‘Signs of Life’: Thoughts on a ‘not-strange’ postdoc forum

The uncomfortable plight of postdoctoral research fellows (PDRFs), who are neither formally employed by their institutions nor categorised as students, and whose jobs are often open to casualisation, was highlighted during a national postdoctoral forum held in South Africa earlier this year.

The forum was designed to “stir the conversation around professionalisation, skills development, support systems and policies as well as employability within and outside academia”, according to Dr Palesa Mothapo, head of the Stellenbosch University (SU) postdoctoral office, who organised the two-day gathering in July, together with Dr Francois van Schalkwyk from the SU Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology and the PDRF Society (seemingly the only active one in the country), chaired by Dr Melanie Cilliers.

What emerged, inter alia, is that, because they are denied permanent employment, postdoctoral research fellows also struggle to secure housing bonds, phone contracts and, in the case of foreign nationals, permanent residence.

About 200 delegates attended the event, both in person and online. The major sponsors of the event included the SU rectorate, Standard Bank, the Professional Provident Society of SA (PPS), and Inqaba Biotec, whose customer base includes science PDRFs. Some smaller contributions were made by the Matie Shop, Diplomatics, Apex Scientific and the publisher Van Schaik.

PPS and Profmed, which service degreed professionals, together with the Standard Bank, led some in-depth discussions about investment and financial management. These three stakeholders were consulted on the importance of support products for postdocs, including financial and wealth management, and contributed significantly to the delegates’ understanding of how to secure their futures.

Much of the discussion thus dealt with the administration of PDRF working conditions, financial precarity (and security), professionalisation, taxation issues and the need for a will, pension and medical aid. Of concern was how the PDRF tax-exempt status was perhaps misunderstood to prevent access to some financial services.

As Julie Grant, now a UJ senior research associate, observed: “I still can’t get a phone contract in South Africa, or car finance, or any other such contract or finance even now because, although I pay tax, my contracts are short-term.”

If paid work is accepted, one PDRF told me, his tax consultant has no idea on the tax implications (especially when they included external work, dividend and bank interest payments). No one can advise where the tax line is.

This cohort, institutionally positioned as in-betweeners, reproducing the intellectual workforce, being neither formally employed nor categorised as students, results in the partial casualisation of this sector.

Many postdoctoral researchers are recruited internationally, and South African embassies have little idea about postdoctoral status when visas are applied for. Even within universities, it is not always clear which sections of the administration service this cohort belongs to.

The strangest of conferences

Within this hiatus, the financial institutions located their presentations. Even so, as one senior educational planner observed to me privately: “This was the strangest of conferences.” The emphasis was less on “how to get published” than on “how to cope” within institutions that perhaps (over-)emphasise measurable output over all-round PDRF institutional integration, well-being and careers outside of academia.

Most crucially, the unifying theme was how to leverage the brief PDRF period as a form of ‘transitioning’ to enable more secure ongoing careers. The problem, as one UJ postdoctoral student told me, is that “looking for a job is a full-time job”.

Thanks to precarity, some serial PDRFs, known as ‘permadocs’, continually rotate between and within institutions because they can’t find permanent posts. Transitioning from one identity (not-quite-a-full-employee or taxpayer or adult) to another (a professional taxpaying adult) was a recurrent theme.

Most postdoctoral positions must be taken up within a certain period after the completion of the PhD (usually five years) or before the person reaches a certain age (45). Said one postdoctoral appointee: “One is in limbo, purgatory”, so “job-seeking must be part of the PDRF experiment”.

The first day set the institutional scene. Former Rhodes University vice-chancellor Saleem Badat, now at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, described via video link the national PDRF context. He also discussed the darker side of PDRF conditions, such as how universities game the system into which PDRFs become complicit.

He was supplemented by the straight-talking Jonathan Jansen, another former vice-chancellor, who drew attention to epistemological and managerial crises, the political economy of corruption, predatory publishing – all intrinsic to the brutal resource wars that have, in three cases, resulted in the assassination of honest university personnel (whistle-blowers), one of whom had allegedly uncovered a fraudulent PhD syndicate.

Jansen mentioned some failing universities that have been captured by opportunistic, self-serving constituencies using any means available to leverage the academic enterprise for sectional and-or personal gain.

Signs of life

More positively, even within such traumatic environments, the qualities Jansen looks for in an aspiring postdoc are many.

There must be “signs of life” in the applicant’s work, he insisted. Being a postdoc is not a job, he cautioned, but a “launching pad to a career”. Other considerations were as follows, according to Jansen: Does the postdoc evidence a scholarly disposition? Can the postdoc doubt him or herself, ask questions, jettison ready-made solutions and slogans, and be weaned from dependency on the supervisor?

“Competencies must be in place. For example, reading, writing, application, hard work and an ability to creatively navigate time, stress, family issues and ‘the shit that happens’,” he said. “South African scholars tend to be lazy, unfocused, job-seeking and are not postdoctoral material,” he added.

The PDRFs talked about wage packages, regularity of income and financial commitments. My explanation of the prescribed PDRF political economy was that Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) tax-free earnings require that expenditure be matched by DHET income that has to be derived on a futures market from two accredited articles annually (which are hardly ever published during the PDRF’s actual short-term tenure). Within this equation, the super-performers subsidise the under-achievers.

Delegates learned that #Feesmustfall student protests over free tuition had massively shifted resources from graduate students to undergraduates via the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the South African government’s bursary scheme.

National Research Foundation (NRF) ratings sponsorship had also been slashed since 2019, massively reducing research capacity for rated researchers, who are also victims of the state’s reallocation of resources from institutions to individual undergraduate students.

The conference encouraged PDRFs to voice their anxieties regarding their career paths.

Cilliers of the SU PDRF Society observed: “Without representative societies, the PDRF has nowhere to express their concerns and seem to disappear or become invisible in their institutions. I heard one comment stating that the session was, in some way, almost therapeutic in that, for once, they felt that at least someone is listening.”

Basically, the more mature age-range of delegates argued a need for better security, to be treated not as in-betweeners, but as employees.

Such a change, however, could result in expensive labour and tax implications for both employee and host, complicate visa applications, though Palesa reports that, when she was a PDRF in both Japan and the USA, that tax was levied and that such “international standards” could be applied in the South African case, also.

After representations, UKZN did replace PDRF student cards with staff cards, but the Department of Home Affairs continued issuing student or visitor visas.

Common standards across universities

In a parallel session that was mostly attended by administrators, the lack of standardisation across universities regarding the management of PDRFs was an issue. Stipend caps, policies, and grievance or disciplinary policies (or the lack thereof), were discussed.

It was agreed that, to better the plight of the postdoc, some cross-institutional common ground is needed. A collaborative policy writing workshop was suggested in which administrators and PDRF representatives from different institutions could jointly discuss policy standardisation.

While the conference organisers had presciently identified issues nagging at PDRFs, their speakers addressed these head on.

One such issue was the inability of post-PDRFs to obtain employment outside of academia as industry and business believed them to be over-qualified and not ready for hands-on work.

PDRFs argued that their potential contribution to national growth was, therefore, insufficiently recognised except within the hermeneutic circle that is academia, where 94% of PDRFs end up talking primarily to each other rather than the world at large.

A suggested remedy was the co-hosting of postdocs with industry partners, while keeping academic control of the projects. The post doctorate should offer a side door to position the researcher as a professional, a leader and thinker, to leverage one’s talents, whether within or outside of academia.

Within academia, however, there were also hurdles. Grant said a lack of teaching experience limited the options for South African PDRFs.

“While South Africa-based PhD students (and sometimes MA students) lecture, many people who complete PhDs abroad don’t get that experience … this means that the opportunity to lecture and supervise is necessary if the PDRF is to compete in the South African market for employment.

“Otherwise, South African-based PhDs have more lecturing experience than the PDRF. This is something that is currently being further compounded as many South African universities give teaching priority to postgrad students,” she said.

Because many PDRFs from STEM disciplines set up their own small businesses, talks on entrepreneurship, technology transfer agents and industry partnerships dealt with intellectual property (IP) issues and monetisation of academic inventions and procedures.

How do postdocs, working within institutional IP policy, continue working with the university after leaving it, on products that they have helped develop? This was raised after the event by a UJ arts and design postdoctoral researcher who was concerned about his IP rights, what qualifies as ‘creative’ output, and how it is defined and processed.

Such innovation often languishes as universities are neither factories nor marketers. Specialised Implementing agents can best facilitate such partnerships between PDs and institutions, monetise products and protect IP to mutual benefit.

National postdoc network

Among the intentions of the conference was to set up a national PDRF network to get around the absence of a national database of PDRFs which had made it difficult simply to invite participants to the forum.

A previous attempt to form a PDRF group, with a view to the formation of a national body, had been attempted at the University of KwaZulu-Natal between 2012 and 2014. As Grant, then at UKZN, reported, the initiative failed, despite enthusiasm, owing to the short-term nature of postdoctoral appointments.

“The issue was that all of the main ‘drivers’ involved finished their PDRFs and no one was really that interested in taking over the reins – they had enough issues to contend with. We recognised that the short term of PDRFs was a challenge in regard to the formation of a forum as the turnover of PDRF personnel was fast: many PD positions expired after one year.

“At least one if not two of the ‘drivers’ involved in the UKZN initiative actually left academia after the completion of their fellowships, due to the difficulty of securing an academic position as a foreigner in South Africa and-or because they did not believe that working in academia provided the work-life balance that they aspired to,” Grant wrote in an e-mail dated 9 July 2022.

Given the short-term appointments and high turnover, the challenge, then, is for universities to establish and maintain a national network and database, and to share information across institutions in liaison with contemporary PD cohorts.

Such inter-institutional cooperation would be much more productive than the current disjointed response to national calls for participation. Grant suggests that universities could “create a paid long-term position to manage the forum or society, to offer continuity and consistency”.

In any event, the first steps to achieving this goal were taken by inviting delegates at the forum to join a national PDRF WhatsApp group.

Not-strange outcomes

Rather than a “strange” conference, it was most exhilarating as postdocs at SU took the reins, found the resources and of those involved, most revealed clear ‘signs of life’.

They organised themselves, invested in their conference and created a programme that addressed the everyday issues facing postdocs. There will be life after these initial signs of life – transitioning into the wider job marketplace, planning their personal finances and contributing to national growth.

But transitioning from being ‘in-between’ to some other more secure institutional status, is the real issue.

Knowing that one is in-between perhaps is one way of productively focusing the mind (and the body) in a world of hard knocks. As former University of Cape Town postdoc Addamms Mututa suggests, immersive training could ease this moment and make the ‘knocks’ worthwhile.

Instead of assigning the postdoc as mere writer and assistant, external to the institution’s central concerns, they could gain substantial experience in diverse real workplace tasks with degrees of responsibility.

While such additional tasks could become, during lean financial times, “a backdoor to abuse”, according to one comment, as Mututa argues, actively being involved in grant writing, teaching, postgraduate supervision, administrative tasks, and other pertinent tasks would grow the PDs network, confidence, and competence.

The problem, however, is that such activities are not valued because they are not rent-seeking, resulting in DHET publication incentives. No matter, working alongside senior researchers and professors in achieving impactful goals is not only beneficial in the postdocs’ next career stage, says Mututa, it also allows them to make a meaningful contribution beyond the dreary task of article writing and passive participation.

Keyan Tomaselli is a Distinguished Professor, Dean’s Office in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg; and professor emeritus and fellow at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He chairs the Committee on Scholarly Publishing at the Academy of Science of South Africa. His latest book is Contemporary Campus Life: Transformation, Manic Managerialism and Academentia (HSRC Press, 2021).