2001 may go down as a banner year in the evolution of postdoc issues. On 2 March 2001, the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) held their Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers. And on 3 March, the Next Wave held the first national meeting of the Postdoc Network: Sharing Solutions to Postdoc Needs. The meetings complemented each other nicely, with Friday's COSEPUP meeting focusing on feedback on the Guidelines for the postdoctoral experience from administrators, postdocs, postdoctoral supervisors, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies, and the Saturday Postdoc Network meeting concentrating on initiatives to improve the postdoc experience at institutions across the country.

In this first article, we'll cover the proceedings of the Postdoc Network meeting during the morning sessions. Look for a second article, in 2 weeks, covering the afternoon session on career needs.

Bright and early on Saturday morning, over 110 administrators, faculty, and postdocs arrived at the Carnegie Institution of Washington for Next Wave's Postdoc Network meeting, "Sharing Solutions to Postdoc Needs." After an informal breakfast, the group gathered in the auditorium for sessions on surveys, career needs, and the issues affecting postdoc associations and offices.

Surveys

Many postdoc associations survey the postdoctoral population at their institution both to help find the campus' postdocs and to identify what their concerns are. These surveys are useful in establishing the association's agenda, and they can alert the institution's administration--in a quantitative way--to the needs of postdoctoral scientists.

All six speakers in the morning session were asked to present not only the highlights of their survey results, but also how the survey was conducted and their ideas for future improvement. The speakers were Stephen Gasior (Postdoctoral Association of the Biological Sciences Division at the University of Chicago), Nupur Pande (University of California, San Francisco, Postdoctoral Scholars Association), Pauline Wong (Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association), Karen Spratt (Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center), David Bucci (Brown University Postdoctoral Association), and Audrey Ettinger (Stanford University Postdocs). We cannot possibly cover all of the data presented by these postdocs in this article, so we encourage you to check out the survey links in the box below.

The Surveys

  • Postdoctoral Association of the Biological Sciences Division, University of Chicago. Conducted in the fall of 2000, this survey queried postdocs in the biological sciences. Results are not yet available online, but can be obtained from Stephen Gasior at sgasior@midway.uchicago.edu. Approximately 20% of the postdocs in the Biological Sciences Division responded to this online survey.

  • UCSF Postdoctoral Scholars Association. This survey was designed to query the foreign national postdocs at UCSF. However, few responses to this paper survey were returned, and so the PSA is reorganizing their efforts.

  • Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association. The results presented at the Postdoc Network meeting were "hot off the press"--the JHPDA just completed its latest survey with a 55% response rate. A live link to the 2001 results will be added to the JHPDA Web site soon; however, the 1997 survey results are available now.

  • Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. This paper survey distributed via interoffice mail at the end of 1999 had an 18% response rate. These survey results are available on their Web site.

  • Brown University Postdoctoral Association. Descriptions of the BUPA survey results and the manner in which it was conducted can be found in a recent article on the Postdoc Network. This paper survey achieved an approximately 40% response rate.

As the speakers made their presentations, several general themes emerged around the topic of ensuring good postdoc participation in surveys. One idea was to get postdocs to complete surveys while they're actually at association meetings. At Stanford, the SUPD holds town meetings open to all Stanford postdocs, and they pass out survey forms to all attendees. At Johns Hopkins, the JHPDA lured postdocs to a happy hour with the offering of free food, a gathering that they held next door to a computer lab so that association members could ask postdocs to fill out the online survey while partaking of the happy hour treats.

Another mechanism that the Hopkins postdocs used to increase participation was a special appeal to foreign national postdocs. The JHPDA asked the Chinese Foreign Scholar Association to help publicize the survey. Additionally, the association hung flyers around campus--in Chinese--publicizing the survey and emphasizing that responses were anonymous.

During the morning session, meeting participants suggested that a short list of core survey questions could be generated. Individual postdoc associations could then include these standard questions in their local surveys, making it easier to compile results from these core questions nationally. The Postdoc Network staff will be working with the postdoc associations over the coming weeks to generate these questions and publicize their existence.

Discussions

After the morning session on surveys, the meeting split into two discussion groups, one group tackling how to start a postdoc association and then keep it going and the second group focusing on the needs of administrative postdoc offices and programs.

Postdoc Association Discussion

Led by Lisa McCawley, a postdoc at Vanderbilt University, the postdoc discussion started with a dialogue on how best to form a postdoctoral organization. To highlight the variability in structure, a few postdocs were chosen to describe their association's organization. This was followed by a discussion on key areas such as financing, administrative support, and recruitment. A summary of this discussion follows.

Who is the organization going to represent? Some postdoc organizations form within a department where postdocs share a common scientific interest. Some associations represent the life science postdocs, whereas others represent all of the postdoctoral fellows at their institution including science, engineering, and humanities postdocs. Additionally, some associations include graduate students and/or nontenure track faculty.

Administrative support can provide invaluable resources to the postdoctoral organizations. A number of institutions have formed postdoctoral offices. These offices can aid in identifying the postdoctoral population, provide monetary and administrative support to a postdoc association, and act as a starting point when postdocs have identified key areas of redress. In the absence of an office of postdoctoral affairs, postdocs should identify sympathetic senior administrators, such as departmental chairs, the vice provost of research, or institute heads. Support from these individuals can be invaluable, as can that of individual researchers sympathetic to postdoctoral concerns.

Financing postdoctoral associations is a tricky issue. Again, administrators in senior positions (heading up departments, institutes, or postdoctoral offices) are a good place to start to ask for monetary support. Some postdoctoral associations are funded initially from the postdocs themselves (i.e., for "pizza" money). The Society of Fellows at The Scripps Research Institute runs a Vendor Exposition to make money for their association. For larger functions, such as a career fair, corporations may donate money. (Learn more about how to organize a career fair by reading the Postdoc Network's five-part "how to" series.)

Recruiting postdocs to postdoctoral associations can be difficult, and there are no clear solutions. A postdoctoral position is, by its very definition, a temporary position. This results in high turnover within the postdoctoral association as postdocs move on to the next step in their career. Thus, postdoctoral organizations need to continuously recruit members to the association. Some associations take this to heart and attempt to recruit members throughout the year. Others have a designated annual time when leaders (i.e., co-chairs, president, etc.) are identified. Additionally, a push is made to recruit sufficient postdocs to properly represent the interests of the entire postdoctoral community, which can be particularly difficult when it comes to foreign postdocs.

Postdoc Administrator Discussion

During this discussion, the administrators and faculty wanted to find out from their colleagues what type of organizational structure their peer institutions had put into place to address the needs of postdocs. For example, are postdoc offices typically housed in graduate or research divisions? In response to this need, the Postdoc Network will be working with some of the attendees to generate a survey of postdoc offices which will be sent to institutions across the country over the coming weeks. (Want more information? E-mail the Postdoc Network at postdocnetwork@aaas.org.)

At the end of the breakout sessions, the attendees took time for lunch, when they had the opportunity to network with administrators, faculty, and postdocs from a variety of institutions. After lunch, they headed for sessions focused on meeting the career needs of postdoctoral scientists; look for coverage of these sessions in the Postdoc Network 2 weeks from now.