxious the offer would just go away.”

“It’s not easy, even for high-functioning, high-achieving people like our postdocs, to spend eight years on one track and then switch gears within a few weeks.”

Finally, on April 10, Riddle secured the assistant professorship—grandfathered in despite her new university’s moratorium on hires. She arranged to start next January, in part so she can wrap up her delayed projects at HMS.

“I haven’t been back to the lab since I finished interviewing,” said Riddle, who studies Mexican cavefish to illuminate metabolic disorders like diabetes and how organisms adapt to new environments.

Many postdocs who didn’t fare as well, along with those who weren’t planning to continue in academia, have turned to paths in other fields where prospects are better. Industry is hiring, although not as much as before the pandemic, said Gould. Postdocs unexpectedly transferring from academia must put their creative thinking to use in showing how their skills apply to different sectors, he added.

“It’s not easy, even for high-functioning, high-achieving people like our postdocs, to spend eight years on one track and then switch gears within a few weeks,” he said.

A few postdocs report extra challenges from limiting their job searches to local openings because they don’t want to increase their families’ risk of contracting COVID-19 by moving.

Those who don’t land jobs this spring and summer can try to find lab or fellowship funds to stay in the HMS community for another six-to-12 months, a possibility that is easier for some than others.

Postdocs able to wait, or who will be coming onto the job market in the next few years, fear that academic hiring cycles will have fewer faculty spots and a backlog of applicants, making the process even more competitive.

Whether at a college or a pharmaceutical company, in the U.S. or abroad, “It’s a difficult time to start a lab,” said Riddle, “but it’s a difficult time to do anything.”

All in perspective

It’s not all bad news. Plenty of postdocs are doing fine. Plus, researchers by their nature are resilient and creative, well positioned to rise to the challenges the pandemic poses, said Gould.

“They just need to change their mindset from ‘This is scary’ to ‘This is an opportunity to learn and grow.’”

“Postdocs are trained in uncertainty. They’re the first, or one of the few, to do a thing that pushes science forward. They’re used to innovating, adapting their approach, and working in a space of ambiguity,” he said. “But that uncertainty has mostly been about research discovery. Now it’s pervasive across all facets of life.”

“They just need to change their mindset from ‘This is scary’ to ‘This is an opportunity to learn and grow,’” he added.

Even those who’ve had a harder time often find solace by putting everything in perspective. When so many people around the world have lost their lives, loved ones or livelihoods, it can feel like a privilege to have to deal only with problems related to the scientific endeavor.

“We’re luckier than many others,” said Moore.

Originally published in HMS News. 

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