Navigating Gray Areas: Postdoc Experiences

I’m uncertain if it’s a correct perception that Postdoctoral Fellows (Postdocs) are treated like colleagues in universities across America. I’ve been a Postdoc twice, but both times were not in the US. The first time was in Grahamstown, South Africa. It was an Andrew Mellon fellowship. I recall thinking that the renumeration should be higher, especially since the funder is a prominent American family and fellows in the US were receiving comparatively better compensations at that time. I believe the job announcements that I saw indicated that Mellon Postdocs in the US also received relocation money and health benefits. I did write to the director of the Mellon Foundation in South Africa, who was living in Cape Town, to ask if my salary could be increased to include airfare from the US to Grahamstown (which is a lot of money). Neither did I ask for extra money to help pay for the one-year multiple entry visa that required a chest x-ray nor health benefits, but his answer was an unequivocal no. I was appalled that he refused to acknowledge the fact that the cost of living in South Africa is high — much higher than the rest of the continent.

The second Postdoc Fellowship was from a university in Guangzhou, China. Although the offer also didn’t include relocation expenses, the person who hired me (who became my supervisor) ensured that I had housing on campus, where the rent was subsidized, and found loopholes to obtain money to reimburse my relocation expenses. Health benefits were included, which was handy when I developed a rash on my neck during my first few months in Guangzhou. The office that was assigned to me was a shared space and didn’t have desktop computers or printers for any of its occupants. In South Africa, I had my own office and office equipments, so I was able to use this to insist that I be given a computer and printer. I think, partly, to not look like China’s behind South Africa, my supervisor found a computer and printer for me (the other Chinese Postdocs didn’t have anything nor did they dare to ask for them). The School (Faculty or College elsewhere) even renovated the shared office space, so that it’d look more orderly and there was some sense of privacy.

If one looks deeper, the differences in doing a Postdoc in South Africa and China also reflect the cultures of each place. Although Postdocs in both places seemingly exist in the same gray area of being both staff and student and neither staff nor student, one is for practical and the other cultural reason. In the case of South Africa, I had to apply for a study visa. The rationale was that this type of visa would exempt Postdocs from having to pay tax. However, near the end of the second year, all Postdocs were required to have a tax id number. I’m uncertain if this was paving the way for Postdocs to be taxed like regular staff members. My contract had ended before further measures were taken. In any event, the study visa created confusion at the university level because at times Postdocs were treated as students and other times as staff. I can’t recall when one role became more prominent than the other. We did receive less conference and research money than new lecturers. But, we did qualify to enroll in language classes set up for staff members on campus. We had our own Postdoc committee that communicated our academic needs with the Research Office. Among the people in the department I was based in, no one viewed me as a student, but as an independent (foreigner) researcher. I was never invited to attend one departmental meeting or party. That was how independent and foreign I was.

In China, this borderline between student-staff was extremely gray even though I didn’t have to apply for a study visa. To begin with, my supervisor’s undergraduate and postgraduate students viewed me as a “senior sister,” rather than a Dr or lecturer (someone who already has her PhD). I became their peer, rather than a colleague of their academic supervisor (who was my work supervisor). The supervisor had asked me to help advise his students, who were interested in China-Africa issues. In a way, I was their co-advisor, but didn’t receive any acknowledgement for that role. In another example, I had a “mid-term exam,” which was later changed to “mid-term evaluation” after my objection. More demeaning, in my view, was the expectation to write a “mini thesis” and defend it before a group of four internal and one external reviewers (because I was a foreigner, I didn’t know about and everyone forgot to inform me of these requirements in advance). Unlike other students, Postdocs were expected to pay for our own reviewers and invite them to a meal afterwards. I hadn’t budgeted for any of these, so ended up struggling to find money to pay the people in order for me to leave. On the other hand, when it came to dealing with the Finance Office, my foreigner and staff identity were privileged. Unlike the students, the staff members in that office referred to me as “teacher or instructor.” I could use my research grants in the same manner as other staff members.

I believe that the way the Postdoc is organized in China reflects not just a patronage system, whereby one is guaranteed a permanent job afterwards due to the close relationship between Postdoc and supervisor, but also a Confucian notion of hierarchy. The latter is a kind of disciplining and gatekeeping that also feeds into the patronage system. Never mind that we’ve worked for our degree, newly minted PhDs are expected to pay our dues to those who have been in the teaching profession for many more years. This relationship is beyond the mentor-mentee one that’s familiar in the US. I want to believe that in the US the premise of this relationship is that both persons are colleagues except one is more senior and experience. That person isn’t obligated to guarantee the mentee a permanent job after the end of the Postdoc. Indeed, this system works and continues to be perpetuated because the Postdocs are commonly Chinese who have been bred in a culture of hierarchy and patronage and see benefit in it. Given the increasingly high number of PhDs (among the billion people) in China, job security is a real concern.



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