A Postdoc Bill of Rights

Postdoctoral appointments, like fruit, come in a variety of sizes and colors. Some are big, juicy, and sweet and can give you the nourishment and stimulation to vault into a stellar scientific career. Others are small, hard, and bitter and can barely prevent starvation. They can leave you weak, frustrated, and further behind in your career goals than before you started. I say it's time we start improving the postdoctoral orchard!

A year or so ago, I wrote column about picking the right postdoctoral opportunity. In the column I identified six attributes of a "good" postdoctoral opportunity: flexibility, decent salary and benefits, financial independence, good colleagues, good facilities, and prestige. However, as several of you pointed out, finding a postdoc with all those characteristics is hard, and most fall short in at least a few categories.

Sound off on postdoctoral training in our postdoc forum!

Having weathered many years in graduate school, most scientists have learned to be rather passive about our lot in life. Are we to simply accept that there are only a handful of "good" postdoc opportunities out there and that most of us will have to get by with something less? No way! There is NO EXCUSE for substandard, abusive, dead-end, exploitative postdoctoral appointments. There are already a brave few who have worked to improve the policies surrounding postdoctoral appointments at their respective institutions. It is time we gathered up our collective nerve and begin to work toward improving the standards of postdoctoral employment around the country.

Why Have Postdocs Anyway?

Many young scientists have questioned the whole institution of postdoctoral training. To some, the word "postdoc" is simply a palatable label put on a temporary assignment with no job security and little protection. In other words, postdocs are little more than the lettuce-pickers of science. However, having been through the experience myself and having counseled postdocs, their mentors, and their host institutions, I see great potential in the postdoc training process. A postdoc can be an opportunity to mature intellectually and to develop new ideas, collaborators, and sources of support for your research. A few years as a postdoc can really help a young scientist gain some momentum before they hit the hurly-burly world of an academic position. And let's not forget that the temporary aspect of the postdoc can work to a young scientist's advantage. It can provide an opportunity to "check out" an organization or allow someone who is undecided about a career in research to maintain some career potential while they check out other options. As long as you are in control, a "holding pattern" is not necessarily a bad thing.

Postdoc mentors and host institutions also stand to benefit enormously from a healthy postdoctoral program. Postdocs are desirable because they have the latest training and can be highly productive. Postdocs can literally be the VECTOR for new ideas and techniques. Bob Laughlin, one of this year's Nobel laureates in Physics, was a postdoc at my institution, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, when he wrote his groundbreaking paper on the fractional quantum Hall effect. His work and achievement have added enormously to the reputation of my organization!

Mentors and host institutions don't always recognize the role that former postdocs can play in building alliances and intellectual bridges to other institutions. Like graduate schools, institutions that train postdocs can find that their former intellectual "children" grow up to be strong and vital scientists. This can have enormous pay-offs, provided the institution or mentor hasn't bungled the postdoc experience so much that the "parent" and "child" are no longer on speaking terms!

Finally, let's not forget that sponsoring agencies and funders have a very large stake in creating the best postdoc training experience possible. They spend a LOT OF MONEY on postdocs! You would think that funders should care whether the postdoctoral experience they helped pay for actually helped prepare people to become better and more productive scientists.

Developing Standards of Conduct

Sadly, while a positive postdoctoral experience has the potential to produce added value for all concerned, few institutions have done much to improve their postdoc programs. In many institutions postdocs are STILL not counted as either employees or staff. Some don't have decent benefits, and many operate under the near-total control of a single PI. Some never receive ANY formal hiring letter. And few institutions use orientation and professional development programs to create a positive postdoc experience across an entire institution. Finally, when the postdoc is over, many places don't even thank their postdocs when they are showing them out the door!

In September of this year, Patricia Bresnahan, cofounder of the University of California, San Francisco, Postdoc Association gathered together the leaders of postdoc associations around the country at the annual Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) meeting in Palm Springs, California. The goal of the meeting was to identify and discuss features of an optimal postdoctoral training program. It is commonly believed that success or failure of a postdoctoral experience depends mostly on the relationship between the postdoc and the mentor -- and the scientific project. However, what emerged from this meeting was a list of practices and policies (some institutional, some attitudinal) that can have a strong influence over the success or failure of the postdoctoral experience.

Of all the responsible parties, the single most important is the postdoctoral individual. After all, only YOU can be in charge of your own professional development. While the mentor and the institution have some responsibilities, it is incumbent on the postdoc to clearly define his or her goals and needs. The group concluded that postdocs should:

  • clarify and articulate their goals for the postdoc experience (Bresnahan suggests that this take the form of a written document)

  • communicate regularly with their mentor -- and make that communication a basis for regular performance evaluations

  • communicate and interact with the group as a whole

  • communicate training needs

  • take ownership of their own professional development

  • take the initiative (but not sole responsibility) for developing means of support once the postdoc ends

  • strive to make the transition from "follower" to "leader"

Mentors have a set of responsibilities that dovetail with the above list:

  • help the postdoc develop a statement of goals

  • provide regular and open assessment of performance

  • provide the resources to achieve the stated goals

  • promote professional development and assist in the post-postdoc job search

  • promote collaboration

  • adopt flexibility when a postdoc's goals change

Finally, institutions have some clear responsibilities, both in creating fair policies and practices and holding both postdoc and mentor accountable. These include:

  • developing clear and fair guidelines for the terms of a postdoc's employment

  • providing a postdoc with a letter or statement of the terms of employment, expected duration of support, compensation, and benefits

  • adopting fair labor practices in compliance with federal and state laws including family leave, protection from harassment, and discrimination

  • developing and articulating policies regarding ethics and intellectual property

  • establishing a grievance process for both the mentor and postdoc

  • establishing fair grievance procedures

  • developing guidelines for performance evaluation at least annually and holding mentors accountable for its fair and timely use

  • guiding mentors in best practices

  • rewarding and promoting good examples of mentoring and development of postdocs

These things are more than a list of "good ideas" that will make postdocs "feel better." These changes would dramatically improve the effectiveness, productivity, and future career trajectory of an institution's postdoctoral trainees. Putting these policies into actual practice would make any postdoc program more effective for the host institution. It is obvious that the era of "sweatshop science" has not served anybody very well. It is time for change.

Get Up, Stand Up ... Stand Up For Your Rights!

A handful of postdocs around the United States have already organized themselves into postdoctoral organizations. These groups have helped postdocs meet with each other and have communicated the need for improvements to their respective institutions. For the most part, institutions have reacted very well and have begun to implement some reforms in postdoctoral employment policy. However, until more postdocs stand up for themselves, these reform efforts will remain isolated islands of fairness.

Click Here to Become An Activist

A copy of the general summary of recommendations from the AAMC meeting is available on the Next Wave site here. These recommendations are intended for every institution that has postdocs. Download this list and look at it carefully. How many items is your institution lacking?

Now, send a copy of this list of recommendations to the Dean of Research or Science, or the Laboratory Director. Or, do like Martin Luther (the 16th century German leader of the Protestant reform) and tack a copy of the list to your boss's door. Push for these changes! Your own future is at stake!

Peter Fiske

Peter Fiske is a Ph.D. scientist and co-founder of RAPT Industries, a technology company in Fremont, California. He is the author of Put Your Science to Work and co-author, with Dr. Geoff Davis, of a blog (at phds.org) on science policy, economics, and educational initiatives that affect science employment. Fiske lives with his wife and two daughters in Oakland, California, and is a frequent lecturer on the subject of career development for scientists.

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