Establishing Offices for Postdoctoral Education: Overcoming Obstacles, Part 1

"It was like living in no-man's-land," said one scientist regarding her postdoc experience at a state university. She described a lack of personal support and inconsistent policies, the inevitable results of "postdocs not being real employees."

This scientist's struggles are not unique. In fact, log onto most university Web sites and you will find links readily available to access resources for faculty, staff, and students; but a listing for postdocs is often notable only by its absence. Unfortunately, postdocs may be omitted from a good deal more than university Web sites. Exclusion from campus resources is often the result of nebulous policies for identifying, tracking, and reaching out to the needs of this rather dispersed group of individuals. As a result of disorganized or nonexistent policies and procedures, postdocs often remain essentially "invisible" to the university administration.

This state of affairs, although widespread, is not universal. To better serve needs of postdocs, numerous universities have begun to establish offices with personnel dedicated to deal specifically with issues related to the postdoctoral educational process. Offices for postdoctoral education can serve a variety of purposes--anything from offering career or educational symposia to establishing health insurance policies to securing postdoc access to campus resources.

Although it seems that addressing the concerns of postdocs would be in the best interest of university communities, efforts to establish postdoctoral affairs offices are often met with opposition and seemingly insurmountable roadblocks. In this two-part series, I will highlight obstacles that institutions have faced in establishing offices dedicated to postdocs before giving examples of how some universities have overcome these challenges. Part 1 deals with getting the office off the ground, and in particular how to go about identifying and/or tracking postdocs. In part 2, hurdles such as funding issues, garnering administrative support, and "systems-driven obstacles" (i.e., cutting through the red tape) will be addressed.

Who Are They Anyway?

An initial challenge in setting up an office for postdocs is to identify the population that the office will serve. While this seems to be a straightforward task, it is often much more difficult than it sounds. The issue is made complicated, in part, because of numerous titles that postdocs may hold. While a postdoc may consider himself to be a "postdoc," he may hold any one of numerous titles: postdoctoral scholar, postdoctoral associate, postdoctoral fellow, postdoctoral trainee, research fellow, research associate ... and the list goes on. (For an overview of postdoc status, read the Postdoc Network's previous article on the topic.)

Compounding the difficulty of identifying postdocs is the numerous ways postdocs get paid. "Employee postdocs" are typically paid through the institution's payroll department. These postdocs are easy to identify because they are considered employees; paperwork, salaries, and benefits are handled similarly to all other individuals employed by the institution. In contrast, postdoc "trainees" or "fellows" are frequently invisible to the institution because they often bypass campus systems. Salaries may come from fellowships and stipends paid out by a nonpayroll system, or compensation may be paid directly to postdocs from funding agencies. As a result, "nonemployee postdocs" are essentially nonexistent to university systems. It is this category of postdocs that is so challenging to identify.

Identifying and Tracking Postdocs

Because of difficulty in identifying postdocs, institutions have found it necessary to first establish a definition that encompasses all postdocs. For example, according to Sam Castañeda, visiting scholar and postdoctoral appointment coordinator at the University of California, Berkeley, their definition of a postdoc is "an individual who holds a Ph.D. and has less than 5 years postdoctoral experience, possesses a source of funding, does not have a professorial title, and is being mentored by faculty to gain advanced training and skills."

Once a definition is established to define postdocs, the challenge is to actually locate them. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, Sharon Milgram, associate professor of cell and molecular physiology, took an informal approach to initially finding postdocs at her campus. Milgram contacted each department and requested that a list of postdocs be sent to her. Although it was a mammoth task with more than 40 departments at the university, Milgram notes, "Now the word has spread. I have postdocs contacting me asking to be put on my listserv."

Before establishing new postdoc policies and procedures at UNC, Milgram felt that it was important to create a postdoc "community." As a result, she called a meeting of postdocs and encouraged them to form a postdoctoral association. With Milgram's help, the UNC Postdoctoral Association is now up and running, offering events and educational programs. The association has also conducted a survey to find out what postdocs at UNC need. With the survey results and an active association, Milgram knows postdocs' wants and needs and can begin to implement new policies and programs. Milgram's informal approach worked well at UNC but is in stark contrast to methods used at some institutions.

At the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB), formal policies and procedures to identify postdocs were established from the outset of the postdoctoral office's formation. All postdoc paperwork is filtered through the Office for Postdoctoral Education. Initially, a letter of appointment must be sent to prospective postdoctoral candidates from this office; it is imperative that the offer letter come directly from here, rather than from a department or a primary investigator. Additionally, once postdocs arrive on campus, their inclusion in other university systems such as grants and contracts or accounting databases cannot happen before the office processes their paperwork. "Prior to the establishment of the Office for Postdoctoral Education at UAB" said Sharon Johnston, the office's program coordinator, "there were loopholes in the system. Postdocs would arrive on campus and be working, but essentially no one knew they were here. Now, identifying and tracking postdocs is not difficult if paperwork is followed correctly."

Once postdocs have been identified, another hurdle in establishing a successful postdoctoral office is to develop a database to keep track of them. Developing and maintaining this database can be quite a time consuming task, but for a number of reasons--from simply providing postdocs information about educational and career workshops to more complicated issues involving immigration laws, IRS regulations, or benefits packages--it is well worth the effort. For example, consider the confusion surrounding postdoc benefits packages. "Employee postdocs" are often eligible for some level of benefits, while "nonemployee postdocs" frequently are not. However, there is often considerable flip-flop back and forth, such that "employee postdocs" may become "nonemployee postdocs" and then revert back to the original status, depending upon where their money originates. As a result, a postdoc's benefits may be in a constant state of flux, requiring an office to have a reliable method for tracking this information, whether it be by a formal tracking system like at UAB or an informal system used by UNC.

Even at well-established postdoc offices with stringent policies and procedures, identifying and tracking postdocs is an ongoing challenge; some postdocs always manage to slip between the cracks. And even when an administration is confident that most postdocs have been identified and entered into a database, new hurdles are bound to emerge. In Part 2 of this series, I will deal with obstacles such as finances, securing administrative support, and cutting through red tape. So, tune in next time. ...

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