A New Network

"E ach institution should encourage and financially support a postdoctoral association that serves the social, informational, and logistical needs of postdocs and provides a mechanism for them to communicate with institutional leaders."

A laudable and worthy goal, to be sure. And one of the 16 recommendations made to institutions by the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) in its recently released report, "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers." But--financial and human resource questions aside--can this goal really be achieved? With their research programs, family responsibilities and the ever-present stresses of looking for funding and a permanent job, postdocs are tremendously busy people. Worse, in terms of establishing continuity in an institution-wide representative organization, they operate under a fundamentally temporary mentality: Although postdoc appointments are lasting longer these days, postdocs (nearly) always move on. ...

Despite these challenges, postdocs at a number of institutions around the United States have got together to create associations that represent their interests. And a number of academic institutions have created administrative units that speak directly to their postdocs' needs. Even so, most of these groups operate in isolation--they may deal effectively with local issues, but they are less able to address broader topics or to share their successes (and failures) with other nascent organizations around the country.

Now, with the generous support of the Sloan Foundation, Science's Next Wave is ready to help. Today, we are launching the Postdoc Network. Managed by Emily Klotz, who cut her Next Wave teeth as program director in Karen Horting's business development team, the Postdoc Network intends to:

  • Offer editorial foci on the issues--status, salaries, benefits (among others)--that are critical to postdocs; on establishing, maintaining, and growing a postdoctoral organization; and on the particular career development needs of postdocs.

  • Share an online database with links to postdoctoral associations and administrative organizations around the U.S.

  • Provide links to other online resources for postdocs.

  • Establish a forum in which Postdoc Network readers can share--anonymously, if they wish--their own thoughts and feelings about the postdoc experience.

  • Provide a bulletin board of upcoming events and meetings of interest.

Why is Next Wave making this effort (and why is the Sloan Foundation willing to support it)? Well, postdocs--long considered to be little more than cheap and well-educated labor--play a huge role in the research endeavors of this country. And yet many tend not to be treated as professionals at the end of their training. Moreover, as a group, postdocs are getting older, are taking longer to find permanent employment, and--as a consequence--have increasing needs for salary and benefits to support themselves and their families during their postdoc years and beyond.

COSEPUP estimates ("estimates," mind you ... no one quite knows how many postdocs there really are in the U.S.!) that the current population has grown to some 52,000, and the National Science Foundation believes that the total number of science and engineering postdocs doubled in the 15 years up to 1998. Many of these dedicated, well-informed, and highly effective workers go on to jobs in industry, academia, and government labs, in which they support the education of the next generation of scientists and the country's burgeoning sci-tech expertise. But will graduate students continue to take the postdoc plunge if the price they are obliged to pay, in terms of "lost" salary, lower benefits, and poor prestige, is too high?

So, Next Wave created the Postdoc Network to provide information and a meeting place on the Web for individuals and groups of individuals who are thinking about starting an association, who are working with one that is already operating, or who are generally interested in improving the postdoctoral experience. We also plan to link these postdoc-run groups with the administrative postdoc offices. Our hope is that when these folks get together and share their experiences, the results can only be enriching for both postdocs and the scientific enterprise.

In essence, then, the Postdoc Network is intended to provide the resources postdocs need to help themselves.

The proof, as they say, will be in the pudding. We trust that you will like the taste of the sampling we've put together as we launch the site, and we expect that you'll want to keep coming back as the menu grows richer on a biweekly basis. As your hosts, we hope, too, that you'll e-mail us at postdocnetwork@aaas.org when something of interest is going on at your institution, or to let us know about topics the Postdoc Network ought to address.

This place on the Web is being created for and--mostly-- by you. In the final analysis, it's up to you to make of the Postdoc Network what you will.

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