Why and How You Should Let Your Postdocs Work Remotely

Full vitae work from home

Photo by Dai KE on Unsplash

By Joan Meiners

As a new Ph.D. in ecology, I was recently turned down for two postdoctoral research positions. The sole reason? Both hiring committees told me it was because I had asked to work remotely.

Professors reading this may be nodding their heads in agreement with the hiring committees — but I submit that, given the modern technology available to work remotely, this rigidity is a callous way to run a postdoc program.

Consider: Most postdocs are 28 to 35 years old. They are at a point in their lives when they are trying to solidify a relationship with a partner, build equity in a house, start a family, or be part of a lasting community, after having spent their entire adult lives forming evanescent friendships with a series of graduate students.

Certainly it makes sense to require graduate students to work on-site in their adviser’s campus lab or office. They’re still finding their way in the research maze, and need more daily in-person mentoring than is probably feasible over video chat or via email. But postdoctoral researchers often work independently from mentors and other lab members, even when they’re all working on the campus. Uprooting their lives to work on-site in positions that last only one to three years poses more drawbacks than benefits.

If you’re thinking, "I had to move a lot to build my academic career, so I don’t see why they shouldn’t," the term for that is hazing.

The technology exists now for postdocs to work effectively from distant locations. Videoconferencing software, messaging apps, project-management platforms, collaborative-coding interfaces, and other tools make it convenient and productive to interact with team members and produce results from almost anywhere around the world. Eliminating the need for a daily commute carves out more time to be productive, not less (not to mention allowing a little more time for the "life" part of that fabled "work/life balance").

Allowing postdocs to work remotely, even from a different state, would also help diversify faculty ranks — a goal ostensibly shared by most institutions. A remote option enable sinternational researchers to more readily join distant work groups. It opens up career opportunities to those without the financial resources to relocate for a short-term position. And it levels the playing field for working parents (especially women) and for Ph.D.s with disabilities who may be more comfortable working at home.

In fact, there are many advantages to creating a remote working option for your postdocs now. Researchers from the American Psychological Association have concluded that remote working environments can benefit both the employer (in cost savings and the ability to recruit distant talent) and the employee (in aspects of quality of life), without a measurable cost to productivity.

A 2019 study found that employees whose jobs required concentration or significant problem-solving often performed better and were happier when they worked remotely rather than in a formal workplace. And though they acknowledged some drawbacks to remote work — including social isolation and blurred lines between work and home life — a 2015 study determined that the overall benefits were tangible, and growing. An analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data found that, from 2005 to 2015, telecommuting increased by 115 percent. The future is one of remote but productive working environments.

A case in point. For Kaylee Litson, the future is here. She lives in Utah but works for Temple University, in Philadelphia, as a full-time postdoctoral researcher in quantitative psychology. Her decision to work remotely was based on needing to be available for her family: "I’ve had some difficult family situations in the past few years, and I wanted to be within driving distance in case I’m needed at home."

Litson wasn’t originally looking for a remote position. It was her postdoctoral adviser, Donna Coffman, who proposed the idea. In an interview, Coffman said, "She had turned down the position due to needing to stay closer to her family. After thinking about it for several days, I suggested to her the option of working remotely."

Initially, Litson doubted her ability to stay on task when not surrounded by colleagues. But she and Coffman charted out details of their remote work-flow plan, including agreeing that if it wasn’t working well after a year, Litson would relocate to Temple.

"When [my PI] offered me the remote position," Litson said, "we discussed potential pitfalls. But so far, it seems to be working well. I’ve already been quite productive, finishing one project and also submitting a grant application in my first couple of months."

Coffman agreed that the arrangement has been working better than expected: "I was able to hire the best applicant for the position, and she was able to stay near her family — so it was a win-win."

Litson takes advantage of the nearby academic community at Utah State University. She has formed a local working group and found a professor willing to share local workspace. She sits down on Monday mornings and prioritizes a list for the week, and typically sticks to it.

One of Coffman’s initial reservations about having a postdoc work remotely was that interactions between Litson and other members of her lab would have to be scheduled rather than spontaneous. To mitigate that, Coffman set up a Slack channel for lab members, and Litson visits the Temple lab three times a year for a week at a time.

Both Litson and Coffman acknowledged that a remote work arrangement might not be a good fit for every Ph.D. For example, it wouldn’t work for someone who relies on a professor’s expensive, specialized lab equipment, or for a field researcher who has to be with the team at a particular setting.

But Litson thinks working remotely could be beneficial for many postdocs. At least, she said, "more people should have the option." And her boss seems even more confident that a remote arrangement could work well for many postdocs. "Many people do not want to move for such a short period of time, usually two years, for so little money and particularly with families and children," she said. "I think that it is a good option."

Tools to help postdocs work remotely. Before submitting one of my failed postdoc applications, I sent a query to the hiring manager asking if I would be considered for the position if I were unwilling to relocate. I listed some of my qualifications in the email. The hiring manager replied that the members of the hiring committee "would be delighted to consider my application under those conditions."

Encouraged, I took the time to assemble a formal application. When they turned me down and I asked for feedback on why, I was told they just couldn’t see how a remote arrangement would work. With the abundance of free technology now available, their excuse feels lazy. Any group of people unwilling to accommodate an employee’s geographical life choices might have been rigid on other fronts, too, so perhaps I dodged a bullet in not getting those postdocs. But if you are a principal investigator, by refusing to consider remote work arrangements, perhaps you are missing out on the best applicants.

Here are some tools that professors could use to accommodate postdocs working remotely and to foster a better work/life balance for all of their lab employees, while maintaining productivity:

  • Use a team messaging app for daily communications. Slack is free, with some space restrictions. It has phone and desktop versions, making it easy to send and receive messages that won’t get lost in an email inbox. Cisco Spark also offers a variety of integrated services like meeting organization.
  • Use cloud storage to save and collaboratively edit documents. Services like Dropbox and Google Docs are free, provided you can limit your space requirements. Both platforms allow you to work simultaneously on a document and to track contributions by team members.
  • Manage project steps and track goals online. Checklist services such as Wunderlist and Trello are free to join and offer shared to-do lists on which you can assign tasks to different people and set timelines for completion.
  • Use an online version-control interface to store data and work on code together. Free plans are available (for example, GitHub, GitLab, BitBucket) with some restrictions on privacy. The initial learning curve is steep, but these tools offer valuable best practices for research reproducibility. And the associated online interfaces pay off in the many features that enable collaborative projects. You can keep it simple by just using these tools as online places to back up your personal code and data. Or you can take advantage of the wikis, interactive to-do lists, and other features that allow the project leader to incorporate coding contributions from others.
  • Set up virtual meetings. Use services like WhenIsGood, When2Meet, or Doodle to schedule regular weekly meetings and additional ones as needed. These free services allow you to create an account to edit and keep track of meetings. I recommend using Doodle to narrow down to one date, and WhenIsGood to schedule a specific time on that date.
  • Hold video meetings over conferencing platforms. Many institutions have subscriptions to Zoom. Skype and Google Hangouts, which are free to use but tend, in my experience, to have software issues. Zoom allows you to record meetings so that they can be reviewed later.
  • Schedule face-to-face visits. This option, of course, is not free. But it could still be cheaper than providing full-time workspace on site, and the travel costs might be eligible for grant spending. Plus, you get to allow your postdocs to live their best lives where they choose.

All of those tools have been designed to improve productivity and communication in everyday working environments. They are widely used and revered, which just goes to show how seamlessly you could incorporate postdocs working remotely into your research team.

Joan Meiners has a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary ecology from the University of Florida. She spent 2019 as an investigative journalist for ProPublica and is currently working as a freelance writer. She is based in New Orleans. Find out more at Joanmeiners.com or follow her on Twitter @beecycles 

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