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The benefits of being entitled to benefits when you’re a post-doc


Gabriella Panuccio
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Gabriella Panuccio

Today I am inspired by something pretty sad that has just happened to me. Let me start by saying that I’ve moved many times throughout my career. I have also started a field shift over the past years because something happened in my life that made me feel very strong I had to push towards my vision and establish my own lab rather than keep working as a post-doc (or research associate) on someone else ideas (yes, I’m very creative and I feel the urgent need of unleashing my creativity!).

A few years ago I was a post-doc and at some point I became very sick. Needless to say, I was not entitled to sick leave. Hence, my job contract was terminated. It was an endless, painful year of career break trying to keep a hold of my life, during which I never thought of quitting Science: Science was keeping me alive! I kept applying for grants and positions, trying to give the best of my self as good as I could be or feel in that moment.

My illness gave me the time to reflect on what I was doing and what I actually wanted to do. So I decided to take up the challenge of a field shift to dive myself into a totally different world.

Eventually, at the end of my illness, I relocated for a new position in another country within just 1 week. That was the first lab where I could thrive in a complementary discipline and embrace a different perspective about the scientific challenge I was undertaking. Eventually, I was also awarded a very prestigious fellowship that marked the official beginning of ‘the new me’.

Today, I’m heading towards the end of my project and of course I need to secure my next position. I feel it’s time for me to guide my own team and move again to another country for good. I decided I would apply for a grant to start my own lab.

I have found the dream place and the dream funding scheme. I was very inspired and I was already writing…

Of course, every funding scheme has eligibility restrictions and I have found that I’m just a few months too old to apply. However, an eligibility extension clause would entitle me to compete.

And here it goes: according to the funding agency, any leave (parental or due to sickness) should be formal, i.e., it should be documented by the employer as a reduction of working hours (up to 100%). Of course I don’t have such a pre-requisite (because I had lost my job). According to the funding agency, since I had no job contract, I was just unemployed.

Too bad that policies on career breaks are not global: some funding agencies consider the precarious position of the (poor) post-doc and understand that he/she might not be entitled to take time off and pause the job contract due to inability to work.

Very sad, this would have been my last chance to apply for this very attractive funding scheme and, once more, I will probably have to post-pone my personal scientific mission and apply for another (the 4th!) post-doctoral appointment. This time, however, I will chose carefully. No benefits? No post-doc!

So who is to blame at the end of the story?

A) Your employer - for not fostering your career development as a post-doc offering a ‘more obligations than rights’ job contract
B) The funding agency – for hiring policy makers who establish policies before walking in the (poor) post-doc’s shoes
C) Your no-other-choice decision – you should have kept working even if you were dying!!!
D) Your lack of wisdom – You should have refused a no-benefits positions at the cost of an unjustifiable career break
E) All of the above: “Publish or Perish”

There is no right answer… The bottom line is …only the funding agency policy makers will tell. Meanwhile, you’d better off applying for a position with ‘equal rights and obligations’.

Have a story to share? Let your voice be heard here!

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Gabriella Panuccio

Thanks for your feedback. I personally go for E, intended as a bitter sarcastic observation.
The lack of global policies not only is reflected in the lack of global eligibility criteria when applying for funding; it’s also reflected in the worrying perspective of an inadequate source of independence after retirement: namely, the monthly pension amount. As far as I know, although policy makers are trying to establish this (at least in Europe), there is no global pension fund for researchers who experience mobility throughout their career.
Any thoughts?

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Wow, that is a frustrating situation. Thanks for sharing it and seeking good to come out of it.
I think both A and B apply here. Institutions need to recognize that postdoctoral fellows need to make a living - and that includes good health insurance and retirement savings. While funding agencies need to recognize that the timing restrictions that accompany many career awards are arbitrary and bias against different fields and situations.

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Gabriella Panuccio

Yes, I absolutely agree with you (both on the frustration and the policies). I chose E because it’s sadly and discouraging ironic how track records are evaluated, and it seems to me that the only way we have to stay alive is by publishing and postponing even our health in the name of this (eventually we’ll be dead, but there is always another eager postdoc to take over our work…please forgive my black humor).
Overlooking these details in eligibility criteria (funding agencies) and in benefits (hiring companies/institutions) affects scientific progression (many scientists eventually quit research). And I think that we suffer the most for this situation due to the mobility we experience. On one hand it’s constructive, on the other it’s become kind of mandatory. It’s mandatory for some funding agencies and mandatory for us to keep our research alive while providing for ourselves and our families.

I wish I could reach out to policy makers and stand for a unifying scheme where this kind of inconsistencies would not generate such unfortunate gaps in a scientist’s pursuit of their mission.

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