Establishing a Postdoctoral Association at Brown University

Postdocs at Brown University have joined together and are forming a campus-wide postdoctoral association. In this article, David Bucci gives you an inside look at how the Brown University Postdoctoral Association (BUPA) came about and discusses their initial efforts as an organization. The BUPA and the Postdoc Network hope this article will provide some experiential information that others may find useful in developing postdoctoral associations at their own institutions.

The impetus for establishing a postdoctoral association at Brown arose from the perceived need for increased postdoctoral interaction within the department of neuroscience in the mid to late 1990's. As a result of rapid expansion of the department at that time, the number of postdocs dramatically increased. However, there was very little opportunity for postdocs to interact on either a professional or social basis. Several faculty members recognized the need to foster communication and interaction among the postdocs in the department, and they searched for a means to accomplish this goal. David Wells, a postdoc at the time, suggested an idea based on the structure of a postdoctoral breakfast club at his graduate institution. As a result, the Neuroscience Postdoc Club was established.

For several years now, the club has met once a month for about an hour, providing any postdoc interested in neuroscience an opportunity to present his or her research in an informal, low-anxiety setting (i.e., no faculty are permitted to attend). Over pizza and beverages, one postdoc each meeting presents his or her latest data, practices a job talk, or presents research ideas to get some feedback from colleagues. (Funding for the club's refreshments have come from faculty members' grants and/or training grants.) Graduate students are welcome to attend and participate in the discussion, but only occasionally allowed to present (e.g., when they're practicing a job talk or dissertation defense). Additionally, the club has provided a forum through which postdocs can discuss issues such as research support, advising, employee benefits, and career development. It is out of these discussions that the newly established campus-wide postdoctoral association was born.

A first step in forming the postdoctoral association was to assess the current status and concerns of postdocs on campus. With some difficulty, we created a list of Brown's postdocs. As we quickly found out, postdocs could have a variety of titles, depending on departmental affiliation and how they were funded. For example, one department claimed that they had no "postdoctoral fellows," as apparently postdocs in that department were called "research associates." Eventually it came down to a lot of leg work, and visiting each departmental administrator in person, to look over personnel lists and identify those who were considered postdocs. This difficulty in even simply identifying postdocs accentuated the needs for a more formal institutional recognition of the postdoctoral community and the establishment of an organization that could address postdoc concerns.

Once we identified as many postdocs as possible, we developed a survey with the assistance of current and former leaders of the Johns Hopkins University Postdoctoral Association so that we could further assess postdoc demographics and concerns. The survey was administered in October of last year to approximately 120 postdocs across campus. The survey itself was mailed to postdocs' campus addresses, but we sent e-mail messages to alert postdocs to watch their mailboxes. We achieved an impressive 40% return rate (with 15 departments responding), and while most postdocs reported being generally happy with their positions, we identified several important concerns of postdocs at Brown.

Not unlike postdocs at other universities, we found that most Brown postdocs were concerned about three main areas: salary, benefits, and career development. Importantly, we discovered that benefits differed depending on the postdoc's title. That title, in turn, depended on the postdoc's source of funding. There were interesting demographic findings as well. For example, 15 departments on campus had at least one postdoc. Most postdocs (75%) were between the ages of 30 and 39, and 33% had children. These data also emphasized the need to establish equal and fair benefits packages for all postdocs at Brown. (For a more complete description of the survey results, please see the box.)

                  Brown University Postdoc Survey Results

Postdoc Demographics

  • Sex. Male 65%, Female 35%

  • Age. 26-29: 14%; 30-34: 31%; 35-39: 42% > 40 13%

  • Family. 33% of postdocs have children, of them 73% have children younger than second grade.

  • Salary. Range: $25,000 to $48,000; Mean: $34,500; Median: $33,000

  • Funding Source. 35% of postdocs have their own grant; 65% are funded by an advisor's grant or through the department.

  • Responsibilities. 27% postdocs have teaching responsibilities.

Postdoc Benefits

  • Health care. 57.5% of postdocs have health benefits paid by Brown; 30% of postdocs pay for health benefits from fellowships; 12.5% of postdocs pay for health benefits through spouse's coverage.

  • Retirement. 67% of postdocs are eligible for Brown contribution to retirement; 33% of postdocs are not eligible for Brown contribution to retirement.

Postdoc Concerns

  • Rated as the most important concern: Career development: 47%; Salary: 17%; Benefits: 15%

  • Reported as a concern in top 4 list: Salary: 70% Career development: 56%; Benefits: 33%

  • Satisfaction. 32% of postdocs are not satisfied with their benefits package; 92 % of postdocs have a good or excellent relationship with their advisor.

With the survey data in hand, we have begun to formally establish a postdoctoral association. The purpose of founding BUPA is to provide a resource for postdocs across all disciplines to access information pertinent to postdoc life at Brown University. A primary goal will be to establish a Web site, as well as a handbook with information, resources, and contacts, especially for incoming postdocs at Brown. BUPA also plans to standardize offer letters that outline benefits for postdocs before arrival. Additionally, BUPA will address postdoc concerns such as benefits and career development and will also provide opportunities for postdocs on campus to meet in social settings. For instance, we have recently had a preliminary meeting with the deans of faculty and research to address some of the current concerns of the postdoc community and enlist administrative support in establishing the postdoc association. We have received positive feedback from the administration thus far, and are currently gathering more information to move forward with the postdoc association and move toward providing and equalizing benefits for all postdocs on campus.

David Bucci received his B.A. in biology/psychology from Wesleyan University. After working for 2 years as an assistant research scientist at Bristol-Myers Squibb, he attended the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and received his Ph.D. in neurobiology in 1998. He is currently a postdoctoral fellow in the psychology department at Brown University. His research interests are the neurobiology of learning and memory.

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