Learner Perspectives: Postdoctoral scholars Mariya Goncheva and Stephen Tuffs on academic and community advocacy

“If only people from wealthy, privileged backgrounds can pursue postdoctoral training and obtain faculty positions, it perpetuates inequality in academia.”

Mariya Goncheva, PhD, and Stephen Tuffs, PhD, are completing postdoctoral fellowships at Schulich Medicine & Dentistry. They are part of a community of about 300 postdoctoral scholars at Western and are heavily involved in advocacy for this unique group of researchers.

Originally from Bulgaria, Goncheva completed her undergraduate and PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh. She is working with David Heinrichs, PhD, to study the pathology and physiology of the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus). Tuffs, who also completed his PhD studies at the University of Edinburgh, is working with John McCormick, PhD, to study the toxins produced by S. aureus.

Tuffs is finishing a two-year term as President of the Postdoctoral Association at Western (PAW). Goncheva served as Vice President, Communications with PAW for a year and has also been a strong advocate for postdoctoral support and resources at the departmental level.

“A postdoctoral position is supposed to be a steppingstone to faculty positions, but we face a lack of dedicated career resources and inconsistent recognition for our work,” explained Goncheva. “We’ve been pushing for better career development opportunities for postdocs, including teaching training.”

Pay is also a key issue, as the cost of living continues to climb. With salaries comparable to entry-level positions, research suggests postdoctoral scholars actually lose money for every year they train when compared to peers who enter the job market straight after obtaining a PhD.

“It can feel like postdocs are an afterthought in the Canadian academic system,” explained Tuffs. “But Western is taking a leadership role nationally in implementing change.”

As part of their advocacy, Goncheva and Tuffs are also championing equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) within the university environment.

“A lot of my passion for this comes from lived experience and the groups I represent, including the LGBTQ+ community, women in science, international scholars and first-generation university students,” said Goncheva.

During their time at Western, the duo has supported initiatives to promote a more inclusive community and engage equity-seeking groups. As an example, PAW now offers EDI training for postdoctoral scholars and is starting to support more focused advocacy work at the local level, such as access to affordable housing.

“Diversity, inclusion and embracing different perspectives makes academia stronger,” said Tuffs. “Coming from a position of privilege, we have a responsibility to address the systems that are excluding people.”

In September, Goncheva and Tuffs are starting full-time faculty positions at the University of Victoria. They are committed to living these values of social accountability as scientists and academics.

“As the next generation of faculty members in Canada, we are thinking about EDI as we start to build our labs and research programs,” said Tuffs. “Providing equitable access to research opportunities is really important and we’re looking at how we can attract and retain a diverse group of trainees to work with us.”