Case Studies for Change: The University of California and the Whitehead Institute

One definition of the word "change" is to make the form, nature, content, future course, and the like of (something) different from what it is or what it would be if left alone. Numerous surveys have shown that the current state of the postdoctoral experience cannot remain at status quo. To their credit, entities such as the University of California system, as well as private institutions, have recognized the necessity for change. And many of them have begun that change by focusing on efforts to create standard policies for postdocs.

At the recent Postdoctoral Network (PDN) meeting, a panel of administrators, faculty members, and postdocs spoke about their efforts to change the face of postdoctoral scholarship at the University of California (UC). "It's a work in progress," said Tom Peavy, a postdoc from UC Davis and the founding chair of the UC Council of Postdoctoral Scholars, about what the UC system has done to address systemic problems. Peavy, who spearheaded the UC Davis postdoctoral scholars association, knows firsthand how hard it can be to maintain communication among administrators, mentors, and postdocs. "You have to work as a team," he said.

Before problems with postdocs were recognized at the system-wide level, individual members of the UC system were already addressing issues that existed within their institutions. In the mid to late 1990s Joseph Cerny, UC Berkeley professor of chemistry, vice chancellor for research, and dean of the graduate division, commissioned a comprehensive report of the situation of students, postdocs, and faculty at the Berkeley campus. The report revealed that postdocs lacked representation, compensation, overall satisfaction ? and quite a lot more. Another tidbit, surprising at the time, was that even though thousands of postdocs have worked at UC Berkeley over the years, there was no standard appointment process. "The academic personnel manual--the University of California bible on all academic appointments--contains no postdoc section," said Cerny.

Seven years later, the status of postdocs is looking up at Berkeley. The university now has a visiting scholar's program office that all postdocs are put in touch with when they arrive. The vice chancellor of research, rather than the graduate dean, heads the visiting scholar's office; this distinction may seem minor to people who aren't administrators, but it distinguishes postdocs from graduate students, which is very important both personally and professionally.

Cerny says that three key elements were imperative to his and his colleagues' ability to win battles for postdocs at UC Berkeley. First, senior members of the administration and faculty needed to "buy in" to the concepts on the table. Cerny and colleagues did this by inviting senior people to a symposium focused on postdocs and what they needed to succeed at UC Berkeley. It also helped to tie the success of postdocs to the achievement of the university as a whole: To be the best and recruit the best you have to take care of your people. Next on Cerny's top-three list: It was crucial to have a dedicated high-level faculty administrator with responsibility for postdoctoral fellows as well as a high-level staff working group. Cerny chaired the Postdoc Oversight Team and Sam Castañeda, the coordinator of the UC Berkeley visiting scholars' program and member of the UC systemwide committee for postdocs, was the co-chair. Finally, the postdoctoral community needed to organize itself in a way that represented the diversity of postdocs at UC Berkeley.

Berkeley was not the only member of the UC system working to improve the postdoc experience. UC San Francisco, UCLA, and UC San Diego (the other UCs with more than 500 postdocs) were also working on postdoc issues.

Putting together new policies that overlie a system as large as the University of California is no easy task. The system is composed of a huge tree of people working to keep it flowing smoothly, beginning with the Office of the President, which sits atop the highest branch. There are three major branches that lead from this office: administration, which consists of graduate deans; the campus sector, of which the campus deans and faculty bodies are a part; and, finally, academics, which includes the academic senate. In order for real change to happen within the UC system, all of the branches have to agree and unite.

Since 1997, Jean Fort, the assistant dean of the Office of Graduate Studies and Research at UC San Diego and chair of the UC Council of Graduate Deans postdoc working group, has handled most of the planning for the new postdoc policies. Many of the nine UC campuses differ significantly in their numbers of postdocs, funding sources, and primary needs, so Fort had to prioritize and pinpoint the most pressing issues for postdocs at all campuses. The major problem was that there "was no UC-wide policy on postdoctoral education," she said. "We still don't have one, but hope to by 1 July 2003," she added.

In 1998, Fort and colleagues debuted a UC-wide report documenting the status and needs of postdocs at the nine campuses. After this report was reviewed by all of the branches in the UC administrative tree, campuswide and UC-wide committees came together and hashed out what needed to be done. It was very important to get the blessing of all of the committees, said Ellen Switkes, assistant vice president of academic advancement for the UC Office of the President. "It is our job to foster rather than impede," she added.

Switkes worked closely with Fort on the UC postdoctoral problem and was particularly concerned with the "holding pattern" that locks many postdocs in semipermanent somewhat paralyzed positions. The message is clear: postdocs need to be treated like legitimate members of the scientific community. "We talk a lot about undergraduates, graduates, and faculty," said Switkes. "But no one really talks about postdocs."

Now that major issues such as health care and stipends are being actively addressed, what are the UC system's next steps? Faculty mentoring heads up the list of important focal points. Until now, "we've danced around the faculty with regard to what is a good training model and what mechanisms are in place to ensure there is a two-way communication between postdoc and principle investigator," said Sam Castañeda. Two times a year, Castañeda heads up an interactive group called the "postdoc pizza parlor" at UC Berkeley. For the next meeting he and his bosses--the UC Berkeley vice chancellor and chancellor of research--want to hit the subject of faculty mentoring head on. They want to "immediately bring faculty involvement to the front burner," he said.

The UC system, of course, is not the only set of institutions making and creating new policies to enhance its postdocs' experiences. A survey conducted in January 2001 opened up discourse about the state of postdocs at the other end of the country at the Whitehead Institute in Cambridge Massachusetts.

Ninety percent of postdocs at the Whitehead believe that salary and benefits far outweigh all other concerns, said Margaret Sand, the assistant director of communications at the Whitehead. Sand headed up the change efforts at the Whitehead. Today, the institute gives all postdocs medical benefits and includes a minimum salary requirement of $36,000 annually with a $2000 annual supplement. This supplement is in lieu of a retirement package, so postdocs are free to either save the money as a retirement benefit or use it, at their own discretion. "What made it easy," said Sand, "is that the Whitehead is a small institution with a good endowment and 100% support from the director." "You almost can't lose," said Sand.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers