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‘It’s a competitive advantage.’ Scientists tout benefits of hiring remote postdocs

On a typical workday, Katy Hosbein—a postdoc in chemistry education at East Carolina University in Greenville, North Carolina—attends lab meetings on Zoom and logs into Slack to connect with lab members. That work arrangement will sound familiar to many scientists now, in the age of COVID-19. But it isn’t new for Hosbein; she’s worked remotely from Portland, Oregon, since July 2019.

Hosbein completed her Ph.D. in Portland. When she was nearing graduation, she connected with her postdoc adviser, Joi Walker, who was looking for someone well versed in statistics to work on an ongoing project. With only 1 year of funding remaining, Walker thought it made more sense to work out an arrangement that wouldn’t require Hosbein to pick up and move cross-country. So, she offered her a remote postdoc.

“It’s been really great. My partner has a good job here in Portland, and I really didn’t want to move far away,” says Hosbein. “Joi has been easy to reach and very understanding. She takes the time difference into account when scheduling meetings.”

Walker’s offer of remote work may not be standard practice in academia—but it should be, argues a paper published this month in PLOS Computational Biology. “[T]he proliferation of computational research and virtual communication tools has changed how scientists can conduct science, opening opportunities for postdocs to work remotely,” write the authors. “Short-term moves cost time and money, often the equivalent of several months’ salary for a postdoc, and can separate people from their support networks.”

The paper was spearheaded by quantitative ecologist Kevin Burgio, who tried and failed to find a remote postdoc opportunity when he was finishing his Ph.D. Burgio shares custody of his daughter and couldn’t move away from Connecticut, where he attended grad school. So he emailed faculty members who were looking to hire postdocs for quantitative work, asking if they would be open to the idea of a remote postdoc. “Most would say no. Some would say yes—and then pick someone who could move,” he says. He ended up finding a 2-year postdoctoral position at the University of Connecticut—a 1-hour drive from his home—and when that wrapped up he began a remote position as an undergraduate project leader and research specialist at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies.

Burgio and his co-authors acknowledge that some projects can’t be done remotely—for instance, in situations where there’s a heavy lab component. But they argue that remote work options, if feasible, should be considered because they help make academia more inclusive, particularly for researchers who have family constraints and those who may have difficulty fronting the cost of a move. “Anything we can do to provide more stability [for early-career researchers]—and not just pull more legs out from under the table—is going to help in the long run,” says Jacquelyn Gill, an associate professor of paleoecology at the University of Maine in Orono and a co-author on the paper.

Gill first hired a remote postdoc 3 years ago, and she says that it went much better than she expected. She went into it thinking that communication would be slower, and that the postdoc wouldn’t be very involved in mentoring and the social fabric of the lab. But even though she only visited Gill’s university once or twice per semester, the postdoc regularly joined lab meetings and attended seminars remotely. She was active on the lab Slack group and even mentored several undergraduate students while working from her Boston home. “It … became a great model for our lab,” says Gill—because the group now has an idea how to accommodate remote postdocs and engage with them productively.

“The biggest challenge is making sure that there’s communication about expectations and results,” says Titus Brown, an associate professor of bioinformatics at the University of California, Davis. He’s been open to hiring remote postdocs for roughly 6 years, and more than one-third of his current lab members work from locations other than Davis. “When all things are equal, local is better,” he says. But “I really feel like it’s a competitive advantage to be able to hire and work remotely. … I have a much broader pool to recruit from,” he says.

Carolyn Virca learned the hard way about the importance of clear expectations. She accepted a postdoc position in 2018 at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, with the understanding that her adviser would allow her to work from Oregon—where her partner lived—for 1 week every month. Upon joining the lab, though, she realized that her adviser expected lab members to attend meetings on Monday mornings and Friday afternoons. “In the end, I think I worked remotely twice and he repeatedly emailed me to tell me I should be present in meetings during my time out of Vancouver.” She terminated her 2-year contract at the end of her first year, moved back to Oregon to start a new job as a process engineer at Intel, and is now quarantined with her partner. “It’s nice to be together again.”

Remote postdocs may face other challenges, such as the need to furnish a home office and hurdles associated with securing health insurance that covers them where they’re living. They may also miss out on opportunities to socialize with lab members, which can leave them feeling isolated. “I’ve really made up for some of that on Twitter,” says Hosbein, who uses the social media platform to connect with other researchers in her field.

But on a day-to-day basis, remote work arrangements can offer considerable benefits. There’s no need to spend time commuting, and some remote workers report that they’re able to focus better at home, as they don’t have to contend with office place distractions such as chatty co-workers.

Multiple researchers told Science Careers that they hope the pandemic—which has forced thousands of scientists across the globe to work from home—will nudge previously hesitant professors to reconsider their stance on hiring remote postdocs. The scientific community is “learning … that we can work remotely and actually be productive,” Burgio says.

“There’s a lot of skilled people who may have to work from home for a variety of reasons,” acknowledges Whitney Robinson, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Up to now, Robinson has shied away from hiring a remote postdoc. She values having regular in-person meetings with her group, and she has celebrated the strong interpersonal connections that the close interactions fostered. “When somebody moves to an area, it’s a display of commitment,” she says. But now, with everything remote, Robinson is wondering whether she should be more open to letting new hires work from locations other than North Carolina. “It might be worth taking the risk.”