Op-Ed: The Harm in Short Research Appointments

As a postdoctoral researcher, I’m used to encountering challenges in RNA biology, but I never imagined an administrative issue — short appointments — would create so many challenges for my research.

University of California postdocs make valuable contributions in discovery and dollars — we publish thousands of papers each year, help bring in nearly $6 billion in research grants and contracts, and drive innovation and economic growth within the UC system.

After four years of research, I’m getting close to publishing the paper that represents the culmination of my work as a postdoc — an in-depth study of RNA binding proteins. Having too many or not enough of these proteins can make people sick and cause diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes and cancer.

My research is highly technical and, as is the case for most postdocs, it has taken years to produce. It’s a commitment to say the least and knowing how important the contribution will be is part of what keeps me going. The large data set I’m creating will benefit researchers anywhere who are trying to understand and cure neurodegenerative diseases.

Despite our lengthy research projects, each postdoc‘s initial appointment is only required to be a minimum of one year in length. For me, and for the majority of postdocs, that means multiple appointments are required to complete research. Further complicating that process, the University holds sole discretion over whether or not to re-appoint a postdoc to their research position.

Since I arrived here from Belgium, most of my contract extensions have been for only six months at a time (and I am aware of postdocs who have received even shorter appointments). These short appointments caused an incredible amount of stress — about whether I could finish my research, maintain my relationships and even whether I could sign a lease for an apartment.

Better job security in the form of longer appointments is good for science. Longer appointments enable postdocs to work on their research uninterrupted by having to get a new appointment every few months. Not to mention, it’s hard to focus on abstract or complex material when consumed by basic survival anxieties.

And, the reappointment process doesn’t just create stress for postdocs. It’s also an administrative nightmare for UC, which processes paperwork for 2,100 reappointments each year. Studies show postdocs with more job security publish 20 percent more papers, produce twice as many patents and win more academic prizes. Postdocs with better job security can also take on riskier research endeavors, and as a result, are three times as likely to produce research that significantly impacts public policy.

And we know increased job security is linked with better worker health and well-being, safer workplaces, and better work-life balance. I sought out the University of California system for the opportunity to work with world-class faculty in world-renowned facilities but UC’s policies on appointments for postdocs are harming research. By guaranteeing longer appointments, UC can improve job security for postdocs, add value to our research potential and invest in better research outcomes for the UC.