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Northern Exposure

"As a supervisor of postdocs, and as a postdoc in ancient times, I always thought that [postdocs] basically operated in a gray zone," the prominent Canadian chemist Howard Alper (pictured left) recently told Science's Next Wave. Postdocs "are in between ... not really proper citizens of their institution."

Unfortunately, Alper's words still describe the situation of many early-career scientists, especially in the United States. But at the University of Ottawa, where Alper is the vice president, research--and in Canada at large--Alper has helped spearhead changes to bring postdocs the respect and recognition he believes they deserve. One of the moves was cheap and one was costly, but both have been effective. And both provide models that institutions south of the border could easily emulate.

"We need to tell society and our community that [postdocs] exist and play a major role in our research labs and our research organization," says Alper's University of Ottawa colleague Gary Slater, dean of the university's Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies (FGPS).

Yes, you read that right: Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies. "Faculty" in Canadian parlance means the same thing Americans mean by "school." But the rest of the title means something that no U.S. university offers its postdocs: an unambiguous status on a par with graduate and undergraduate students and other recognized elements within the university.

Rights and Registration

"The University of Ottawa considers that postdoctoral fellows (PDF) are an integral part of the University community and contribute to its mission," reads a policy statement on the FGPS portion of the university's Web site. "It therefore wishes to offer postdoctoral fellows official status, enhance the value of their experience, and offer services meeting their needs." To make this wish a reality, the university affords its postdocs (who currently number 179) a variety of opportunities, choices, and perks that are detailed on other pages of the site.

Basic to the university's approach, Slater explains, is the requirement that all postdocs register at FGPS within 30 days of arriving on campus. The process costs nothing and provides access to health insurance as well as a university ID card, like that issued to all students and faculty members, that admits them to university services and resources including the library, the sports center, career services, intensive language instruction in English and French, and courses on how to do university teaching.During their stay at Ottawa, postdocs are each entitled to one travel grant from FGPS to present work at a scientific meeting.

As at other universities, postdocs find their own positions by contacting individual professors. The postdoc and supervisor agree in writing on the terms of the appointment, determining together which of two official statuses, Postdoctoral Fellow (PDF) or Postdoctoral Assistant (PDA), is more appropriate. Those bringing their own money must be PDFs, but the larger number who work on professors' grants can elect to receive payment either as a fellow or an employee. Each status has well-defined rights and requirements, and under federal and provincial law--and depending on individual circumstances--each has advantages and disadvantages. Most choose fellowship status, Slater says.

FGPS plays no part in postdoc-PI negotiations. "What we do is sort of monitor what happened after the fact," Slater explains. "A professor is not allowed to pay less than $30,000 [Canadian]. ... There's no [upper] limit." When postdocs register with Slater's office, "they have to bring with them their contract. Below $30,000, we call the prof and we tell them, 'This is not allowed, you have to increase the salary by X.' ... We recommend no more than 2 years, maximum 3, with the same supervisor," Slater continues. "We do offer travel grants to postdocs, but they can apply only in their first 2 years, so the message is there"--the message that the postdoc training phase should remain as short as possible. Upon satisfactorily completing their appointments, postdocs are eligible to receive a Certificate of Postdoctoral Studies from FGPS, providing official documentation of their accomplishments.

With certain exceptions, such as time off for childbearing, "a postdoc is somebody who is within the first 5 years after the Ph.D.," Slater adds. But there is a third option for nonfaculty scientists with 5 years or more of postdoctoral experience. "If the postdoc has more experience than that, we do not allow registration. We force the upgrade to research associate, ... kind of a superpostdoc," with a minimum salary of $36,000,no time limit, and access to various services and resources.

Simple but Profound

Adding "Postdoctoral" to the faculty's name "is a simple exercise, but it's profound in its signal to the community," Alper observes. He first proposed the change about 8 years ago when, recently appointed as the university's first vice president, research, he worked on a strategic plan to raise Ottawa's standing among Canada's research universities. At about the same time, a report by the Association of American Universities (which includes Canadian institutions) "recommended that universities take cognizance of the contribution of postdoctoral fellows and give recognition of them as integral members of their institutions," he recalls.

That clicked with his own experience. "Let's be brutally frank. My own research work depends on excellent graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. I don't do the research myself. ... So I thought, 'This is the time to move.' " He proposed to the dean of graduate studies "that we do have to recognize postdocs" and added, "I'll bet nobody can tell me how many postdoctoral fellows are in this university ... because they don't register. ... I said, 'Let's change the name. Let's create opportunities for these postdocs [and] access to all kinds of facilities that they may not have access to before. Let's formalize it.' "

The new name aimed "to provide them with proper recognition and status," Alper continued. "And it's worked beautifully. ... This should have been thought about long before. ... It sailed through the [faculty] senate. It was enthusiastically received. It wasn't a controversial issue."

Even better, "it doesn't cost much money," he continues. "A bit of paperwork. Yes, [registration] takes an employee's [time, but ] it's really trivial." McGill University in Montreal has followed Ottawa's lead and changed the name of its graduate faculty, and "a number of other universities" are considering doing likewise, Alper says. A recent Google search yielded one U.S. institution with a school called Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies, Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science in Chicago, Illinois.

Real Money

Not long after Alper's cheap proposal raised the status of postdocs at the University of Ottawa, his expensive one did the same for postdocs nationwide. In 2000, Alper won what Slater calls "Canada's Nobel Prize," the Gerhard Herzberg Canada Gold Medal for Science and Engineering, which is named for a Canadian Nobel laureate. The medal is presented annually by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the equivalent of the U.S. National Science Foundation, for "both the sustained excellence and the overall influence of research work conducted in Canada." It includes an award of $1 million Canadian that the winner can use for research or other scientific purposes.

After the publicity (Alper says it was worthy of a rock star) had died down a bit, Alper pointed out to NSERC's president that something was missing from the agency's "portfolio of scholarships and fellowships, awards, and prizes." Although the agency awarded various prizes as well as postdoctoral fellowships, "there [was] no premier prize to recognize outstanding postdocs," Alper said. He wanted "real money" behind this idea, so he put his own award where his mouth was, giving back $100,000 of the Herzberg funds to pay for 5 years of an annual award to the nation's top postdoc. NSERC was "very enthusiastic" about the proposal and soon established the Howard Alper Postdoctoral Prize. "I actually hate that it's named after me," Alper says. " I fought that, but unsuccessfully."

He may not like the name, but he loves the fact that every year since 2001 a promising postdoc has received a career-making national honor and $20,000 with no strings attached. Winners are chosen for "academic excellence as well as on their potential for a research career. Interpersonal and communication skills and leadership abilities are also taken into account, along with the candidates' overall contributions," according to NSERC. Even more "fabulous," Alper says, is the fact that NSERC has now endowed the prize in perpetuity.

Like most great ideas in science, these changes seem obvious once someone has thought of them. "The most important point is recognition, the feeling of being valued by your institution," Alper says. "If you don't put in the title, you'll never get the recognition."