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The Benefits of Collaboration to Postdoctoral Education

Reprinted, with the permission of the American Society for Cell Biology, from the ASCB Newsletter Volume 25, Number 11, November 2002.

In 2000, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), a joint unit of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, published a report on enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers. This report highlighted the need for improvement in postdoctoral policy at research institutions nationwide. In response, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill developed the UNC postdoctoral initiative.

Formation of the UNC Postdoc Association and Office of Postdoctoral Services

The faculty director of the initiative held a town hall meeting to hear postdoc comments and ideas for change. Perhaps the most important outcome of this meeting was the formation of the UNC Postdoctoral Association (UNC PDA), a volunteer group formed to meet the needs of postdocs.

Established in October 2000, the UNC PDA began by surveying the postdoc community and developing priorities based on the outcome of the survey. They established the following:

  • Increased communication with other postdocs

  • Development of a postdoc office or support position

  • Increased salary and benefits

  • Career development programs aimed at the postdoc community

  • In its first year, UNC PDA volunteers have built an effective website, coordinated a daylong symposium on career options for scientists, distributed the survey results to key administrators at UNC, and negotiated increased well-child benefits for postdocs.

    In its second year the faculty advisor of the PDA approached university administrators to establish a postdoc office and review postdoc salaries and benefits. UNC's Provost responded by establishing an Office of Postdoctoral Services. The office opened on October 1, 2001.

    Benefits of Collaboration for Faculty, Administrators and Postdocs

    Since that time, administrative, faculty and postdoc stakeholders have formed a close, collaborative relationship. Working together to meet the needs of the postdoc community, these groups have succeeded in pooling resources and increasing opportunities for postdocs at UNC.

    Communication has been key to the success of collaborative efforts among faculty, administrators, and postdocs. The PDA has shared information about the activities of its four committees, Programming, Information, Benefits, and Social to apprise faculty and administration of postdocs concerns, and to facilitate communication with senior university officials.

    The OPS director also serves as a liaison between postdocs and other university departments, as a consultant to postdocs on career issues, and as a financial supporter of PDA programs. The PDA faculty advisor advises postdocs on professional development issues, advocates on behalf of the postdocs for increased benefits, and serves as an informal advisor on grievance issues.

    For faculty engaged in any research enterprise, recruiting and retaining top researchers is critical. Information about professional development programs, benefits, and the logistics of working at a particular campus strengthens a faculty member's ability to attract--and retain--exceptional candidates.

    While many PIs support the growth of their postdocs as professionals, few possess the time, energy and training required to offer career development programs that may benefit their postdocs and enable them to secure more attractive positions. The OPS helps meet those needs.

    Offices for postdoc services can also assist faculty by publicizing available postdoc positions. Creating a central listing of all the university's postdoctoral fellowships creates a sense of cohesion, as well as providing "one-stop shopping" for potential candidates.

    Faculty not only contribute program ideas and speaker contacts for postdocs, but also serve on panel discussions and lead professional development seminars. This type of interaction generates opportunities for postdocs to explore interdisciplinary approaches to their own research, as well as opportunities to meet potential mentors outside of their home departments.

    Examples of Collaborative Efforts

    During the 2001-02 academic year, the UNC PDA jointly sponsored 8 seminars and an annual symposium with the UNC OPS. Program ideas were generated by the postdoc community, supported financially by the OPS and shaped by faculty input.

    The seminar series, "Beyond the Postdoc: The Science of the Job Search," included talks on CV/Resume and Cover Letter Writing, Interviewing Skills, Negotiating a Job Offer, and Group Management Techniques. Another series featured talks on Alternative Careers for Scientists in Biotechnology, Intellectual Property Issues, Careers in Patent Law and Technology Transfer, and Self-Assessment and Career Exploration for Scientists.

    The most recent event, "Grant Writing for Success" was a daylong symposium co-sponsored by 11 departments and research centers at UNC, Duke University, and a foundation. It addressed awards for all levels of support with panel discussions by UNC faculty, representatives from funding agencies and foundations and faculty from other universities. UNC postdocs facilitated the panels, which culminated with a mock study section. The symposium produced constructive dialogue among postdocs, faculty, administrators and funding agencies and led to alliances that continue to grow.

    Collaborating to Develop University Policy

    Collaboration at UNC-Chapel Hill among faculty, administrators and postdocs resulted in the formation of the UNC Postdoc Advisory Committee. This Committee, assembled by the Vice Chancellor for Research and Graduate Studies and composed of faculty and postdocs from a variety of disciplines, is charged with developing and implementing policy campus-wide for UNC postdocs. While the university clearly faces challenges in the coming years to implement new policies and to grow the UNC postdoc community, increased collaboration between and among key constituencies will ease the growth process and allow the university to move forward as a leader in enhancing postdoctoral education.

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