History and Evolution of the Stanford University Postdocs Association

This March, the Stanford University Postdocs Association (SUPD) hosted its third town hall meeting. One hundred eighty-five people attended, including the associate dean for postdoctoral affairs and representatives from the dean of graduate policy and the provost's offices. Both the San Jose Mercury News and Palo Alto Daily News reported on the event, as did two different campus newspapers. You may be wondering, "How did this grassroots organization gain such prominence?"

The Beginning

In 1998, two separate groups of postdocs began to work on postdoctoral issues at Stanford. Tonya Bliss and Jens Skakkebaek formed SUPD to provide a mechanism for social and professional interactions among postdocs throughout the Stanford community. To this end, they began to organize social events, and, most importantly, created a postdoc e-mail list.

A separate group of postdocs observed some common themes in postdocs' complaints about their experiences at Stanford. Monica Torres, Shirin Khambata Ford, Chris Karlovich, and Kent Grindstaff began to approach administrators within the medical school and throughout the university to discuss core issues relevant to most postdocs: disparate job classifications (including a "nonmatriculated graduate student" title requiring tuition payments; see sidebar), poor salary and benefits, and the lack of a postdoc-appropriate grievance procedure. To encourage the administration to improve conditions for postdocs, the issues were presented in a context of concern that the recruitment of future postdocs was being compromised and, therefore, the quality of research performed at Stanford would suffer.

Postdocs Paying Tuition?

At Stanford, most postdocs are classified as "nonmatriculated graduate students." Until the 2000-01 academic year, this status carried a tuition charge of $940 per academic quarter, or nearly $4000 per year. Although postdocs rarely pay this tuition out of pocket, individuals supported by their own fellowships--rather than through their principal investigators' (PIs') grants--are required to pay federal and state taxes on this money as income, creating a significant financial burden. Postdocs paid from a combination of sources fall into an ill-defined intermediate category. In addition, several departments chose to avoid paying tuition by not officially registering their postdocs, resulting in reduced nonsalary benefits for the postdocs. The Stanford University Postdocs Association-Postdoc Advocacy Committee successfully negotiated a reduction in the tuition to $125 per quarter, effective at the beginning of the 2000-01 academic year, reducing the tax burden on postdocs and encouraging departments to register all of their postdocs.

By August 1999, the two groups had merged into one SUPD, with the original SUPD becoming the Social Committee and the second group becoming the Political Action Committee, later renamed the Postdoc Advocacy Committee (PAC). Together, we organized a town hall meeting open to the entire postdoc population and the Stanford community. The main goals of the meeting were to survey postdocs to provide some quantitative data on the postdoc experience at Stanford and to share information about core issues. The survey data confirmed what the PAC had suspected:

  • A significant percentage of Stanford postdocs were being paid salaries below Stanford's official minimum.

  • Postdocs were spending a huge amount of money on rent.

  • Many postdocs were being classified as "visiting scholars" as a way for departments to circumvent paying tuition and health care costs.

  • The majority of postdocs found the student classification detrimental.

  • Almost no postdocs thought that there was a sufficient mechanism for resolving workplace disputes.

Perhaps most importantly for our later negotiations, nearly 40% of respondents were neutral or negative about whether they would encourage prospective postdocs to choose Stanford.

With the survey results in hand, the PAC scheduled meetings with Michael Cowan (then associate dean of student services at the medical school) and Tomas Wasow (then associate dean of graduate policy) to lobby for improved treatment of postdocs. Both deans were supportive and helped to arrange a meeting in late August 1999 with then-Provost John Hennessy. The PAC members were pleased to discover that the provost was well informed about the basic issues affecting postdocs and was open to the ideas of reduced or eliminated tuition, improved salary and benefits, and a unified postdoc classification.

Initial Changes

When we convened a second town hall meeting the following month, Cowan reported on a high-level meeting about postdoc issues and presented a proposed set of policy changes. For the first time, it appeared that real changes would be made. For example, the much-hated tuition was lowered, significantly reducing the tax liabilities of postdocs on fellowships. Medical school departments agreed to match the National Institutes of Health (NIH) minimum salary following a 3-year phase-in, postdoc representatives were to be added to "appropriate" university committees, and appointment letters for new postdocs were to be signed by both the PI and the department chair.

Lessons to Be Learned

But the next few months taught us several lessons. First, even the best of intentions are difficult to change into good policies. Although we were excited about finally having postdoc issues discussed at the highest levels of the Stanford administration, it quickly became obvious that although the general sentiment of the proposed changes was positive, the details were unclear. In addition, the proposed policies had entirely failed to address several major issues. For example, although the university agreed to "substantially increase" the minimum salary scale, the scale still did not reach the NIH/National Research Service Awards (NRSA) levels. And the different treatment of postdocs in the medical school and in the rest of the university was not addressed. The issue of housing assistance was completely ignored.

But one immediate, positive change was that Cowan was appointed as the first associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, and she officially assumed the responsibility of providing services to postdocs throughout the university. Although having a central office has improved the monitoring of salaries and benefits, the Postdoc Office still cannot easily monitor the salaries of the many postdocs that work outside of the medical school because of differences in the way postdocs are treated in the medical school versus in the rest of the university and in the way information about these postdocs and their fellowships is entered into the university's computer systems. Additionally, the non-medical school postdocs are still not eligible for the full benefits guaranteed to all medical school postdocs.

Our second lesson: Administrations change, even at universities! Stanford inaugurated a new president and a new provost in 2000. We have had positive interactions with each of these administrators, and having a new provost was a good excuse for arranging a meeting with him. Provost Etchemendy appointed a Committee on Postdoctoral Affairs, which has given us regular, direct contacts with administrators and influential faculty. We have been able to directly contribute to the committee's recommendations, but, again, change has been slow. At our meeting with the provost in September, he seemed willing to act on the issues of student status and improved salaries quickly; he requested that information both on the legal implications and how the faculty would react to such a change be presented to him within a few weeks. Since this project became part of the Committee on Postdoctoral Affairs' job, 8 months have passed.

The third lesson was that different university offices were responsible for distinct aspects of policies pertaining to postdocs. For instance, although the provost agreed in principle to allow postdocs to serve on university-wide committees, it is the secretary of the university who actually arranges the selection of a postdoc and officially establishes the position on a committee. Sending copies of all PAC communications to a group of administrators helped us locate the correct individuals and establish relationships with each of them.

Finally, we learned that being persistent and well organized would help us achieve our goals. When the original PAC members began taking permanent jobs, we developed a set of bylaws to give our group a mechanism for continuity. In addition, these rules contributed to our reputation as an official group of professionals and created contact mechanisms for administrators and the press. We developed a written information packet and talking points, and have thus been able to make coherent, consistent presentations to administrators and faculty members on a wide variety of topics on very short notice. We used our research skills to track down relevant statistics, and we performed our own calculations for rent and tax issues rather than relying on the university to calculate for us. And we have continued to ask questions out loud and in writing when we were not satisfied with the answers we received.

Audrey Ettinger earned her undergraduate degree at Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. in neuroscience at Washington University in St. Louis. She currently is an NRSA Postdoctoral Fellow in the neuroscience program at Stanford University studying the molecular control of retinal cell fate. In her spare time, Audrey is the co-chair of the Stanford University Postdocs -Postdoc Advocacy Committee (SUPD-PAC).

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