This week, institutions around the United States are hosting a range of events to honor their postdoctoral scholars as part of the sixth annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week (NPAW). Launched in 2010 by the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), an educational nonprofit organization that seeks sustainable improvement for the postdoctoral experience through collaboration with all stakeholders, NPAW aims to raise awareness of postdocs within institutions and recognize their contributions to the U.S. scientific enterprise.
This year’s events, which have been organized by institutional postdoc affairs offices and postdoctoral associations across the country, vary widely in their scope and format. Many institutions offer professional and career development events: For example, on Wednesday, the Scripps Research Institute will run a workshop on the art of negotiation; on Thursday, the Gladstone Institutes will launch a program on peer-supported career exploration; and on Friday, Oregon Health and Science University will run a workshop on how to prepare an academic job search package. Most participating institutions have also organized networking events and family activities that will run throughout the week. In addition, some will thank their postdocs for their hard work with free fitness classes and seated chair massages. Principal investigators (PIs), too, are encouraged to show their appreciation for their postdocs during the week. The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), for example, has opened a competition that allows PIs to express their pride in their postdocs on social media, using the hashtag #UCSFPostdocsRock; the most creative and popular pictures and messages will win a pizza party for the lab.
NPAW aims to raise awareness of postdocs within institutions and recognize their contributions to the U.S. scientific enterprise.
Although some of the NPAW activities may seem like light-hearted fun, the message behind them is all but frivolous. Science Careers talked to NPA's Outreach Committee chair, Andrew Bankston, who together with the vice chair, Shakira Nelson, coordinated the week’s activities, about what the NPA has been aiming to achieve through NPAW.
The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: Why did the NPA create a celebration week for postdocs?
A: The position of postdoc has historically been poorly defined, allowing for huge disparities among postdoctoral positions, including in salary and benefits. The NPA, which represents 79,000 postdoctoral scholars pursuing careers beyond the Ph.D., supports the fair treatment of postdocs and wages commensurate with their education, experience, and valuable contributions to society. Events such as NPAW aim to bring postdoctoral issues to the forefront of the conversation about the U.S. research system.
Q: How have you seen the event evolve?
A: The NPA began sponsoring NPAW in September 2009 as National Postdoc Appreciation Day, which generated 101 events at 74 institutions in 27 states, Canada, and Australia. In 2010, the U.S. House of Representatives officially recognized NPAW as beginning on the third Monday of September. Last year, NPAW was celebrated by 98 institutions in 36 states and Canada, with as many as 303 different events.
Over the years, NPAW has also moved from an event hosted at individual institutions to a joint celebration in many cities. This year, for example, the postdoc associations at Emory University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Georgia State University, and Morehouse School of Medicine formed the Metro Atlanta Postdocs alliance. Together, they will be holding the Atlanta Postdoc Festival, which will feature a potluck, poster session, and data blitz competition. This kind of community building is what makes NPAW essential to improving the postdoctoral experience.
Q: How effective has NPAW been in raising awareness of postdoc issues?
A: By gaining official recognition of NPAW in 2010, we increased awareness among lawmakers about postdocs, our employment issues and scientific contributions, and the NPA. Since then, the NPA has played a significant role in many recent improvements to the postdoctoral experience. We have seen four consecutive years of increase to the entry stipend for National Institutes of Health (NIH) Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award trainees after years without any changes, the adoption of the definition of postdoctoral scholars by NIH and the National Science Foundation, and the establishment of NIH Pathways to Independence (K99/R00) awards to help postdocs successfully transition to tenure-track faculty positions.
We also believe that the continued expansion of NPAW events is a strong indication of an increased national responsiveness to postdoctoral issues, and a sign that our efforts are bearing fruit. Since our founding in 2003, the NPA has been working to establish postdoctoral offices and postdoc associations at institutions nationwide, with the number of postdoctoral offices increasing from 25 to 167. Part of our work has also been to document postdoctoral issues in an Institutional Policy Database, with data on current stipend levels, insurance benefits, appointment policies, and career outcomes. More than 150 institutions have already adopted portions of the NPA's Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices, and we hope that our data will continue to inform institutions and policymakers about the significant needs of postdoctoral scholars and enable postdoc offices to advocate for better programs and services.
Q: What remains to be done?
A: First, we would like everyone to enjoy NPAW 2015. Take advantage of the many career planning resources being offered at NPAW events around the country. And don’t forget to email us descriptions and photos of your NPAW celebrations or circulate them through social media using the hashtag #NPAW2015.
Beyond NPAW, the NPA will continue to advocate on the institutional, regional, and national levels to increase compensation and benefits to fair levels for both domestic and international postdocs; to improve postdocs’ mentoring; to provide them with professional and career development opportunities; to improve data collection on postdoc issues; and to encourage diversity within the postdoctoral community.
We firmly believe that, although the current system of research and training remains deeply flawed in some areas, the attention being paid to improving the situation is unprecedented and cause for optimism. The NPA will continue to lead the conversation forward, with NPAW and other activities, so that a career in science remains an attractive and viable career option for all.
The NPA has put together an online listing of all the NPAW 2015 events being held this week at U.S. universities. You can also find information about how to become an NPA member, serve on committees, work on project-based task forces, and build or improve your own local postdoc community on the NPA website.