Learning From Experience: Postdoc Associations Share Their Wisdom on Getting Started and Forging Ahead

Trying to start up a new postdoctoral association or keep an existing one going? Have no fear! There are a number of postdoctoral organizations that are alive and well, and happy to share their experiences. During the 2000 GREAT meeting in Savannah, representatives from postdoctoral associations both old and new gathered to discuss their successes and their difficulties, and had this advice to share.

New and fledgling postdoctoral groups had a number of questions to ask the more established associations. Here are new groups' questions and the experienced groups' answers.

How do we get a list of postdocs at our institution?

  • Check with the registrar's office at universities or the office in charge of postdoctoral affairs.

  • Payroll offices may be able to give you a list based on appointment mechanisms and/or job titles.

  • Get information from individual departments--call or contact department chairs or secretaries (if you are lucky, there may be a departmental postdoc association).

  • Check with the office sending out appointment letters to new postdocs--also valuable for obtaining updates for your list.

  • Post flyers and send letters to postdocs and departments asking postdocs to sign up.

  • Have sign-up sheets at every event asking for postdocs' contact info (phone, e-mail address).

What are the major issues of postdocs and how can they be identified?

How to identify the issues:

  • Determine what the major issues are at your institution by regular surveys of the postdoc population (survey results also give your association more weight when discussing issues with the administration, as you can state with confidence that you are representing the views of most postdocs).


    Experienced associations suggest that the surveys be anonymous and that an electronic version was more effective than a paper one. To encourage participation, consider some sort of reward (e.g., a raffle).

  • Have department representatives bring local issues to the postdoc association meetings.

  • Hold town hall meetings (also useful to hand out surveys).

  • Find faculty advocates who stay in touch with the association's representatives and the postdoc population at large. The faculty may be aware of issues that previous postdocs have tried to address.

The major issues as identified by established organizations:

  • Health care

  • Salaries and cost-of-living supplements

  • Campus parking

  • Career development (especially nontraditional careers, grant-writing skills, and teaching experience)

  • Child care

  • Loss of benefits when moving from one funding source to another

  • The need for orientation for new postdocs

  • The special needs of foreign postdocs

A word of advice: Choose your issues wisely!

Pick one or two issues and focus on those until things change for the better. Slowly bring other issues online, as too many issues are distracting and detract from the overall goal of improving the status of postdocs at your institution. It is better to do a few things well than to try to do everything and accomplish nothing.

How do you launch a postdoc organization?

  • Start small, maybe even at the departmental level.

  • Identify a core active group of postdocs.

  • Identify a few attainable goals to ensure some initial positive results. (This will help you maintain postdocs' enthusiasm for the organization.)

  • Find faculty advocates who will help you navigate the administrative issues.

  • Distribute a newsletter annually (or more often) advertising your accomplishments. (This is also a great tool for recruiting new members.)

  • Develop a Web site if possible, as it is a good way to communicate with your members. Be sure to include central contact information and announcements of events and successes.

  • Generate an orientation handbook, in either electronic or paper form (useful content to add to your Web site).

  • Have postdocs from your organization join departmental and institutional committees, but only if you have enough members to follow through. It can leave a bad impression if the association volunteers to help out and then cannot.

What is the organizational structure of your postdoctoral association?

The organizational structure varies, depending on what will work best in your institution. A number of more established groups [at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), Stanford University, and the University of California, San Francisco] have formal structures--a steering committee that may include a chair/president, a vice president/vice chair, secretary, and treasurer. However, be flexible--you can always change the structure, as did the organization at the University of Texas M. D. Anderson Cancer Center. They started with a formal structure, but abolished the steering committee when this didn't work.

Successful organizations have access to money, but may or may not have money that is officially allocated to the organization. At NIH and NIEHS, there are no formal budgets, but money is available from several sources.

How do you increase postdoc participation in association and association-sponsored events?

  • Use incentives at events (food works well!) if you have the financial support to do so.

  • Offer events early in the life of the association that have a big draw--job fairs, career development discussions, and workshops on grant writing and creating a CV.

  • Do surveys to increase visibility.

  • Use Web sites and listservs to increase communication.

  • Use town hall meetings to collect information and allow postdocs to air their problems.

  • Contact faculty advocates who will encourage their postdocs to participate.

  • Be sure to clearly advertise that events are organized and/or sponsored by your postdoc association.

  • Match members to their interests--get computer-literate people to build a Web site; artists to design posters, fliers, and literature.

  • Organize events that interest you--others are bound to be interested and will want to help out.

How can you include foreign national postdocs in your association?

  • Approach them one-on-one.

  • Highlight issues important to the foreign postdoc community--visas, tax issues, improvement of English skills, Immigration and Naturalization Service.

  • Contact key people who are active in the foreign postdoc community or organizations.

  • Look for an office of foreign student/fellow affairs and work through that office.

  • Develop an orientation package directed at foreign postdocs.

How does your organization deal with "continuity of leadership" issues?

  • Promote members from within to be officers. Additionally, potential members/leaders are personally identified and approached to ask for their participation.

  • Nurture your potential future officers.

  • Remind postdocs that participation can go on their CVs. They can gain valuable experience in chairing meetings, conference development, fund raising, and grant-writing.

  • Loosening the formal structure may help maintain leadership, as it encourages more ad hoc members.

  • If your institution has an office that handles postdoctoral affairs, use it! This office and its staff can help with continuity and history.

What is the official status and benefits of postdocs at participants' institutions?

In general, the biggest problem is that multiple funding mechanisms are used to support postdocs. There often isn't a single official status at an institution and there may be no status for a postdoc funded from a source external to the institution. (For more on status, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of Postdocs Are Not All Created Equal).

Stanford's postdocs are designated as nonmatriculated graduate students and are required to pay tuition. As a result, many are paid below the Stanford minimum. (To learn more, check out the Stanford University Postdocs Web site and Part 2 of the Postdoc Network's article on status.)

NIH has official appointment mechanisms and job descriptions in place. However, all are considered "trainees," not federal employees, so there is no access to standard federal employee benefits. (NIH trainees only receive health insurance, but can purchase dental benefits.) ( Editor's note: government facilities and labs vary on postdoc status, see Part 2 of the status series.)

From all of the organizations--new and old:

Our biggest piece of advice: Go for it! Postdoctoral organizations at a number of institutions have made enormous differences in the working conditions, career development opportunities, and social lives of their colleagues. And remember, you are not alone--check out the Postdoc Network's database of postdoc organizations. The links in this database will give you more information about our organizations' structures, programs and accomplishments. Good luck!

The author would like to thank her fellow postdoctoral organization members who attended the postdoc meeting at the 2000 GREAT meeting for their candid comments and energetic discussions.

Debbie Swope received her Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Saint Louis University in 1997. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at NIEHS in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina. Debbie served as her program representative to the Graduate Student Association in graduate school and is the current chair of the NIEHS Trainees Assembly.

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