UAB Roundtable Yields Quick Results

Postdoctoral scholars are valued members of the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) community and contribute greatly to the university's success. Faculty members realize that it would be impossible to maintain their high level of research productivity without the contributions of our postdoctoral fellows. Furthermore, we all are aware that these women and men trust us and hope to get the training they need to establish independent and productive careers.

Despite the value the institution places on postdoctoral scholars, individual faculty members used to have sole responsibility for the recruitment, orientation, and professional development of postdocs. In 1997-98, the graduate school organized focus groups of faculty and postdocs to identify postdocs' unmet needs. Subsequent administrative action resulted in two important developments: personnel practices that classify postdocs into common catagories and a health insurance program for postdocs without regard to the source or nature of their funding.

After 25 years of serving the state as a premier medical and dental school, the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) was established in 1969 as an autonomous comprehensive research university within the UA system. Since then UAB has become one of the nation's top-ranked universities in research support and higher education, as well as a provider of world-class medical care. As of September 2000, UAB had more than $300 million in active grants, was ranked number 18 in NIH funds, and had over 1900 faculty members, 12 schools, and a university-wide graduate school. UAB offers undergraduate, graduate, and professional programs in more than 75 areas of study.

There are 300 postdoctoral fellows at UAB, 30% of whom are U.S. citizens. To provide sustained attention to the postdocs' needs, Joan Lorden, the dean of the Graduate School, created the Office of Postdoctoral Education (OPE) in 1999. The mission of the office is to provide administrative support and educational opportunities to all postdoctoral scholars so they can enhance their research and communication skills and improve their ability to make the transition into successful independent careers. The associate dean of OPE is responsible for policies regarding postdoctoral matters, with the dean of the Graduate School having final authority. In its 1st year, the office established a comprehensive postdoc database, Web page, and handbook, and it also standardized the appointment process for all postdoctoral scholars. I was appointed associate dean for postdoctoral education on 1 March 2001.

In order to get to know the postdoctoral scholars and their concerns better, I decided to hold weekly informal roundtable discussions over lunch with five or six postdoctoral fellows. OPE program coordinator Sharon Johnston, who is responsible for the day-to-day operations of the office, also participates. Together, we identify ways to enhance professional development and improve the quality of life for all postdoctoral scholars.

OPE tries to include postdoctoral fellows from different schools and backgrounds. Each week, we send e-mail invitations to small groups of postdoctoral fellows. Usually four to six postdocs accept the invitation and attend the luncheon. OPE rotates the day to accommodate as many postdoctoral fellows as possible; no matter which day we choose, we compete with several noon seminars. Nearly half of all UAB postdocs have now participated in a luncheon roundtable.

The roundtable discussion begins with introductions of OPE staff and its mission to advocate for the academic and personal welfare of postdocs. The postdocs are then asked to introduce themselves and tell about their research. The are also asked to share problems they face or have faced in the past. The discussions are candid and open.

Some of the most common problems mentioned are:

  • Lack of benefits; although our postdoctoral fellows have free health insurance, they have no formal vacation, sick leave, or maternity/paternity leave

  • Difficulty obtaining credit; nearly 70% of UAB postdocs are foreign nationals for whom obtaining credit has been difficult

  • Inadequate opportunities for professional development

  • The expense of child care

  • Little social contact outside the laboratory.

The following measures have been implemented to address these problems:

  • OPE established the Council of Postdoctoral Education (COPE), consisting of both faculty and postdoctoral fellows, to examine all issues pertaining to postdoctoral education. Members include a mixture of department chairs, senior and junior faculty members, and postdocs. Each member serves a 2-year term. COPE member names and contact information are listed on the OPE Web page. The agenda is set by the associate dean and members of COPE, and minutes of each meeting are posted in OPE Web site.

  • On 1 August, postdocs at UAB became eligible for paid leave, including vacation (10 days), sick leave (10 days), and maternity/paternity leave (1 month before or after birth or adoption). UAB postdocs have had free medical insurance since 1999.

  • OPE established the Career Enhancement Awards program to allow postdoctoral fellows to visit other laboratories, attend national meetings and conferences, and, in general, enhance their professional development. OPE has given 18 of these awards (each worth $2000) in the last year.

  • OPE negotiated a deal with a local bank to offer postdocs a credit card. OPE gives the bank a list of all postdocs "in good standing" with the university. This service eases the concerns of many foreign postdocs who lack the credit record necessary to obtain a credit card, which has become so essential to many financial transactions.

  • OPE established the Postdoctoral Visiting Scholar program. A committee of postdocs identifies outstanding scientists interested in postdoctoral education, who are then invited to visit UAB and interact with postdoctoral scholars. Activities scheduled around the visit increase interaction among postdoctoral fellows and allow them to network with leading scientists, enhancing their professional development.

  • All UAB postdoc appointment letters come from OPE. An information packet about UAB and the community now accompanies appointment letters. New postdocs are also given the name and e-mail address of a UAB-Postdoctoral Acclimation Team (PAT) member who is a current postdoc from the same university, area, or country as the new postdoc. The PAT member serves as an additional source of information to help new postdocs make essential adjustments in a new city, state, or country.

The luncheon roundtables have contributed greatly to our efforts to assure that postdocs continue to be productive and valued members of the UAB community. The informal nature of the conversations has helped us stay connected to the immediate challenges facing postdocs. This connection has yielded results that enable Sharon and me to deliver programs and services worthy of our postdoctoral scholars--programs that enhance their quality of life and training at UAB.

* Sadis Matalon has been at UAB as a professor of anesthesiology since 1987. He has been involved in all aspects of academic life, including research, teaching, and training of postdoctoral fellows, and he believes that attracting and training postdoctoral fellows is an important responsibility of every faculty member.

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