Agitators on the Inside

If you had asked me near the end of graduate school what I would be doing as a postdoc, I might have answered, "Toiling away at the bench." This flippant answer could come from any postdoc wearing "publish or perish" blinders. At the time, much of what I thought was important to postdocs reflected my graduate student naïveté. Now, although I have toiled mightily at the bench, I have also taken the time to remove the blinders and get involved.

Two years ago, I co-founded the Biological Sciences Division Postdoctoral Association (BSD-PDA) at the University of Chicago. My colleagues and I have set up career-skills workshops and research seminars, formed a welcoming committee for new postdocs, published a weekly e-newsletter, and set up a Web page. Recently we completed the first comprehensive survey of postdocs in our division--a major milestone.

In this article, the first of a three-part series, I reflect upon my time as a postdoctoral "agitator" and its impact on my professional development. In two future Postdoc Network articles, the current chair of the BSD-PDA and I will describe why the BSD-PDA conducted the survey and how we did it. We'll go on to discuss what we learned and how we are using that information to advocate for postdocs in the division.

Network Nugget

Creating a postdoc association from scratch requires a major investment of time and energy by postdocs with vision and passion. It also helps to be able to learn from the experiences of others. The Postdoc Network Evolution of Postdoc Organizations archive and database of organizations and offices are rich with ideas and suggestions.

As a graduate student at the University of Chicago, I never considered postdoc issues. My life as a graduate student was hard but decent and worthwhile. I thought postdocs were graduate students with no classes or thesis committee meetings.

Looking back, there were hints that the situation for postdocs was more complicated. I recall a postdoc seeking a pay raise because his stipend was not enough to support his family. I also witnessed a postdoc abandoning an excellent research opportunity due, in part, to her frustrations with an inattentive mentor. Her experience was made more difficult because English was not her native language and she was away from her family. I never asked myself if these were isolated incidents or were symptomatic of larger problems. Postdocs, from my perspective, existed in the background.

When my status changed from graduate student to postdoc, I immediately felt I had faded into that background. Although I was still in the same department, I no longer received notices about seminars and journal club events. Invitations to departmental retreats and social events no longer filled my mailbox. Opportunities to have structured interactions with faculty or to discuss the quality of the education and training environment were gone.

What happened in the 2 weeks between the end of graduate school and my first days as a postdoc? Entire institutional and departmental structures dedicated to my education and support, as a graduate student, disappeared. There was no curriculum committee, no dean of postdocs, and no office of postdoctoral affairs dedicated to enhancing my postdoctoral experience. Indeed, the complete absence of such resources was apparent during the completion of my appointment form and brief one-sided contract "negotiation." I wasn't given an employee handbook or orientation materials. There was no formal discussion of the professional opportunities or goals that I might pursue while a postdoc--not the institution, the administrators, my adviser, or, perhaps most critically, me.

Within a short time, the majority of my interactions became limited to my lab group. Those postdocs who came in from other institutions were even more "lab-centric."

The absence of community among postdocs and the complete lack of postdoc participation in the division's governance was a new experience for one postdoc, who had previously held a postdoc appointment at another institution. She said that at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, postdocs had their own association that served the community-building and advocacy needs of postdocs. We agreed it was time to start a postdoctoral association at the University of Chicago.

We brought complementary talents to the effort. As a graduate of the program, I contributed knowledge of the division faculty, institutional memory, and administrative connections to help move issues along. As an outsider, she was prepared to challenge "the way it's done here," and she had specific experience with and connections to a functioning postdoctoral association. Our first step was to gather like-minded postdocs to discuss our common experiences. We were excited about the prospects of creating positive changes and planning events to advance our interests. As a group we initiated the first divisionwide survey to help us better understand the postdoc experience. Excitement sustained our drive through what might have been a tedious task. Importantly, we all learned a lot about postdoc issues, and we benefited from discussing our different perspectives and experiences from graduate school and prior postdocs.

Being an agitator has its benefits. As a founding board member of the BSD-PDA, I have been heavily involved in every aspect of its programs. I have gained management and administrative experience that I will put to good use as an academic researcher. I have developed a broader sense of the potential for the postdoc experience, and I anticipate that it will help me be a more effective advocate for postdocs as a faculty member.

My perspective on the research enterprise of the U.S. has also been broadened. I appreciate more fully that there is more to science than academic and industrial researchers writing funding proposals, laboring at the bench, and writing journal articles. Those involved in setting science policy (e.g., postdoc stipend levels) at the national and local levels are critical players. Being involved has helped me more fully understand the roles these people play in the postdoctoral experience. Because I have interacted with a broader group of scientists, I feel more comfortable and skilled as a potential policy consultant, university committee member, and postdoc advocate. Indeed, these experiences have broadened my horizons to the extent that I would consider scientific careers besides academic or industry research as potentially rewarding possibilities.

As a leader of the BSD-PDA, I have also developed networking skills and contacts. I've met many more faculty and postdocs here, as well as postdocs at other institutions. I continue to communicate with other like-minded postdocs I met at the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) Convocation and the Postdoc Networks National Meeting. This exchange of ideas continues to challenge my assumptions about postdoc training and provides new perspectives on the way science administration might be done.

What do I think are the most critical issues facing postdocs? It is my observation that institutions and postdocs too often fail to fully value the potential benefits of the postdoctoral experience. This failure limits and slows the efforts of the well intentioned to enhance the postdoctoral experience. Postdocs, investigators and their institutions, and funding agencies must keep in mind that the primary goal of a postdoc appointment is to train and develop the postdoc as a scientific professional. It is an opportunity for the postdoc to gain new skills at the bench as well as networking, management, and communication skills that are important for success within the scientific community.

By working to with the BSD-PDA and the larger postdoc community, I have developed important skills. This is an unexpected, but highly desirable, byproduct to getting involved. The experiences have helped me develop career skills that will benefit me as a researcher. They have also given me a greater appreciation of what science, beyond the bench, is all about. The best part has been that I've made new friends and colleagues, learned a lot about myself as a scientist, and felt good helping other people.

* Stephen Gasior is a co-founder and board member of the Biological Sciences Division Postdoctoral Association at the University of Chicago .

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