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I’ve found that to truly appreciate the joys and anguish of each step on the academic journey, one must actually be there.  Just as undergrads can’t fully appreciate the trials and tribulations of graduate school, I never imagined the veritable limbo I would experience as a postdoc.

Limbo is the theological concept of an afterlife destination that is neither heaven nor hell, first “popularized” (if one could call it that) by the first circle of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

“Christus in de Limbus ” by Hieronymus Bosch (c.1575)

I’ve been a postdoc for about 18 months, and the first thing that struck me was the ambiguity of where I fit into the academic community at my university.  I’m not a student, and so don’t pay tuition fees (thank goodness!), yet my administrative affiliation is with the graduate studies school.  On paper, that’s a-OK with me, but in practice, it can be frustrating.  To further complicate matters, I’m funded by NSERC, and get paid directly (bizarrely enough, in 2 instalments a year).  Anyone who’s had to deal with university bureaucracy knows that the key to many services is being “in the system”, which is driven by payroll.  From library cards to grant administration, or parking passes to e-mail and computer support, it all revolves around some aspect of data in a payroll database.  For the first month I was here, I had to walk around with about 3 letters (NSERC, supervisor, grad studies) to prove I was legit.

This bizarre situation of not being paid directly from the university rears its ugly head about twice a year, usually around the fiscal year-end when the university settles all its accounts (lucky for me, that’s coming up in about 9 weeks).

But this is relatively easy to deal with compared with the institutional blindness to postdocs, and their professional development.  Chances are that, as postdocs, most of us are destined for a career in research, and most likely at a university.  Universities recognized in the last 10 years that graduate student professional development (especially in teaching and instruction) were important, and so many places developed graduate teaching programs or diplomas.  I went through the TOGA program (Teaching Opportunities for Graduate Assistants) when I did my PhD at Memorial.  Sadly, this program no longer exists.

But near the end of my program, I was able to get in touch with the Instructional Development Office, and set up a meeting to start building my teaching dossier (a critical component of many academic job applications).  There were also workshops on academic and non-academic job searching, and staff who could meet one-on-one to discuss and review job application packages (in a general sense), help build a CV, and show examples of those from other early-career and established researchers.

I applied for one academic job during my PhD (a primarily teaching job at the Grenfell campus of Memorial), and have since applied for many (many, many) more.  So this fall, when I was going over my “blank” application package, I figured it would be a good idea to have someone revisit certain aspects, like my teaching dossier.  My current university has a “centre for teaching effectiveness”, so I sent them an e-mail.  In early November.  After they wrote back apologizing for not writing back sooner (this was 3 weeks later), they suggested the appropriate person to contact.  So far, I have yet to hear back from them despite follow-up e-mails and phone calls (heck, even a tweet to the centre’s Twitter account).  Very frustrating.

Over at Haute Science, Holly Bik outlined some of the common frustrations of being a postdoc:

At every university I’ve worked at, postdocs are essentially regaled into some sort of institutional purgatory. At my first post-PhD institute, there wasn’t a whisper of a support network for postdocs. Administrators didn’t even have an idea of how many of us were on campus (not even an email list!).

(I should note that the theological concept of Purgatory is a sort of halfway house to heaven – its residents are guaranteed to get out, and never descend into hell).

Purgatory as depicted in “Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry” (15th century)

I recognize that it’s a challenge for universities to dedicate a pile of resources to postdocs.  Around here, most departments (from what I can figure – we also have no centralized list) have at most 5 postdocs (many have none at all).  Across the university, that’s maybe 100 people in total.  At times when universities are experiencing massive budgetary shortfalls, and when postdocs are often fairly transient and short-term positions lasting a couple of years, it’s easy to see how we can fall through the cracks.


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