Establishing Offices for Postdoctoral Education: Overcoming Obstacles, Part 2

Having an office on campus dedicated to serving their needs can be quite a morale builder for postdocs. Many universities are recognizing this and are beginning to reach out to their postdocs. However, the process of getting started can be quite a challenge for a variety of reasons. Part 1 of this series addressed the issues of identifying and tracking postdocs and gave examples of how some institutions have dealt with these obstacles. Part 2 examines additional roadblocks to establishing offices for postdoctoral education, including securing funding, garnering administrative support, and overcoming systems-driven obstacles.

"Who Is Going to Pay for This?"

Money can be a major obstacle in getting a postdoc office started. Securing funds for personnel and equipment has been an ongoing challenge at some institutions, particularly when faculty and administrators have not fully backed the idea of reaching out to postdocs. So, when funds have not been earmarked in advance for postdoctoral educational purposes, it's often necessary to use some creativity.

"Show Me the Money"

One creative approach is to reallocate funds that have been set aside for other purposes. For example, at the University of California (UC), San Diego, and UC Los Angeles, personnel from within the departments of graduate student education now handle the needs of postdocs. In a sense, money that pays these individuals' salaries has been diverted from graduate student education and redirected, instead, to postdoc education.

At other universities, money has been raised for postdoc offices by charging additional fees. At UC Berkeley, the postdoc office generates financial support by charging visiting scholars $100 annually for university services (a visiting scholar is an individual who has gotten a Ph.D. more than 5 years ago and is usually a senior faculty member elsewhere). According to Sam Castañeda, visiting scholar and postdoctoral appointment coordinator, these fees generate revenue that offsets the costs of running Berkeley's postdoc office. Other institutions have also tossed around the idea of charging for campus services. For example, UC Los Angeles has entertained the notion of charging postdocs both an application fee and a fee to receive a certificate of completion upon finishing their appointment. Of course, the downside of charging additional fees to postdocs is that qualified individuals may be discouraged from applying to the university.

Obtaining funds for postdoctoral education offices is not always problematic. Consider, for example, the University of Alabama, Birmingham (UAB). Here, faculty and administrators pushed the university to establish an office to assist in postdoc recruitment and to deal with postdoc issues. This being the case, the administration willingly dedicated the necessary resources and secured indirect grant funds to establish and maintain the postdoc office.

Administrative Opposition

Administrators are not always as enthusiastic about establishing postdoc offices, however, and some turn away, seemingly unwilling to admit that there is a need to address concerns of postdocs. As a result, many postdoc offices are established only following an outcry from postdocs themselves. In these situations, deans and department chairs usually have to be convinced that postdocs are their responsibility before new postdoc programs can be successfully implemented. Persuading campus officials that postdocs deserve benefits and equitable treatment can seem an insurmountable task. However, tactical maneuvers to enlighten administrative officials and bring them to support postdoc programs have met with success.

Convincing Administrators: "Postdocs Are Your Responsibility"

At institutions where the powers that be are opposed to establishing resources for postdocs, the best method to get the administration to see through postdoc eyes may be to literally employ scare tactics--that is, relay actual or potential scenarios in which the university could be held liable for unfortunate incidents involving postdocs. For example, at one UC campus, a postdoc was refused treatment at a university health center after falling and breaking an ankle during a fire drill because the postdoc didn't fit into an existing faculty/staff/student category. Obviously, health policies need to extend to postdocs in situations such as this one. Another example involves foreign postdocs working under J-1 visas. A J-1 visa is good for 3 years. To avoid foreign postdocs working illegally, paperwork to extend their visit in the United States must be started 6 to 9 months before the 3-year expiration. When paperwork is not complete and postdocs continue to work in the lab with expired visas, the university risks violating Immigration and Naturalization Service laws. (See here for more information on visas.)

By putting forth actual or hypothetical examples of what could go wrong and how the university might be held accountable, postdocs can paint a clear picture for the administration. Hopefully, at this point administrators will begin to recognize that they do have a responsibility to guarantee equitable treatment for postdocs and that it is in the university's best interest to ensure that postdocs comply with rules and regulations. And the best way to do that is to create an office dedicated to addressing postdoc needs.

Stuck in Red Tape

Systems-driven obstacles often present monumental hurdles. Frequently, one of the biggest mandates for postdoc offices is to institute a heath insurance plan for "nonemployee" postdocs. At UC Berkeley, creating a health insurance plan wasn't nearly as complicated as figuring out the seemingly minor detail of monthly payroll deductions to pay for the insurance, an issue that took 18 months to resolve. Other issues, such as getting a campus e-mail account or using interlibrary loan services, seem simple but often must be dealt with by postdoc offices simply because of gaps in policies or procedures.

Cutting Through the Red Tape

Developing collaborative relationships with key university offices such as payroll, tax, human resources, library, and technology transfer is frequently necessary to overcoming systems-driven obstacles. Postdoc office personnel often serve as negotiators, dealing with many different departments, to secure recognition of postdocs. As an example, negotiations with the campus career center at UC San Diego are ongoing. Currently, students, but not postdocs, are permitted to use this resource for identifying job and career opportunities.

Systems-driven obstacles have been largely avoided at Stanford University, where postdocs are considered to be "advanced students." Regardless of their funding source, title, or nationality, postdocs at Stanford are obliged to register and pay a tuition fee each quarter. In exchange, though, postdocs can enjoy student perks, such as deferment of student loans, eligibility for campus housing, health care, and student discounts.

Don't Give Up!

It has been suggested that private institutions may have easier access to funds and more autonomy in setting up new programs for postdoctoral education than do state universities. Whether or not this is true, with enough enthusiasm, creativity, and commitment, many state schools have successfully implemented resources for postdocs even despite opposition. So, don't let obstacles discourage you from trying. Where there is a will, there is a way!

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