The Nerve-Wracking Fate of an International Postdoc

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The UC postdoctoral union is determined to eradicate the unique challenges international postdoctoral scholars face while working at UC campuses — challenges that can include getting stranded in a foreign country while awaiting a potentially lengthy visa renewal process and getting laid off due to delays.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a postdoctoral scholar (postdoc) is a person who holds a doctoral degree and is engaged in mentored research and/or scholarly training in order to acquire the professional skills needed to pursue their chosen career path.

UAW 5810 is the chapter of the United Auto Workers Union, an umbrella organization for all labor workers unions, which represents over 6,000 postdoc researchers at all 10 UC campuses.

Postdocs are not automatically voting members (membership requires a small monthly fee), but the decisions of the union affect all UC post-docs. In May, it will be time for the union to bargain with UC regarding changes to current postdoc benefits, rights, and protections.

“We have different points to discuss every bargaining session,” said Sangeet Lal, a postdoc in the neurosurgery department who was recently elected to be a steward in the union. “Last session we were negotiating for better childcare for postdocs. And this session, we will be tackling the issues being faced by international postdocs.”

According to Lal, the majority of international postdocs are on a J-1 Visa, a non-immigrant visa issued to research scholars, professors, and exchange visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange.

At present, postdoc contracts only guarantee one year of scholarship. This means that international postdocs can only get visa approval for one year. If their contract is extended another year, they must undergo the visa renewal process all over again, which takes 70 days on average but can take up to three to four months.

Due to this process, Lal says, “Situations have happened where a postdoc has gotten stuck overseas when he went for a visa renewal, and he was laid off because he was delayed coming back.”

Such termination letters don't explicitly state that delayed returns are the reasons for the action, said Lal. However, he added, “it's understood” from subsequent personal communication that the long absence from work might have led to the “harsh decision” to terminate the postdoc's employment.

“To renew a visa, you have to go outside the United States,” Lal explains. “For example, you could go to Canada to do it, but practically nobody does that because of the insecurity.

“One of my close friends went to Canada, hoping that it would only take two weeks to renew his visa,” Lal continued. “But it took him five to six weeks and he had to stay in Canada that whole time. He was stranded because his visa hadn’t been approved. Then, he ran out of money because he was staying in a hotel.

“It was a very bad situation. Most people decide to go back to their home country because at least if you get stuck, you’re in your native country.”

Postdocs make innumerable contributions to the research that goes on across all UC campuses.

“One year is a very short time. If you look at the responsibilities and accountabilities that postdocs hold, the time flies by, and every PI [principal investigator] knows that,” Lal stated, beginning to explain the benefits of longer postdoc contracts.

“I think this is in UC’s best interest as well. Longer visa and longer contracts means postdocs will feel more secure. They will be more productive. And, UC will not have to spend money on the annual visa renewal. I don’t know why the administration has not considered this before.”

While a graduate student at Oregon State University, Lal was also involved in the International Students Association, “I think many people in administration just don’t know these types of problems exist… because they don’t personally face them. We just want to emphasize that the administration should reconsider this issue because some postdocs are really struggling and becoming victims of the situation.”

UAW 5810 will begin negotiating the issues of longer contracts and longer visa approval periods with the UC administration sometime in May.

Any changes agreed upon during these meetings will be amended into the union contract when it expires in September.

Dean Des Jarlais, the Assistant Dean for Postdocs and Career Development could not be reached for comments.