Taking Postdoctoral Needs Seriously: The Office of Academic Career Development at the University of Pittsburgh

At universities across the country, highly trained individuals earn less than the janitorial staff, receive fewer benefits, and work longer hours. You might call these individuals crazy, but most in the world of academe call them postdocs. The postdoctoral community is frustrated by this state of affairs and has spoken out repeatedly in order to foster a better, more consistent, postdoctoral experience.

The University of Pittsburgh has taken first steps toward improving the situation for postdocs. New programs and policies at Pitt are aimed at creating a more respected, more informed, and better compensated postdoctoral community. The first step was the creation of the Office of Academic Career Development ( OACD). Pitt's OACD will help individuals develop a portfolio, search and interview for jobs, write grants, and negotiate. In addition to serving as a career-planning resource, the OACD is also poised to handle the needs of postdocs' daily lives in the laboratory.

The OACD, under the leadership of Joan Lakoski, assistant vice chancellor for the OACD and professor of pharmacology at the University of Pittsburgh, has developed a new program called the "Postdoctoral Professionalism" series. The University of Pittsburgh already had a program it called the Survival Skills and Ethics Program, which addresses many academic and professional topics such as grant-writing, writing a research article, oral presentations, choosing a lab, interviewing, and the job search. However, Lakoski feels that this program, while extremely valuable, is geared toward a more general academic audience. The postdoctoral professionalism series, in contrast, is directly aimed at postdocs and conveys a more specifically relevant range of topics.

Lakoski reflected on the fact that postdocs are focused very narrowly in their field, but should also be training as professionals. Making the transition to a position of independence requires training beyond the traditional postdoctoral research experience. The workshops are meant to fill some of these gaps. The new series will provide opportunities to learn critical nonresearch skills through lectures, panel discussions, and hands-on exercises. A reception follows each seminar to promote networking and socialization among the members of this diverse, widely dispersed group.

The first professionalism workshop, held in December 2002, was called "Building Your Academic Portfolio: CVs, Biosketches, and Resumes." The workshop was especially useful for postdocs seeking positions outside the traditional academic stream. The resume portion of the seminar covered topics such as the use of action words, the inclusion of PAR (problem, action, resolution) statements that provide concrete evidence of achievement, and the construction of the statement of objectives. One of the attendees, L. J. Sparvero, was pleased with the diversity of topics covered. "I found the information on interviewing to be invaluable, particularly the fact that many interviewers ask similar questions, allowing the interviewee to consider many responses in advance," he said.

A lot of good chemistry exists between the OACD and another new organization, the University of Pittsburgh Post-Doctoral Association ( UPPDA). The OACD and UPPDA have cosponsored social events, providing a venue for postdocs from the whole university to meet, learn more about both organizations, and establish new networks in a casual setting. The fall 2002 social event, held in the just-opened Peterson Events Center, was well attended. The officers of the UPPDA attended the event, as did Lakoski and others from the OACD.

So what is new for the OACD in 2003? One program that has been discussed--by those involved in administering the institutional training grants and also the postdocs themselves--is the initiation of postdoctoral advisory committees to facilitate a better postdoctoral experience. NIH postdoctoral training programs mandate such committees, but only for postdocs covered by training grants; they are rare in other instances. The OACD is proposing creation of a committee on postdoctoral training on which postdocs would serve on a voluntary basis.

Another program that the OACD hopes to complete by June 2003 is a new classification system for postdocs at the university. Currently postdocs can have one of about a dozen different job titles, only some of which come with a full range of benefits (health care, retirement, and the like). In addition, postdoc salaries span a wide range, as a recent UPPDA poll of university postdocs revealed. OACD is working to establish uniform postdoc job classifications, to clarify the expectations of the position, and to create guidelines for the postdoctoral experience. OACD also hopes to standardize the appointment process so that all new postdocs would receive a letter spelling out the details of their appointments including salary, benefits, term, and so on OACD hopes not only to enhance the postdoctoral experience at the University of Pittsburgh, but to serve as a model for similar types of programs at universities across the country.

It's still far from perfect, but the University of Pittsburgh now seems to recognize the discrepancy between postdocs' level of attainment and their working conditions. This acknowledgement of the situation--and actions taken to improve it--is appreciated and noted by postdocs at the university, who anticipate future negotiations as a reality rather than a distant hope. The combined efforts of the OACD and UPPDA will establish at the University of Pittsburgh a new type of postdoctoral experience that, it is hoped, will migrate to other institutions.

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