When postdoctoral associate at the School of Medicine William Khoury-Hanold completed his graduate degree in 2016, he hoped to launch his academic career in the field of immunology. But when these positions proved scarce, he took the only other academic option available — becoming a postdoctoral associate.

The postdoc community at Yale includes postdoctoral associates and postdoctoral fellows — interim, and often stressful, positions universities give to recently graduated researchers who await their next career step. Both groups’ primary goal is doing research with a faculty member or academic supervisor. But the two different bodies — associates and fellows — maintain different statuses and qualify for different benefits. Associates are classified as Yale employees, while fellows receive funding from external organizations such as the National Institutes of Health and live on a stipend provided by their fellowship.

According to nationwide data reported by National Public Radio, there were more than 40,000 postdocs nationwide in 2014. And that same year, the American Society for Cell Biology reported that only 15 percent of postdocs nationwide will get tenure-track positions.

On top of career uncertainties, postdocs often face a lack of University support, according to interviews with members of the postdoc community at Yale. Three postdocs interviewed by the News described a variety of struggles they have faced during this tumultuous stage of their careers, including higher rates of mental health concerns, increased premiums for health coverage and other financial constraints resulting from living on a limited budget for years. Many postdocs interviewed by the News cited a general lack of awareness among the Yale community concerning this group of scholars.

According to Jianyu Wu, a postdoctoral associate at the School of Medicine and a chair of the Yale Postdoctoral Association, the University provides support for postdocs, and he acknowledged the difficulties of supporting the group at large. Still, he added that Yale has “a huge space to improve their support to postdocs.”

In the meantime, he says many postdocs feel inclined “to wait for their opportunities.”

“I have to say different people have different reason to stay in academia,” Wu said. “Some of them will be the next rising star, but some of them are just suffering.”

The Office of Public Affairs & Communications did not provide a comment for this story on Tuesday.

Postdocs interviewed by the News outlined a variety of positive aspects of their experience at Yale, including honing their leadership skills, improving their writing and doing independent research. But the average time a recent graduate spends as a postdoc before moving to another academic position has steadily increased nationwide throughout the years, prompting more uncertainty for postdocs. Khoury-Hanold, also a coordinator for the advocacy committee of the YPA, has been a postdoc for three years and will likely be a postdoc for two or three more, he said.

Financial struggles are often an obstacle in postdocs’ career paths. Between 2017 and 2018, a single postdoctoral associate paid an additional $240 for health insurance. Yet, fellows are often more hindered by rising costs, as they have to pay the full price of health insurance, which often amounts to nearly $11,000 per year.

“Thankfully, some [principal investigators] will cover the difference in premiums, so their postdoc fellows don’t feel the financial change, but this is not a hard and fast rule,” said Erin Borchardt, a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine and a coordinator for the YPA advocacy committee.

While postdocs await their next career step, many members of the community said that the stress of looking for a permanent position can lead to mental health problems. Borchardt said her work in the sciences often requires that she attend to research projects during the weekends, blurring the work-life boundary and leading to “an unhealthy work cycle.” A survey conducted by the National Postdoctoral Association found that in a pool of 200 postdocs, 29 percent were depressed.

Borchardt said that since postdocs were once doctorate students, they can often carry mental health problems from their time as graduate students.

“Speaking as someone who’s shooting for the academic career, the job market right now is very difficult,” Borchardt said. “It’s critical to publish a well recognized and respected study to open up job opportunities in the future. However, the uncertainty of whether or not your next experiment will contribute to that study in a clear way really amplifies this pressure.”

The Yale Postdoctoral Association will host a Postdoc Social later this month.

Carly Wanna | carly.wanna@yale.edu