Starting the Ball Rolling

Remarks given by Joseph Cerny on 17 March 2003 at the Third National Postdoc Network Meeting, "Changing the Culture of Science," which was held in Berkeley, California

As a chemistry faculty member, I have had more that 25 postdoctoral fellows in my research group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) in Berkeley, California. Although LBNL has always had excellent postdoctoral fellow policies in most areas--postdocs are all treated as term employees with defined salary scales, benefits, and so forth--I knew from my previous experience as the chair of the Berkeley department of chemistry that the situation on the Berkeley campus was much more complicated.

In the mid 1990s, when I wanted to work on postdoctoral issues at Berkeley, I commissioned a comprehensive analysis of the overall campus situation. A brief quote from this report by Eleanore Lee, who had just retired as an expert on research policy at the Office of the University of California President, highlights the Berkeley campus situation, which of course was a familiar one nationwide.

This is "a preliminary analysis of the status of postdoctoral appointments at the Berkeley campus." The issue is whether "current campus policies and practices sufficiently protect postdocs in their employment or economic role. For example, are compensation levels adequate and appropriate? Do postdocs have access to health insurance, worker's compensation, grievance procedures? Similarly, is the institution itself adequately protected? With a population as diffuse as postdoctoral scholars, does the institution have adequate assurance that patent agreements are being signed, that conflict of interest and other mandated reporting is being carried out, that risk management and liability needs are covered, and that postdocs are not falling through administrative cracks? ... Postdoctoral positions are extremely discipline-specific and faculty-dependent. Authority over them is decentralized on the Berkeley campus, as it is in most universities, and only minimal policy guidance exists on the books regarding their appointments. For example, the Academic Personnel Manual [the University of California bible on all academic appointments]--contains no 'postdoc' section."

I am going to confine my remarks almost completely to what we were doing at Berkeley. During the period that I will cover, though, major advances were going forward in the improvement of working conditions for postdocs at our sister campuses at San Francisco and San Diego, for example, and postdoctoral issues were regularly being discussed at systemwide meetings of UC graduate deans. Some of this will be covered by other speakers this morning. Finally, I want to recognize the many efforts in advancing the cause of postdocs at Berkeley that were made by Dr. Maresi Nerad, who is now at the University of Washington, and by Sam Casteñeda, who is still heavily involved with postdocs at Berkeley.

Thee three key elements in our process that I am going to describe are as follows:

  • Buy-in by the senior administration and leading faculty members,

  • A dedicated high-level faculty administrator with responsibility for postdoctoral fellows and a high-level staff working group to bring about change,

  • Work to develop a postdoctoral community.

These elements will be discussed at length in the following sections.

Key Element #1: Buy-In by the Senior Administration and Leading Faculty Members

From my point of view, the key element in motivating action and positive responses on a wide variety of postdoctoral matters at Berkeley was the leadership shown by President Steve Sample of University of Southern California (USC) in establishing and chairing the Association of American Universities (AAU) Committee on Postdoctoral Education. This very high-level committee included four more university presidents and chancellors, the executive dean for academic programs at Harvard Medical School (Harvard has the most postdoctoral fellows of any U.S. university) [Ed. note: see the NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering ( GSS)], a provost, a vice provost, and two graduate deans (of which I was one).

The committee began its work in 1994 and delivered its report in March 1998, having conducted three informal surveys of selected major research universities to gain insights into campus policies and practices governing postdoctoral education. AAU's approval of this report meant that our work on postdoctoral education at Berkeley, which was going on in parallel with the AAU study, also had the highly visible, official blessing from our chancellor. This policy paper from AAU was very important, as it was possible to cite it to the Berkeley faculty as a required call for reform, particularly in departments like my own--chemistry--and in some parts of the biological sciences in which a number of questionable practices were going on.

Another key element in obtaining buy-in by departmental administration and faculty was an invitational graduate-division seminar on postdoctoral education that we conducted during the fall semester of 1996. Maresi and I invited as attendees key deans or chairs in chemistry, physics and the various biological sciences as well as influential senior faculty members who had numerous postdoctoral fellows. We even included the chair of the mathematics department, since we had learned that math has a substantial number of postdocs who come with the title of Visiting Assistant Professor. Since the responsibility for postdoctoral fellows within the academic senate lies under its graduate council, we also invited the chair and vice chair of the council. Further, we invited some key staff members from the office of the president. Finally, we invited some postdocs, of course. Our past experience with these invitational seminars was that we could, in fact, get these busy administrators and faculty members to attend if the subject was interesting enough. And that was also true for this seminar.

We were very fortunate to be able to get USC President Sample to make a special trip to Berkeley to give the first seminar on the work in progress with his committee. Other presentations were by leaders in the postdoctoral association at UC San Francisco and by international postdocs at UC Davis. And the final seminar was devoted to the excellent and comprehensive report by Eleanore Lee that I mentioned earlier. This report essentially detailed all the problems that needed to be solved surrounding the postdoctoral experience at Berkeley and recommended solutions. Her final report, slightly modified by the suggestions made at the seminar, was delivered in January 1997.

Key Element #2: A Dedicated High-Level Faculty Administrator With Responsibility for Postdoctoral Fellows and a High-Level Staff Working Group to Bring About Change

At most universities, responsibility for postdoctoral fellows lies with either the vice chancellor for research or the graduate dean. In my opinion, leadership at this level is critical for substantial progress to be made in regularizing postdoctoral education. Since I held both of these positions at Berkeley, it was very clear to me whose job it was.

Second, for progress to be made in a very large bureaucracy like Berkeley, one absolutely requires a fairly large, high-level staff working group committed to improving postdoctoral education. At least one of those staff members must understand the policy aspects of each step that will be required. I chaired this Postdoctoral Oversight Team--which is also an essential feature--and Sam Casteñeda served as co-chair. The membership included the staff executive director of the College of Letters and Science, the director of the contracts and grants office, the director of academic personnel, the assistant vice chancellor for payroll matters, the director of services for international students and scholars, the director of clinical services from the University Health Service who was responsible for group health policies, the ombudsman for graduate students and postdocs, the person from the Career Center who specialized in graduate student placement, and, most important, the president of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association. The team was formed in 1997 and met monthly, with subcommittees on particular topics working in between meetings.

Some issues were solved amazingly rapidly and with little expense, such as regularizing workers' compensation for all types of postdoctoral fellows. An initial method of handling postdoc grievances was also instituted. Slower to solve was the issue of health insurance for nonemployee postdocs. When it was finally solved for nonemployee postdocs, the insurance carrier that we selected told us that the campus already had a plan with them that could cover such postdocs. It was operating from a part of our Human Resources Department, which was obviously not communicating with the University Health Service! So even our large oversight team was not comprehensive enough to cope efficiently with the Berkeley bureaucracy!

Another issue that took considerable effort, as you might expect, was compensation policy. I actually drafted the official memorandum on Compensation for Postdoctoral Appointees, which went through nine versions, two of which went out for campuswide comment. The executive vice chancellor and I issued this memorandum in August 1998 (5 months after the AAU report was approved and distributed). Of particular interest to me, this policy memo to the campus established a minimum salary for any postdoctoral appointment, required that all postdocs be appointed at 100% time (with exceptions requiring a dean's approval) and stated that no further "by agreement" appointments--which essentially broke all campus compensation rules--would be permitted.

Key Element #3: Work to Develop a Postdoctoral Community

As we all know, the transient character of the postdoctoral experience, coupled with the typical attachment of the postdoc to a particular research laboratory and faculty member, makes any development of a postdoctoral community a difficult prospect. In addition, we need to be aware that half of the postdocs come from abroad. Most often they are married. They are not familiar with the American higher education system, a U.S. campus, or the American culture of faculty-student-postdoc collaborations. In our interactions with the overall postdoc community, we were particularly attentive to the needs of international postdocs.

In our work in the graduate division in the mid to late 1990s, we provided staff support and effort in two broad areas. First, a staff member provided administrative support to departments and research laboratories to identify postdocs (as opposed to a category called visiting scholars) and to enroll them at Berkeley appropriately, as well as to be a central resource for the questions and possible problems of individual postdocs. In addition, this staff member, Sam Casteñeda, developed a comprehensive Postdoctoral Fellow Handbook for both departmental and individual postdoc use.

The second area was led by Maresi Nerad and involved three components: obtaining a better understanding of the postdoctoral community at Berkeley; encouraging the creation of a Berkeley Postdoctoral Association; and working to make available some additional professional development opportunities to enhance the overall education and training environment for postdocs. To help accomplish these goals, the graduate division hired Linda McPheron, a fresh Berkeley Ph.D. in the biosciences, at 50% time for 18 months. She was married to a postdoc at Berkeley, and the timing of her appointment coincided perfectly with her family responsibilities at the time. As a graduate student, she had been a leader in an informal group focused on women's issues in the life sciences.

Laura was extremely effective in interacting with individual postdocs as a "peer." She worked to increase our understanding of the postdoctoral community through a Web survey that she and Maresi developed and analyzed and through 21 interviews of postdocs in their laboratories in nine different parts of the campus. The graduate division also sponsored a number of social events--both large and small--as a way to get postdocs to meet one another. In addition, a Berkeley Postdoctoral Association did get formed and became registered as a campus organization--and received a modest budget from the graduate division--and the graduate dean and/or key staff members learned regularly of the association's concerns. Finally, in conjunction with LBNL, a number of workshops were jointly financed and shared. These covered a range of topics of interest to the postdocs in broadening their background and career skills. Workshops were held, for example, on effective science writing, grant preparation, teaching skills, the academic job search, and how to start up a company. In addition, a very practical "desk manual" on how to organize these workshops was developed to be passed down within the Postdoctoral Association, so that as interest in the association waxed and waned, there still would be some procedural memory permitting the presentation of such workshops in the future.

So, these remarks outline how we got the ball rolling. I also want to say that all of our dealings with the postdoctoral community at Berkeley were a pleasure, and that this community was responsive to and appreciative of our efforts. Thank you.

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