Negotiating new job expectations


I'm not sure if this is the right place for this post, but anyway, here goes:

I recently accepted a postdoctoral fellowship in the humanities, thinking this would give me time to pursue my own research and travel, rather than trying to write articles and book proposals in the middle of the night, after lecturing all day.

Having started my new position, however, I am finding that what was offered to me beforehand is now not materialising. For instance, I was reassured that my time would be my own to do research, but am now expected to take on more and more administrative responsibilities. I have already set up one program of seminars (to run all year) and have now been asked to do another. And to teach. And to apply for external grants for the benefit of the institution. The grants I was told would allow me to travel and buy research tools (books, a decent computer, etc.) I have now been told will be co-opted by the department to pay for the institutional facilities that were offered to me as part of my contract.

Of course, soon I will need my new colleagues to write references and so on for me. But it is hard not to begrudge full professors on generous salaries who are finding ways to make my meager resources their own while living in mansions and swanning about the world.

Does anyone have any suggestions about how to ensure you are not being completely exploited in a new position, while appearing to be cheerfully compliant and thus receive reasonable references afterwards?

Any thoughts would be most appreciated.

New faculty:
Dear Worried,

Welcome to the postdoc "lifestyle." I'm not sure whether you were mislead, or didn't understand how the system works. I observed my peers that were postdocs while I was a graduate student (older than they), and figured out how it works, at least in science.

You are allowed to do "your" research, but it is usually research that is directly related to what the professor (principle investigator) is already studying. While it is "your" research, it has to fit in with the program's goals, so it might not be what you want to study.

In the sciences, most postdocs are expected to obtain grant funding. The institution takes a large portion of the money for overhead costs. That's normal. More of the money pays your salary/stipend and benefits. The leftover funds are used for research. So, when writing the grant proposal you have to ask for enough money to cover all those costs.

Postdocs make very little money. They work very long hours. The payoff is a faculty position at a research university (in theory). You can be bitter toward professors, but that's counter-productive. If you agree to go into the system you need to go in with your eyes open. This has been going on in the sciences for years, and many are beginning to realize that it is no longer the system it was designed to be, and changes in salary levels are happening, but slowly. Postdoc positions can drag on for years -- the average these days is about four years. Sometimes people become permanent postdocs, kind of like permanent adjuncts.

Sometimes postdocs get stuck with administrative duties in science, too, but that's something that you need to work out with your professor. In your case, couldn't you view this as a CV-building task? Your references can praise your organizational skills.

Most of my friends who've held postdoctoral fellowships say they are the worst experience they've ever had! They'd heard what to expect (and expected the worst) well in advance from all their friends, peers who were a bit further along, and faculty mentors. It is hard to believe no one advised you about this, and that is to their discredit.

On the other hand, these positions are apprenticeships in many ways and typically expect one to have jack-of-all-trades skills. This is annoying but also valuable, since you have to do most of that stuff as a professor or clinician, and it looks good on your vita as you seek a teaching job. You should begin to test the waters in that direction before too long.

In fact, my peers say beware of getting stuck in "postdoc hell," since after four to five years potential employers may wonder why you haven't gotten a "real job," and you may have a hard time getting out, and get stuck in an endless cycle of poorly paid, soft-money jobs. I'm sure I've seen columns on this in The Chronicle; you should look in the archives. While postdocs are great in many ways, I still can't believe you were not warned about what a postdoc would require of you and what conditions you'd probably work under; your advisers should be ashamed of themselves.

But on another note, why on earth would you begrudge your full-professor colleagues anything? Since you clearly, and understandably, want to live in a mansion and swan around the world too, living the life of the mind as do most academics, I would suggest emulating these people rather than putting them down. Senior faculty members who are well-placed after many decades of work (none of them lived in mansions as assistant professors!) usually deserve their rewards, as does anyone, theoretically, who lives under our economic-ideological system in the United States.  Would a newly minted stock broker begrudge a Wall Street tycoon his big bucks? No; s/he might be jealous of him or her, but not grudging -- after all, s/he wants to join the club!  

Are assistant, associate, or full professors supposed to turn down salary increases or other perks that go with seniority and ask the administration to donate them to charity, or save the institution money by turning down a merit raise and request that the institution re-invest the money in new library books? Would any typical person in any profession or job anywhere do this? What is bugging you is that you are looking at a long road to join these folks, and that is true. Anyone who thinks that work ends or slows down upon conferral of a doctorate is poorly informed. During graduate school you should have gotten an inkling of this, and I'm sure you did. The workload and expectations only get ramped up after you land a job.

Of course a few undeserving people succeed too, which means they may not be very good scholars but they are clever in other ways. In the US, this is not an unusual strategy either, is it?

If I were you, I would eventually hint to your full-professor colleagues that you have suddenly realized that teaching your own grad students, in order to pass on the invaluable skills your own professors generously taught you, is your true calling, and that you wish to find a position where fewer "hats" are required so that you may focus on becoming a great mentor/teacher/researcher. Tell them that they inspired you through their exemplary careers, and ask them to support you in your search for an academic job. They won't be surprised; many postdoc positions are "practice" for professorships, not only clinical careers, etc., and I'm sure they've heard it all before. Once you get the job, be prepared to bust your butt for about 15 years in order to get the key to the mansion gates.


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