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Raising Their Voices: The Emergence of Postdoc Grievance Procedures

"Postdocs are starting to realize that they shouldn't be treated as inferior beings," states Sadis Matalon, the associate dean of the University of Alabama, Birmingham's (UAB's) Office of Postdoctoral Education. "The average age of a postdoc is creeping up. Postdocs are not just kids out of school who don't know any better."

Many involved in the postdoc world say that recent attention to pay and benefits should not diminish the importance of improvements in other, less tangible, areas. An effort that is steadily gaining momentum is the call for universities to put in place policies for dealing with postdoc grievances.

In the private sector and in some government labs, things haven't been so murky. The pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, for instance, employs postdocs at its many labs, and, says company spokesperson Kindra Strupp, those postdocs are treated just the way other employees are. "We don't have any kind of [grievance] procedure that would be specific to postdocs, as opposed to anybody else," she says. "We just don't segregate our employees into different subsets."

Similarly, at Oak Ridge National Lab (ORNL) in Tennessee, Darryl Boykins, director of Human Resources and Diversity Programs, describes a similar policy: "Postdoc employees have any of the outlets that any employee would have, and we make absolutely no distinction."

Universities, with their multiple categories for postdocs, have been struggling to develop policies specific to postdocs. In 2000, the National Academies Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) published Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies , which addresses a plethora of concerns relating to the changing postdoc experience. Among the many issues highlighted was the need for institutions to establish grievance procedures by which all postdocs might file complaints--whether against an adviser, a colleague, the university, or some other involved party.

The COSEPUP survey revealed that institutions currently handle grievances through a spectrum of mechanisms. In many cases, a dean or department chair handles them. In other cases, a human resources staff member, faculty adviser, or ombudsperson handles them. COSEPUP cited the University of California system as a model: It recommends that campuses "establish a standard grievance procedure for postdocs that is written, protects due process, contains clear time lines, and requires a clear statement of alleged grievance and requested remedy."

"There has been a belief at Stanford," explains Robert Busch, a postdoc at the university's Center for Clinical Sciences Research, "that hiring a postdoc is a matter between the postdoc and the hiring faculty member. It has been thought of as an individual relationship and has had few rules and regulations." The hope of many is that this line of thinking is changing.

At Stanford, Busch has been part of efforts to create a standardized recourse for postdoc grievances. He has been involved in the advocacy arm of the Stanford University Post Docs (SUPD), the postdoc advocacy committee (PAC). The PAC has set for itself the goals of improving workplace conditions, lobbying for salary increases, getting committee representation on issues affecting postdocs, and helping create a procedure through which a postdoc might file a formal complaint. Busch, in concert with many others--including faculty, administrators, and other postdocs--helped eventually draft a grievance policy.

"Inherent in the nature of this stage of a scientist's career is a strong dependency on an adviser, which much of the time works well, if it's a benevolent relationship and there's good communication," says Busch. "If one or the other of those things are not true, though, you can end up with difficulties that can range from disputes over authorship to termination issues. And it basically becomes a legal vacuum."

In the past at Stanford, postdocs with complaints could use the Student Academic Grievance Procedure--a set-up, says Busch, "that grated on us in a number of ways." One such way was the lack of transparency in the policy. SUPD-PAC surveys revealed that most postdocs at Stanford "have been ignorant of avenues of formal recourse, even though workplace difficulties have been common." In short, the fact that the postdocs were grouped in with students was somewhat less troubling than the fact that they didn't really know that they could use this policy, because it wasn't stated anywhere. It was also true that the student policy, with its focus on grade disputes, did not entirely address the sorts of issues that concerned postdocs.

One big obstacle that has been in the way of achieving a grievance procedure at Stanford, says Busch, is the very nature of the postdoc experience. "It takes a while" to go through a grievance process, he says "and that's been a hurdle in the past because, more so even than graduate students, we're a very transient population." Also, because a postdoc's relationship is generally with an individual rather than with a program, he says, "it's just hard to get it on the radar screen."

An issue that SUPD thought very important to get on the radar screen was peer representation. The group wanted to involve trusted faculty members or postdocs in the grievance procedure process. Explains Busch, "This tries to get at the perceived power differential. You're always going up against perceived superiors in these things, even though some postdocs may be as competent as any faculty member."

In December, the Stanford University provost approved a grievance procedure policy similar to the one SUPD proposed. Busch sees this as a step in the right direction, although he is equivocal in his praise. "We ended up with a somewhat diminished version," he says. "[It] does allow for a peer representative to accompany a grievant through the process, but it does not allow for a postdoc to be a member of the grievance committee that investigates the merit of the complaint. That was what postdocs had hoped would happen."

Nonetheless, Busch believed that it was important to "get something on the books, so we have some manner of recourse."

Other schools are in the midst of implementing policies. Emory University and the University of California, Davis, both have grievance procedures. At UAB, says Matalon, a postdoc now has a path to take in the event of a problem or disagreement: "We want to make sure that postdoc fellows know that there is a way to take care of a conflict."

If a problem is not resolved after usual attempts between the individuals involved at UAB, a postdoc has the opportunity to file a formal protest to the Council of Postdoctoral Education, which includes senior and junior faculty members, as well as postdoc fellows. The results of this panel are, says Matalon, nonbinding; they are meant only as a mediation board.

Busch sees the grievance procedures as a fundamental safeguard against unnecessary difficulties. "A formal grievance is not a frequent occurrence," he admits. "But it's a place where an individual postdoc's life can be changed, one way or the other."