A Seat at the Table: Postdoctoral Representation on Institutional Committees

In graduate school at the University of Vermont, I was invited to serve as grad student representative on a faculty search committee. My vote counted just as much as the next committee member's in deciding who would make the shortlist, who would be interviewed, and ultimately who would get the job. It was a wonderful opportunity to provide input on a decision that would have lasting impact on the graduate student population. And it sent a strong message to grad students that our needs were being taken seriously.

I had a different experience entirely as a postdoc at Smith College--I felt unheard and unseen. Part of my experience was probably due to the fact that I was a postdoc at a small liberal arts college. But after talking with several postdocs from large research institutions, it seems that much of my experience was the same as being a postdoc anywhere. As Stephen Gasior, a governing member of the Division of Biological Sciences Postdoctoral Association at the University of Chicago (where he also earned his Ph.D.), says, as a grad student you know who to turn to when you have a question or concern, but "that infrastructure just entirely disappears when you become a postdoc."

Enter postdoc associations, fast-growing campus resources featured in several recent Next Wave articles. These largely grassroots organizations are good first steps for postdocs to gain recognition from the administration as a sizeable population with valid needs.

Some postdoc organizations have taken their efforts a step further by lobbying for postdoc representation on institutional committees. Indeed, the founders of the University of California, San Francisco's Postdoctoral Scholars Association (PSA, created in 1995) anticipated that postdoc representation would constitute important headway in making the campus community aware of postdocs, and so lobbied for postdoc representation on institutional committees from the get-go. And they were successful. Postdocs now sit on a handful of committees, from the Graduate Council (which oversees policy that affects postdocs) to the Chancellor's Committee on the Status of Women. Postdoc representation on these various committees is important, says Gil Sambrano, former president of the UCSF PSA, as "compared to faculty, staff, and students, a lot of times issues that pertain to postdocs are overlooked."

Representation on institutional committees "gives us a direct line of communication" to the administration, says Debbie Swope, chair of NTA, the postdoc organization at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), where postdocs have been voting members of several committees for about the past 4 years. Swope sits on the Division of Intramural Research (DIR) Council, which she says is like "sitting in a meeting with the chairs of a bunch of departments" and is an excellent forum for voicing opinions about issues relevant to postdocs.

At Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Kimberly Paul, the co-vice-president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, sits on the Medical School Council, a committee comprised mostly of faculty representatives from each department. Paul says that even though the Medical Council doesn't have much power in terms of actually making changes that affect postdocs, postdocs have to go through the council in order to get to the advisory board, the department and division head committee "where all the power is." One of the greatest benefits of sitting on the council, Paul says, is the chance to "see what's coming down the pike."

As a recent example, if a postdoc representative hadn't been sitting in on the Medical School Council meetings, the university's new child care center probably would have been built before postdocs were even aware of it. Upon learning of the university's plans, the postdocs were concerned about the accessibility and affordability of the center. As it turns out, the child care center will still probably be too expensive for most postdoc families, but, says Paul, "at least we brought up the issue."

And bringing up issues is like planting seeds: Although they may not sprout for some time--several years, even--at least the next cohort of postdocs will be in a better position to get things done. And representation allows postdocs to establish a dialogue and start "building a relationship with the administration," says Pauline Wong, current president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association.

But change can take a long time and, says Paul, "any time we push for change, we meet with resistance."

Some resistance comes from faculty members that are unaware of postdocs' needs. But according to Paul, postdocs are more "sophisticated" than they have been in the past and have learned how to deal with faculty who, for example, are unaccustomed to recognizing the child care needs of their postdocs.

Attitude is also very important, says Swope. Katherine Woo, who has sat on two committees and is current president of UCSF PSA, agrees. The tone is set, she says, by the group of people who gather to interface with the administration. If you come across as positive, not adversarial, the administration is more receptive and things move forward more quickly.

One of the key ingredients for change is having an advocate higher up in the administration. When asked how representation on institutional committees originated at NIEHS, Swope says that two of the postdocs who were involved with NTA at the time were members of the scientific director's own research lab. The scientific director (the NIEHS equivalent of a university dean) was sympathetic to their cause and took a very hands-on approach.

Another reason postdocs at NIEHS have gained representation on so many committees is simply the nature of the institution. In terms of training, the focus at NIEHS is on postdocs, not grad students. Of the 500 to 600 scientists that make up the DIR, about 225 of them are postdocs.

But an emphasis on graduate training doesn't necessarily mean that postdocs get shunted. On campuses where graduate students have worked toward student representation on campus committees, says Sambrano, it actually may be easier for postdocs to gain representation. If a student is already sitting on the committee, there's less resistance among committee members to include a postdoc as well.

Still, it can be tough breaking the barrier to postdoc representation. Many faculty entertain the notion that the individuals who are involved with postdoc associations and campus committees are scientists "who can't cut it at the bench." Believing that "good scientists" ought to focus on their research and not get embroiled in politics sets up a situation in which the postdocs who do participate and voice their concerns aren't taken seriously.

And the resistance isn't just from the administration. Marie Leontiev, director of Wayne State University's Postdoctoral Association, says that many postdocs themselves resist getting too involved, usually from a fear that they put their career at risk by kicking up too much of a fuss.

On the contrary, says Swope, participating on an institutional committee is terrific professional experience. No matter what you do--whether you become a PI (principal investigator) of a research lab or move on to something else entirely--you'll have to know how to multitask, how to communicate effectively, and how to manage people. Being active on a committee helps you develop these skills which make you more marketable for all types of jobs inside and outside academics.