CUTTHROAT ACADEMIA: INVISIBLE INNOVATORS.

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Author: Joy Ding
Date: Wntr 2021
From: Harvard International Review(Vol. 42, Issue 1)
Publisher: Harvard International Relations Council, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,795 words
Lexile Measure: 1150L

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For immigrants chasing the ever elusive American Dream, the phrase, "education is the greatest equalizer," is repeated, then recited, until it becomes a promise. In academia and scientific research, fulfilled dreams abound. On the tip of the iceberg, the immigrant professors, just awarded tenure, or the immigrant scientists, perhaps now working on a COVID-19 vaccine in big pharma, are living proof of the American Dream. They are the lucky ones--sometimes the exceptional ones. Others become invisible workers driving scientific innovation and research; their stories are rarely told. This is too often the plight of the immigrant postdoctoral (postdoc) researcher. Placed into a system that tends to exploit immigrant labor, the unlucky ones go from blue-collar work to, in extreme cases, 100-hour work weeks inside clandestine labs. The American Dream is put on indefinite hold.

Indentured to Research

Academia is not a true meritocracy. At the golden tip of the hierarchy are the tenured professors, who hold the job for life. Choosing these professors, a tiny sliver of the doctorate-holding population, is an inherently political process. The demand for that coveted slot is what has fueled the relevance of the postdoc.

Officially, a postdoc position is marketed towards candidates who have completed graduate school. It allows them to receive invaluable training, additional research experience, and strong men torship--everything that, on paper, seems to prepare graduates for tenure-track professorships. A vast majority of students believe they need to do at least one postdoc in order to be considered for tenure-track positions. In reality, it's a job built on empty promises.

What the job really entails is far less rosy than advertised. Postdocs are often hired through scientific grants awarded to professors, so they are responsible for one thing: creating valuable output. There is a simple equation that determines job security--publications equals grants equals employment. The 40 hour work week becomes a myth, as output is measured by number of publications, not the hours spent on research. Salary is neither measured by time nor skill. The average annual salary hovers around US $40,000, with minimal employee benefits. Because most postdocs are in their 30s or 40s, it's a salary that goes towards supporting a family. In contrast, full time researchers hired to do the same work are paid up to twice that amount, and the income gap becomes much larger for researchers in industry. It is clear that postdocs are often valued as a source of cheap labor. The justification for this is that a postdoctoral fellowship is not a job, but rather a temporary training period that serves as a down payment on a stellar academic career to come. So, in spite of what often looks like a blatantly exploitative...

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