As a graduate student, I took note of the anxiety and frustration among many postdocs who were finding it difficult to obtain an independent research position. When I joined the ranks of postdocs myself, I decided early on to get involved in the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association (JHPDA). It gives me a lot of satisfaction to be actively working toward positive changes in the field rather than just worrying about the future of my scientific career and the difficulties of postdoc life.
I was fortunate in that the JHPDA was already well established and had a record of success in petitioning the university administration for changes, such as adopting minimal salary guidelines and providing basic health insurance for all postdocs. All I needed to do was to get involved and continue to build on the accomplishments of previous PDA representatives. During my tenure, we have lobbied for increased salaries, better benefits, more university oversight to prevent exploitation, and more access to career counseling and continuing education.
When I first started working with the JHPDA, I did worry a little about potential damage to my career. There is risk involved in challenging authority and the status quo, and it ultimately does take at least some time and energy away from your research. Fortunately, my mentor did not discourage me from being involved, and I really believe that I have gained a lot from the experience. I have developed new skills by serving as a spokesperson for the JHPDA, by managing our Web pages, and by writing policy proposals. It's also a great networking experience.
It takes a lot of patience to be an advocate for change because it often comes in very small incremental steps, particularly at universities. We have found that the support of sympathetic faculty, as well as hard data from surveys, are invaluable in accomplishing our goals. There is often a lot of resistance to change, especially when it is viewed as a cost increase. It is a common belief that as long as the university is attracting quality applicants for postdoc positions, there is no compelling reason to change the status quo. However, that approach ignores the fact that most people apply for the positions because postdoctoral experience is now required for most "real" jobs in science. If universities wait until the quality of the postdoc applicant pool declines, it will be too late to fix the problem.