The Ongoing Challenges of the UCSF Postdoc Association

Many postdocs express dissatisfaction with their overall training, including a lack of mentoring, poor benefits, and low salaries that, in cities with a high cost-of-living, make it difficult to get by. In an effort to gain recognition and advocate for improvement of the postdoc experience, postdocs at institutions like the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), have organized "grass-roots" associations to bring positive change and to inspire other institutions by example. However, starting a postdoc association is only half the battle--maintaining continuity in initiatives and leadership remains a challenge.

The UCSF Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA) was formed in 1995 by a small group of concerned and frustrated--but eager--individuals who sought to bring recognition and improvement of training to postdocs. The PSA developed a basic structure, with its own Web page, e-mail network, and monthly meetings. As with many "grass-roots" organizations, its efforts were fueled by the work of about a dozen individuals. These founders conducted and published a campus-wide survey on postdoctoral training and acquired funding to create an educational seminar series entitled Practice of Science. The Practice of Science series was very well received by postdocs and faculty, because it provided a means to address topics, such as ethics in science and career development, that are not typically discussed in a laboratory setting. The PSA's efforts also led to postdoc representation on several campus committees. But most importantly, perhaps, the PSA raised awareness among faculty and administrators that postdocs are a unique group with many unmet needs.

Although the PSA achieved many of its goals and impacted the campus in several ways during these first couple of years, many of the critical concerns remained. Salaries were still low, policies were inconsistent, and reports of abusive behavior among advisors continued. Some campus administrators and faculty listened sympathetically, whereas others either feared unionization or seemed indifferent--none could offer real solutions to these problems. Progress was slow.

As a result, and despite the group's eagerness, the PSA lost momentum and motivation. Many of the postdocs involved in the PSA moved on to new jobs, and in some cases, there was no one to take their place. Encouraging participation was difficult because many postdocs felt their efforts were in vain. This loss of leadership was compounded by a lack of operating funds and infrastructure and by the inability to reach out to the widely dispersed postdoc community. With many issues still unresolved, the PSA became dormant.

Although a new group of postdocs eventually did come along to restart the association, these new PSA members found themselves "reinventing the wheel" in an attempt to both identify the important issues and determine what approaches had already been taken. Again, the momentum was lost to a frustrating feeling of futility.

But in the spring of 1999, the UCSF PSA began its rebirth. Reorganization began with a decision to bring back the Practice of Science series that had been on hiatus for 2 years. A group of 10 ready and willing volunteers met to discuss the format and potential topics. Through this discussion, many of the pressing issues currently faced by postdocs reemerged. It became clear that addressing these issues required much more than what the seminar series alone could offer.

With a generous contribution of time, effort, and help from key faculty and staff, the PSA delivered the Practice of Science series in early 2000. In addition, we renewed our intent to advocate for improved training of campus postdocs. But the primary goal was to end the productive/nonproductive cycle that the PSA had been experiencing so that we did not see our efforts languish once again.

Now, in the latter part of the year 2000, the PSA finds itself in good form and with strong hopes for continued progress. We are still challenged, of course, by many of the same concerns of losing continuity, interest, and support. However, we hope to overcome these concerns by focusing on two main objectives: gaining institutional support and educating campus postdocs.

Partnering with the administration and faculty is essential. Enlightened faculty and administrators understand the mutual benefits of partnering to create a strong training environment. These individuals are eager to participate and are worth befriending. At UCSF, recent efforts by the graduate dean and the PSA have led to the placement of a team that, by 2001, will cooperatively support postdoc training. This team will include a dedicated postdoc administrator and staff at the campus Career Center and at the Office of Academic Enrichment. The PSA has also partnered with the chairpersons of the seven basic science departments in which the majority of UCSF postdocs reside. These departments have generously allocated funds to maintain the Practice of Science series and to support activities that will foster community among postdocs.

Institutional support is clearly important, but maintaining an active postdoc association that will advocate and educate is still the responsibility of the postdocs. Building membership through advertising and recruitment has been critical, as has the ability to communicate with the dispersed postdoc community. Our Web page and e-mail listserv are important communication channels that we are continuing to expand.

But a more difficult challenge is empowering postdocs to be their own best advocates. The training and career development of a postdoc involves more than working at the bench and publishing papers. Exercising critical thinking, networking, independence, leadership, management, and team-building skills are aspects of job training that are seldom addressed in the academic setting. Postdocs can begin to develop these skills by simply attending social and educational functions, then gain further experience by taking on more active roles with a postdoc association as a committee representative or leader.

The problems and difficulties faced by postdocs today will not be solved overnight. But maintaining a supportive environment that includes the participation of the institution and an organized postdoc community will provide the tools that can sustain efforts to address today's problems as well as those that we'll face in the years to come.

Gilberto R. Sambrano has been a postdoctoral fellow at the UCSF Cardiovascular Research Institute since 1995 and is the current President of the UCSF PSA. He has represented postdocs' interests on campus committees, including the Chancellor's Committee on Diversity, and has participated in national meetings sponsored by the Graduate Research, Education, and Training group of the AAMC.

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