Who Shall Lead? The New UNC Postdoc Association Takes Big Steps

In its first year of existence, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Postdoc Association (UNC PDA) saw many remarkable successes. The benefits committee designed and conducted a campus-wide survey of postdocs to help the PDA set priorities for discussion with the UNC administration. The information committee began work on a Web site to link postdocs to relevant administrative and career-development resources. The steering committee, composed of volunteers from all PDA committees, dealt with administrative issues, forging contacts with UNC officials, organizing support for the PDA, and obtaining official UNC recognition for the association. And in June 2001 the programming committee capped the year with a successful full-day career symposium attended by 400 postdocs and graduate students.

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Throughout this process, the UNC administration enthusiastically encouraged the PDA's efforts, and many groups on campus were anxious to help financially, including the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Education, the graduate school, the medical school, and individual research departments.

It was only after our successful first year that the UNC PDA began to consider a system of organization and management to guarantee continued success into the future; the nascent UNC PDA was a largely organic and unstructured organization. Following release of a report by the National Academies of Science Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) entitled "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers", Vice Provost for Graduate Studies and Research Linda Dykstra created a Postdoctoral Committee chaired by Sharon Milgram, an associate professor in the department of cell and molecular physiology. During an open meeting of the postdoc committee in October 2000, it became clear that although postdocs had a generally positive experience at UNC, most shared concerns about several specific issues. Not surprisingly, improving standard benefits, increasing career development options, and providing administrative information relating to postdoc concerns topped the list. Corresponding committees (benefits, programming, and information) composed of interested postdocs were immediately established. The UNC PDA had begun to take shape.

The early achievements of the committees were especially impressive because they were accomplished without oversight. When the committees were first formed, there wasn't a postdoc association with specific goals, plans for action, timetables, or agreed-upon methods; the proto-PDA consisted of informal groups of postdocs interested in making things better for themselves and their peers. Clearly these individuals had ideas and the drive to realize them. Each committee was able to set its own ambitious priorities and divide the work among members, who then accomplished more than anyone had originally hoped. It never occurred to us that our goals might be too ambitious. Not knowing that our goals were lofty probably helped us to achieve them.

In spite of the early successes, many felt that ongoing effectiveness required a more formal structure with a clear articulation of roles and responsibilities. We believed that a more formal structure would improve the PDA's efficiency and bolster its credibility with postdocs and the UNC administration. We anticipated the administration would have more respect for the PDA if they were confident that we were a coherent organization that represented the concerns of the postdoc community. Likewise, we expected the postdoc community to be more supportive of the PDA if they knew that it was effectively conveying postdoc concerns to the administration.

The trick was to develop a structure that was both representative and effective without creating a cumbersome bureaucracy that discouraged involvement and made it more difficult to get things done. When considering a formal structure with detailed rules and elected officers, we were reminded that our early successes had been achieved by a steering committee that reached is decisions through consensus. Yet we felt that complete informality with no specifically delegated responsibilities would hinder the PDA's efforts with a university administration that seemed most comfortable with formal interactions.

We decided on a compromise in which the practical advantages of our informal organization would be tempered with a few small but significant changes. The core of the PDA continues to be the individual committees described above, each one focused on its particular area and composed of volunteers. Membership on committees is open to any postdoc, and periodic "Town Hall"-style meetings give all postdocs the opportunity to be heard without having to devote time to regular participation. The steering committee, consisting of two participants from each of the committees, coordinates the PDA's efforts and works directly with the UNC administration. The most significant change is in the selection of officers (i.e. chairperson, secretary, etc.) for the steering committee. Officers are selected by a consensus of all current committee participants. We believe this process will insure that our representatives to the administration are well acquainted with the efforts of all the committees.

The chairperson is our liaison with UNC administration, attending meetings with administrators whenever postdoc issues are discussed, and relating relevant information to the postdoc community. The secretary will help keep postdocs informed about the PDA's activities. We are also considering creating a public relations position to coordinate the exchange of information with other PDA's and generate publicity for the PDA through campus publications. Each committee will recruit new participants to help maintain continuity through inevitable transitions.

As with any nascent organization, we probably will need to learn much by trial and error. The objective is to remain flexible so we have the best chance of discovering more effective ways to achieve our goals. The UNC PDA has no constitution or by-laws as yet, but is likely to consider such options in the next few months. What we have, as expressed in our mission statement, is a goal to "... improve the UNC experience for postdoctoral fellows by fostering a sense of community among junior researchers, facilitating communication with the university, and promoting the professional development of all UNC postdoctoral fellows." We have created a system that is simple and efficient but also has the formal elements necessary to provide credibility and ensure progress. Together with the enthusiasm of its members, these features should bring the UNC PDA even greater success in the future.

* Jim Fiordalisi is a postdoc in the department of radiation oncology at UNC, Chapel Hill, and has been an active member of the programming, information, and steering committees of the UNC PDA since its inception.

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