First Steps of Cambridge Postdoc Association

There are more than 2500 postdocs working within the University of Cambridge and its associated colleges. Estimates suggest that this massive body of people currently outnumber permanent staff by two to one and are increasing at a rate of 6% per year, which would far outstrip the growth of the rest of the University! This plethora of young, enthusiastic researchers striving to succeed is one of the University?s greatest resources. All the more remarkable, then, that their numbers are but an estimate, and that there are no centralised records of exactly who and where these people are.

In April 2001, eight postdocs joined with Rob Wallach, senior tutor of King?s College, recognised the need for a representative body to make this group more cohesive. Postdocs of Cambridge (PdOC) was then conceived as an umbrella organisation to represent all research staff with a doctorate who were neither tenured fellows nor lecturers. All those who fell under this description would automatically become members.

A voluntary committee was formed to collaborate with the administration of the University and Colleges. And the first problem of how to get and disseminate information was quickly identified. PdOC needed information to prioritise its work, and its members needed information to understand better the Cambridge system of University and Colleges. With no postdoc mailing list available, word of mouth had to be the primary method of alerting people to PdOC?s existence. Postdocs were persuaded to become department and college representatives where possible, and posters were put up throughout the University.

A Web site was set up by Tim Harris, a member of the computer department, in order to give members access to helpful links for career development, seminars, workshops, sports clubs, and social get-togethers. The Web site also invited members to sign up for the weekly bulletin and to complete a survey similar to those used by a number of fledgling U.S. postdoc associations. To date, more than 300 members have signed onto the mailing list through the Web site.

Having identified the most important and urgent needs of Cambridge postdocs through the questionnaire, PdOC instigated a series of initiatives in career development (see accompanying article by Mary Pilkington), contract research conditions, college affiliation, and developed social and sporting links.

PdOC now provides a collective voice to liaise Postdocs with the faculties. We have representatives on committees in the Personnel Division and the Careers Service, the Contract Research Staff Working Group, and the University Centre User Group. Each department was approached by a readily formed subcommittee who traded what could be done from both sides? point of view. We are now pressing for inclusion in the Regent House, which is part of the University?s governing system, to ensure that postdocs? voices are heard during the current round of University Governance modernisation. All of these interactions have been highly productive, the University proving itself very willing to listen. In particular, a monthly meeting with the staff development officer and the personnel officer responsible for contract research staff was established. This led to the consultation with additional questions in the Contract Research Online Survey. Results are to be released soon.

Postdocs already teach students, both in theory and practical classes, making them an integral part of Cambridge?s prestigious teaching practice. PdOC is keen to emphasise the importance and richness of this resource and encourages all colleges to affiliate postdocs into them. Colleges such as Wolfson, Kings, and St. Edmunds are already leading the way.

To encourage cross-academic links and a diverse social group, PdOC has introduced two weekly meetings, one at lunch on Mondays in the University Centre and one on a designated evening in the Granta Bar. In addition, highly successful social events have been organised each term, including a Ceilidh and a Latin-Spanish carnival party.

All this in one year! What of the future? PdOC hopes to increase significantly the number of members subscribing to the bulletin and, ideally, to start sending more tailored updates to individuals. We wish to encourage ideas and participation from new members around the University. But PdOC has a major problem with reaching most potential members and, until a complete mailing list is created, word of mouth and advertising are the best routes of introduction. We are exploring the possibility of getting information about our activities included with new staff introductory packs, or given to new employees along with their University identity card. Although seemingly simple, however, this requires assistance from outside our group, which is not very forthcoming. While listening from the university is very helpful, commitment of resources is somewhat more difficult. Nonetheless, it is a priority since a larger subscribing body would also give us more clout in our discussions with the University authorities.

It is quite clear that there is a demand for the service that PdOC offers, despite the fact that alerting all those who may be interested to its presence is not as easy as was first thought, even in these heady days of the Internet. Over the last year, PdOC has become well established within the University of Cambridge. Working groups have made a start on improving the quality of the researchers? time in Cambridge. The main areas being addressed are information through the Web site (information is the key), the introduction of new people into the Cambridge system, career development, affiliation into colleges, and an active social calendar. Further projects, namely the creation of a sports section and the development of a research funding scheme specifically for postdocs (PIRC), are in preliminary stages. It has to be realised that people will only become involved if they see an advantage to doing so. To this end PdOC has tried to make its Web site and services valuable to all postdocs in Cambridge. Any suggestions on improvement are always gratefully received.

However, PdOC?s rapid expansion has left its active members thinly spread over all these areas. At present, the turnover of committee members is extremely high (we are down to our last original member!) and this is fuelled by the brevity of the contracts and the fact that the postdocs who got involved so far are in their final years. As PdOC becomes better known and we reach new members as soon as they arrive, we hope to recruit postdocs at an earlier point in their contract. It is a priority to make sure that all the hard work up to now is not lost and a primary goal in the forthcoming months is to establish some long-term security. To achieve this, PdOC needs a constant supply of new volunteers and a paid member of the University administration to provide some secretarial assistance and continuity to the committee. PdOC is at present seeking patronage from a sub-vice chancellor and hoping to obtain some form of assistance from the University toward such a position.

Finally, I?d like to thank all those who not only thought about PdOC but actually got on and made it happen. Hopefully this fledgling organisation will grow and flourish over the years to come.

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