Saori Haigo, Stephanie Vlachos, and Matthew Cook

Credit: Elizabeth Silva

Postdocs discuss proposals for change

SAN FRANCISCO—University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), postdocs gathered Monday, in Genentech Hall on the UCSF campus, to discuss actions they could propose to the administration to improve the postdoc experience. The event’s organizers hope other institutions will benefit from their efforts by taking note of their proposals and building on them, they told Science Careers in an interview. The proposals presented focused on specific reforms that could realistically be implemented at UCSF by collaborating with the administration. This approach, while practical, meant that crucial issues like postdoc salary and the glutted academic science job market were left off the agenda—but that didn’t keep attendees from raising some of these big questions.

Stephanie Vlachos and Matthew Cook

Stephanie Vlachos and Matthew Cook

[W]e can be here for 2 years and not find the job we want, or we can be here for 8 years and not find the job we want, and maybe it’s just better that sometimes we have to swallow the bad pill and move on with our lives.

—Audience member

Credit: Elizabeth Silva

The first item presented at the meeting was a proposal to double the size of an existing program that provides autonomous funding UCSF postdocs can use to pursue ambitious, independent research projects. Another set of proposals aims to ease the burden on postdocs with children by providing paid parental leave, expanding subsidized family housing, and assisting with child-care costs and backup child-care. Other proposals included mentorship training for faculty—a mandatory 5-day course—entrance and exit surveys to better evaluate postdoc experiences at UCSF, more utilization of career-development opportunities and tools (including myIDP, an online career-planning tool at Science Careers), and including postdocs in a UCSF graduate student internship program.

Organizers say the proposals they presented are based on analysis of available data about postdocs, including various recent publications such as the 2014 UCSF Campus Climate Project Final Report; a study of UCSF postdoc alumni; and the December 2014 National Academies’ report, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. The goal of the event was to bring these proposals to the wider UCSF postdoc community so that they can provoke feedback and additional ideas. The group now plans to flesh out the proposals and present them to the administration. “We are committed to following up after this event,” said Matthew Cook, the moderator and a postdoc in anatomy at the UCSF School of Medicine.

Event organizers decided to put aside the issue of postdoc salaries, which everyone agrees are too low, Cook said. “We really wanted to focus on different challenges that we need to focus on solving creatively.”

Saori Haigo

Saori Haigo

Credit: Elizabeth Silva

Many audience members were grateful that the event was taking place. “I’m really happy that this is happening because sometimes as a postdoc you think you’re completely alone through your training, and that’s not true,” one participant said during the Q and A session following the proposal presentations. Other attendees, though, raised difficult questions about what it would mean to solve “the postdoc problem.” “In the long term, what ultimate changes would you like to see?” one participant asked. After a long silence, presenter Saori Haigo, a postdoc in Jeremy Reiter’s lab at the UCSF School of Medicine, ventured that they and other early-career scientists have an opportunity to “remodel the system so that we’re really creating a sustainable system.”

Another audience member suggested that making the experience better shouldn’t be the primary goal of reform efforts. “We’re now admitting as postdocs that the expectation is that you’re going to have a 4-year or 6-year postdoc, but we’re going to make it this really great experience—but do you feel like that is what we should be striving for?” he asked. “This is really treating a symptom of the lack of jobs. … Rather than saying, 'hey, let’s make a really enjoyable, or possibly better, 4-year experience’ and drag out the postdoc, let’s just accept ... that we can be here for 2 years and not find the job we want, or we can be here for 8 years and not find the job we want, and maybe it’s just better that sometimes we have to swallow the bad pill and move on with our lives.”

You can watch a video of the event here.

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