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The National Postdoc Association Makes Its Debut

Add a pinch of nervous energy to a willingness to collaborate and the need to advocate and you'll have the recipe for the atmosphere at the inaugural National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) meeting, which was held on the University of California (UC), Berkeley, campus last weekend.

As with many great ideas, this one began small, with a group of postdoctoral fellows brainstorming over water and cheese at the second annual Next Wave Postdoc Network (PDN) meeting less than 1 year ago. Seven postdocs, from various biological disciplines and several top institutions, came together there in April 2002 and decided that researchers like themselves, floating about in the amorphous "postdoc" position, badly needed a national voice.

"I truly hope that this is a moment in history," said Carol Manahan, a postdoctoral fellow from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and current chairperson of the NPA executive committee. Manahan's brief speech kicked off the Berkeley meeting, and it was with obvious pleasure that Michael Teitelbaum, program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation--funding from which has made the postdocs' dream a reality--and advisor to NPA, offered his congratulations to the group for making the event possible.

"Be patient," Teitelbaum urged. "Systems that evolve over 2 to 3 decades are not likely to be completely transformed in 2 to 3 years," he said. And remember, he added, to "keep focused on postdocs." The meeting's spotlight was firmly on postdocs, and specifically in articulating the primary issues that NPA should address in the coming year.

The matter of utmost importance--unanimously approved by the conference's 116 attendees--is the need for a singular definition of "postdoc" in academia, industry, and government. Once this primary goal has been achieved, then higher stipends, universal health care coverage, and term limits top the NPA's list of major problems that need to be addressed post haste to enhance postdocs' lives.

In his keynote address, Keith Yamamoto, the vice dean for research at UC San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine, had some thought-provoking ideas to spur change in the realm of postdoctoral training. His primary message was that the definition and scope of the postdoc had changed markedly over the past 20 years. "The pipeline used to be linear, " he said, with only a couple of steps from undergraduate science major to professor. "So it was ok not to have complete focus on the definition of Ph.D.s, postdocs, etc."

In the present day however, careers in industry, journalism, law, business, and policy beckon and are very real opportunities for young scientists. "Nowadays, the postdoc is serving as a springboard for many other careers," Yamamoto said.

But Yamamoto does not think a postdoc is necessary to succeed in other science-oriented careers. Instead, he believes that the Ph.D. should become the terminal qualification for anyone interested in pursuing a career outside research. "A postdoc would then become a spoke coming out of the graduate student hub," he added. And all of the other possible career choices, such as law school, science writing, or policy, would also be spokes that lead directly out of graduate school.

Yamamoto also offered some tangible suggestions aimed at enhancing the postdoctoral experience. Fundamentally, he believes that the mission of all mentors, institutions, and funding agencies--in so far as it relates to postdocs--ought to be to train independent investigators. Postdocs, Yamamoto believes, should be offered the opportunity to work independently on projects that they conjure up on their own. Think about how a person would feel if they thought up a project, he said, even a simple one, where they developed their own strain or designed their own instrument. "Wouldn't that feel good?" he asked.

Yamamoto's ideas were received with cautious optimism mixed with modest trepidation. Audience members probed him with questions about how projects like these would be funded. For instance, a postdoc funded exclusively from their PI's R0I grant is required to work 100% time on the R01 project. When would these postdocs find the time and energy to work on their own independent project? Others, such as Rich Price, a postdoctoral fellow from UCSF and chairperson of UCSF's postdoctoral association, commented that establishing such a model would require significant change in the prevailing perspective. "Postdocs are often viewed as technicians who fulfill their mentors' hopes in the lab," he opined.

So what modes of change are required to shift these views and support independent projects that may not be directly related to the overall scientific goals of a given PI? When pressed, Yamamoto agreed that his ideas would not be easy to implement, but he hoped his comments would serve as the impetus for discussion.

The speakers in the first session of the day expanded on Yamamoto's themes and supplemented a few new ones of their own. The cost of extra funding and providing universal health care to all postdocs, not just those hired as university employees, was a major topic. Where would the money come from and how much would it be? "It doesn't matter if it's 'too expensive.' If it's unfair, then we have to do something about it," said Frank Solomon, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Solomon believes that the current career style of the postdoc has to be rethought: "If more and more postdocs are saying that they aren't being properly trained but are merely a pair of hands, then the training period is not working."

Solomon has been advocating reform of the current mode of research and training in the life sciences for years and has co-authored a number of articles on the subject. He believes that the current predicament that catches postdocs in the gap between their student and faculty careers can only be solved if the laboratory labor market is restructured. High on his list is the creation of a staff scientist position for researchers who love the bench but don't want to deal with the added responsibilities that come with assistant professorships. This needs to be a "legitimate, respected" position that people choose, he said. Moreover, these staff scientists, as Solomon sees it, would hold high-caliber positions with all of the health care and retirement benefits offered to other staff at their institution. Solomon made it clear that he's not suggesting that the staff scientist rank should formalize a shift to a "permanent postdoc" position; rather, he sees it as a way to pay people to do bench work. This would, in turn, lessen the dependency of the research effort on trainees.

As regular readers of the Postdoc Network know, many institutions have already begun efforts to revamp the postdoctoral experience. James Nelson, professor of molecular and cellular pharmacology at Stanford University, outlined some of the benchmark policies recently put into practice at Stanford. For starters, Stanford has increased all initial postdoc salaries from the set National Institutes of Health's (NIH's) first-year level of $28,260 to $36,000 annually. This much-needed boost gets the ball rolling toward long-range goals for higher salaries for all Stanford postdocs. The university also has a vibrant postdoctoral association and has established a term limit of 5 years for individual postdocs. These limits are not absolute and will be extended on a case-by-case basis until Stanford solidifies a strong mentoring program that advises postdocs and faculty about the timelines for "getting out" into a job. But for researchers who have the funding to stay longer, the Stanford School of Medicine has implemented a policy where postdocs can be promoted to a staff position (termed Research Associate) which has a higher salary (>$50,000), full staff benefits, and a renewable 3-year appointment. The existing career center at Stanford has been expanded and strengthened so that it can help postdocs looking for jobs in a number of sectors. And the university is working to publish a best practices manual for both postdocs and their mentors.

Nelson stated firmly that even with all that administrators have accomplished at Stanford, there are still a number of policies and issues that need to be dealt with at a national level. "In the end, funding agencies such as NIH ? are going to have to make policies," he added.

Representatives of various funding agencies concurred on the importance of the postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory and the immediate need to define the postdoctoral scholar position.

"I think that NIH can be a change agent," said Walter Schaffer, research officer in NIH's Office of Extramural Affairs. Currently, NIH is engaged in an effort to increase the starting level of stipends by 10% each year until they reach a goal of $45,000. However, even though it can raise the stipends for National Research Service Awards, which are given to individual postdocs, the agency does not have complete control over the salaries of postdocs who are paid directly from their advisor's grants--that is often up to the advisor.

Beyond monetary issues, NIH is working to better track all of the recipients of its fellowships and grants, including those postdocs that are working on NIH-sponsored training grants at various institutions and those employed on their PI's R01 grants. These tracking mechanisms, Schaffer hopes, will help the organization to visualize the kinds of jobs their awardees move toward and the length of time that it takes them to get there. By knowing what the end point is for their sponsored scientists, NIH can enhance their own training and research requirements. "It's part of the mission that we not only support research but research training also," Schaffer said. "We need to know and understand the needs of the people we represent."

The meeting concluded with a 2-hour business session, during which participants voted and ratified NPA's brand-new constitution and bylaws. Now that NPA's first meeting is over and the major issues for postdocs are pinpointed, it's time to do something about it. The next morning, meeting attendees--and particularly the seven-person executive committee that has been guiding the process for the past 11 months--were giddy as they talked about how NPA was now a truly established and recognizable organization. "Yesterday was amazing," said Orfeu Buxton, a postdoctoral fellow in the biological sciences at the University of Chicago and a founding member of NPA. "Now we really have to get to work," he quipped.

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