Young Scientists as Activists: Rama Kasturi



During my tenure as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Cincinnati, I learned many things about postdoctoral training both from my experiences and those of others around me. These included the fact that postgraduate research experiences could vary from fantastic to extremely mediocre, that one's "training experience" was entirely dependent on the lab and principal investigator, that mentoring by a PI was not something that one could necessarily expect, that a postdoc was a source of cheap and unrecognized intellectual manpower with low pay, little or no benefits or employee status, no visibility, and that the odds of making the transition from postdoc to independent investigator were slim to none in today's academic job market.

Having worked in a major U.S. corporation for almost 3 years, I was keenly aware of the tough realities of the industrial job market. As a postdoc, I saw that the situation in academia was no different. The naïveté and lack of awareness of fellow postdocs and graduate students about their future career prospects was astounding to me. I asked several graduate students and postdocs what they intended to do with themselves after the completion of their training, and the answer was usually "I'm going to look for a job in industry or academia." Further conversation on the topic usually made it painfully clear that they were unaware of the dearth of permanent industrial or academic positions, the competitiveness of these positions, and what would be expected of them.

I decided to use my business contacts to develop a seminar series on alternative careers in the sciences for graduate students and postdocs in my department. The goal was to provide them with a glimpse of what life was like for a Ph.D. scientist outside academia. I invited speakers who were recent Ph.D. scientists and who were currently involved either in bench research or were using their Ph.D.s in various "nonresearch" settings such as patent law, marketing, technology transfer, scientific writing, or teaching. I asked the speakers to focus their talks on why they chose their current jobs, what they liked and/or disliked about them, the pros and cons of working for industry vs. academia, and the interviewing process, and to describe how they conducted themselves on the job.

About the time that I was completing my fellowship, a summary of the results of the University of California, San Francisco, Postdoctoral Scholars survey was published. The associate dean for graduate studies at the College of Medicine solicited feedback from the postdocs in the college, and I met with him in person. I recommended a variety of solutions to remedy what I saw as deficiencies in the training of postdocs. Within a week, I was offered a part-time position as assistant dean for graduate studies and charged with the responsibility of developing a Postdoctoral Scholars Program. I served in this capacity from September 1997 to November 1998.

My first challenge was to attempt to identify and survey the postdoc scholars in the college. I subsequently formed a Postdoctoral Scholars Advisory Committee (PAC) consisting of a few science department directors, faculty members, and postdocs from different departments in the college. Our goal was to establish formal employment, benefits, and training guidelines for all postdocs at the college. In addition, we established an Annual Postdoctoral Research Forum, consisting of a poster session, a career fair, and a seminar by an invited speaker.

My efforts to formalize and expand the postdoc training program were, however, not uniformly popular. I was viewed with suspicion by some faculty because I was a recent postdoc trainee and dismissed by a few others as "a failed scientist" because I was not a tenure-track faculty member. Some P.I.s resented my efforts because they worried that the dean's office would have some say in the management of their postdocs. Also, some postdocs were not eager to participate in the process of designing and implementing a Postdoc Training Program for fear of ruining their career prospects. Only 30% of postdocs responded to a survey soliciting information about them and their needs and concerns. My job was made easier by the consistent support that I received from the Associate Dean, who shared my belief that a postdoc program with some college oversight was necessary to ensure that training of postdocs adhered to certain minimum criteria and was critical for maintaining a strong research program at the College of Medicine.

As a result of the yearlong efforts of the Postdoc Scholars Advisory Committee and the College of Medicine Faculty Council, all postdoctoral scholars at the college will now have a uniform job title. All incoming Fellows receive a letter of appointment, signed by the faculty mentor and Department Director specifying their responsibilities as postdoctoral fellows, their term of appointment, initial salary, and benefits. Faculty mentor responsibilities are clearly defined and include providing oversight of training, allowing development of the Fellow as an independent investigator, mentoring the Fellow, and advising and assisting in job placement. Benefits have been expanded to include basic family health, dental and prescription coverage, vacation (10 days/year), sick leave of 1 day/month, and 6 weeks paid maternity/paternity leave. In addition, a separate grievance procedure has been developed specifically for Fellows. These guidelines are currently pending approval by the Board of Trustees.

In order to ensure that their training goals are met, postdocs in every institution must actively participate in the administration of their training and education. Postdocs must be willing to shoulder some of the responsibility to help make a career in science an attractive option for themselves and future generations of scientists.

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