Assessing Progress and Prioritizing Policy Efforts: Day One of the 3rd Annual Postdoc Network Meeting

It is clear that the ways of yesterday's science don't jive with today's scientific culture. The inaugural National Postdoctoral meeting fueled the fire, which continued to burn bright at the third annual Postdoc Network (PDN) Meeting the next day. Speakers and attendees of the PDN meeting focused on ways to work with institutions, societies, and mentors to implement changes for postdoctoral scholars across the U.S.

Meeting attendees were a mixture of postdocs (52%), faculty (8%), academic administrators (many of whom--26%--hold a dual faculty role), funders, disciplinary society representatives, and others (14%). Twenty-seven states and two Canadian provinces were represented among the 150 registrants.

In her keynote address, M. R. C. Greenwood, chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, reminisced about her own postdoctoral experience and talked about how much the culture of science has changed since she was a researcher. "Career tracks have changed in the last 30 years from [people going strictly to] academe to now having the options of research settings like industry," she said. "By and large, research universities are not terribly competent to advise postdocs and grad students to go into industries that they are not familiar with," she added.

University of California (UC) system administrators have been working diligently to enact policies that will help postdocs at the nine (soon to be ten) UC campuses. Foremost is a UC-wide minimum postdoctoral salary of $29,000 and complete medical benefits, including dental and vision care, for all postdocs. They need to make sure, she said, "that these creative young minds will have the ability to work in the environment they are in."

Topic of the first plenary was how to start setting policy priorities. Since the COSEPUP postdoc guide came out over 2 years ago, a spate of surveys conducted at institutions and professional societies across the country have helped pinpoint the current priorities for change regarding postdoctoral issues.

Overall, "90% or more of postdocs in physics feel satisfied" with the state of their careers, says Roman Czujko, director of the statistical research center at the American Institute of Physics. Physics postdocs are among the highest paid in the business, and because there are fewer physics Ph.D.s (compared with the biological sciences), these researchers also have a better chance of landing the job they desire. However, said Czujko, "the number of openings for physicists is strong, but it does not translate into automatic positions for people schooled in the U.S." Many applicants are schooled in other countries and come to the U.S as postdocs; many of these individuals then have a desire to stay in the U.S. and apply for in-country positions. Another factor is that lateral moves are common in the field, with many people hired as professors who previously held similar positions outside of the U.S. These added applicants sometimes fill spots that younger postdoctoral scholars ready to move out of their postdoc and into faculty jobs might otherwise have filled.

The session continued with Geoff Davis, leader of the Sigma Xi national postdoc survey project. Davis is working on a survey kit that can be used by academic institutions and postdoc associations to keep track of current postdoc issues. These kits will be easy to use and contain user-friendly software. The goal is to "provide good resources so that every time you do a survey you don't have to reinvent the wheel," said Davis.

The University of Wisconsin, Madison, recently conducted a survey of its postdocs that is a worthy point of reference for other institutions. Rather than applying standard Web-based or snail-mail approaches, James Sweet, the director of the survey center at the University of Wisconsin, instead used a small-town tactic: His group called every person on the postdoc list. "Developing motivation to participate is very important for surveys of this sort," he said. By calling people at home, surveyors could easily explain the value of the questions to the participants. All in all, Sweet and his colleagues had an 81% response rate with only 34 of 461 people refusing the interview. The group's efforts produced not only vital information about the overall postdoc experience, but also valuable data regarding the various subgroups represented in the population: men versus women, international versus domestic postdocs, and biological versus physical sciences.

Surveys are a great way to find out about the problems, but once the data are collected, tabulated, and disseminated, it is time to implement solutions. This is the hurdle that many find daunting. With this in mind, PDN brought in members of the National Communication Association to guide a workshop called "Creating Constructive Conversations for Organizational Change." Workshop coordinator J. Kevin Barge, an associate professor of speech communication at the University of Georgia in Athens, pepped up the crowd with an opening address on positive mechanisms to bring about change. Audience members then splintered off into small mediation groups that prioritized questions relating to postdoc policy issues. The interactive seminar was well-received by the participants. It changed the dynamic of the group and gave people an opportunity to positively interact with other PDN meeting attendees. And, as Barge explained, creating networks is an important step in any change effort.

The first day drew to a close with an afternoon plenary session about the efforts to change the postdoctoral experience at a national level. Scientific societies such as FASEB, funders including the NIH and NSF, and various scientific institutions agree about most of the major issues that need to be updated: stipend levels, healthcare benefits, term limits, and professional development. Now comes the hard part: making the changes.

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