The Next Step in Evolution: Cross-Institutional Postdoc Organizations

At the first Postdoc Network meeting in the spring of 2001, a group of postdocs began discussing the National Academies COSEPUP recommendations for standardizing and enhancing the experience of postdoctoral fellows working in the United States. Several of the postdocs were members of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB); they started working with the ASCB education committee to create a venue for addressing postdoc professional-development issues. Their hard work and planning paid off on 17 May 2002, when the ASCB leadership approved the creation of the ASCB postdoctoral subcommittee.

"The ASCB has always been very progressive [with regard to postdoc issues]," said Elizabeth Marincola, executive director of the organization. "I think this is why the postdocs came to the ASCB first as opposed to other societies, because we were already on record as an organization that was aggressively tackling issues related to postdocs."

The new subcommittee consists of postdocs from institutions around the United States and education-committee liaison James Nelson, professor of cancer biology at Stanford University. "Part of the purpose of this subcommittee is to create a voice for postdocs to work with the ASCB and within the ASCB structure to fulfill the recommendations of COSEPUP regarding scientific societies," said Kimberly Paul, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and chair of the subcommittee.

Among the long-term goals of the subcommittee are to work with the ASCB to monitor and disseminate information on realistic career opportunities for postdocs in cell biology, to increase training at the national meeting, to improve the job board, and to interact with institutions to guide professionalism in cell biology. Paul and founding chair Tom Sweitzer also work closely with the ASCB education committee to expand postdoctoral programs within the society.

Paul and Sweitzer presided over the first official postdoc subcommittee meeting, a forum at the 2002 ASCB meeting. Some of the primary issues discussed were travel fellowships for postdocs to attend the annual society meetings, a survey polling the entire society membership to determine current issues for faculty and postdocs, management of the ASCB postdoctoral Web page, and writing a column for the society newsletter.

Avi Spier, a postdoctoral fellow at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, suggested that a postdoc travel award could be modeled after the existing program for graduate students. Furthermore, attendees suggested that questions from a recent society survey could act as a template for a new, more focused effort. "Since the 1998 survey, there has been a proliferation of career transition events," said Sweitzer. Indeed, he added, the membership response to that survey was a large factor in ASCB's decision to sponsor a postdoc subcommittee.

Beyond surveys and awards, the liveliest discussion centered on the question of how to define "postdoctoral researcher." How should responsibility for career development be parceled among postdoc, advisor, institution, and professional society? Marincola acknowledged that the perception of many postdocs is that the nature of the position has changed. What used to be seen as an apprenticeship now feels more like a labor position. That question is central to the new subcommittee and the society.

It was universally accepted that there need to be guidelines put into place for mentors and societies, to help postdocs and their advisors understand the boundaries and expectations of the postdoc position. "We need to make sure that people aren't wasting their time while doing a postdoc, and we need to make sure that they know what they are getting into," said Sweitzer. "There is no clear knowledge of what a postdoctoral program should entail. ASCB's involvement in postdoctoral issues is an opportunity to address problems across institutions without a single institution getting in the way."

Other postdocs expressed concern with the scope of the policy. "A postdoc should be proactive with their career, and mentorship and expectations may be too individual to be generalized across the ASCB," said Tracie Gibson, a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Sweitzer, who along with Marincola began the push for postdoctoral representation in the society in early 2000, is a strong advocate for a clear, universal definition of postdoctoral researcher, as well as stronger concentration on training by mentors. Better interaction with mentors and established career development programs within institutions will enhance the postdoctoral process and reduce prolonged unproductive periods. "The more people focus on the training aspects and having programs to support postdocs, the less people will use postdocs as slave labor," Sweitzer said.

Pinpointing important issues for young scientists is not a novel concept for scientific societies. With the scientific climate shifting toward supporting multiple career choices for early-career researchers, societies are starting to pay more attention to these members' needs. Along with the ASCB, the Biophysical Society has established an Early Careers committee and the American Chemical Society has a Younger Chemists Committee. The American Institute of Physics has been tracking the career choices of graduate students and postdocs for about a decade. As more societies like the ASCB address the COSEPUP recommendations, there will be more extra-institutional resources and support networks for postdocs.

The recently established National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), takes this one step further to provide a cohesive voice for postdocs from all scientific disciplines. "There are certain issues that require changes at the national level, where individual postdocs don't have the money or the manpower to attempt to make change," said Carol Manahan, a postdoctoral fellow at Johns Hopkins University and chair of the NPA steering committee. Joining forces with societies like the ASCB will, Manahan thinks, be a powerful way to improve the postdoctoral experience.

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