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5 The Postdoc and the Institution I nstitutions benefit in many ways from the presence and activities of post-docs. Most importantly, their work supports the overall intellectual strength of the institution. Successful postdocs help plan and carry out the institutionâs research programs, build alliances and intellectual bridges to other institutions, raise the reputation of laboratories and departments, mentor graduate students, and increase the inflow of grant support. In return, institutions have the responsibility to support their postdocs with adequate compensation and benefits, a supportive infrastructure and working conditions, appropriate institutional recognition and standing, and mechanisms for advancing their careers and finding subsequent positions. THE INSTITUTIONAL STATUS OF THE POSTDOC In many government and industrial settings, postdocs are treated much like other researchers with regard to institutional status, compensation, and other benefits. In universities, however, most postdocs are identified and recruited by individual faculty members to work on specific research grants. The universityâs administration may have only an approximate picture of the postdoctoral popula- tion and provide few mechanisms to standardize benefits or institutional status. Postdocs may be regarded as benefiting a particular investigator rather than the institution as a whole. In such cases it is the postdoc who suffers, receiving uncertain or no institutional standing and inadequate levels of compensation and benefits. 70
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 71 Sample Surveys of Postdoctoral Populations Some postdocs seeking to enhance their experience have started with basic questions: How many of us are there and how can we reach each other? This was the motivation at Baylor College of Medicine in 1997: âNo faculty or administrator knew how many postdocs were working at Baylor,â recalls an official, âlet alone how to contact them.â It took six months to design a survey that asked the right questions and to establish a web site. The survey asked for issues of importance to postdocs, how postdocs rated their tenure so far, and what goals and priorities should be set for the newly formed postdoc association. Postdocs at the University of California at San Francisco conducted an exten- sive survey in 1996 that received 419 responses from 1,076 postdoctoral scholars (one-third with MDs, two-thirds with PhDs). Respondents, whose mean age was 32 years and half of whom were foreign, reported poor perceptions of the job market and of prospects for their own careers. These perceptions were most pes- simistic when interactions with their mentors were infrequent. Of the PhD post- docs, 21 percent said they had prolonged their postdoctoral position because of difficulty in finding other employment. This finding led to a recommendation for improved career guidance, mentoring, and performance evaluations, and to ongo- ing efforts with the administration to enhance those functions. The postdoctoral association at Johns Hopkins, founded by postdocs, gathers survey information annually from both program directors and postdocs. Of the pro- gram directors, it asks if their division: 1) has a committee to help with postdoctoral issues; 2) has a mentoring committee to provide guidance and evaluation of post- docs; 3) does annual performance reviews of postdocs; 4) has a formal orientation for new postdocs; and 5) pays for fellowsâ health benefits. The exit survey of postdocs at Johns Hopkins has grown more sophisticated and extensive over the years, and now poses 81 questions on issues related to compensation, source of support, benefits, goals, responsibilities, career planning, mentoring, accomplishments, future employment, issues of concern, and family issues. The primary concerns of postdocs have changed somewhat over the years moving from personal to professional issues. In 1992, the greatest concerns were personal safety and health insurance; in 1997, the greatest concerns were salary levels and future job placement (Figure 5-1). Best Practices In its 1998 study of the postdoctoral experience, the AAU committee wrote that â...the lack of institutional oversight of postdoctoral appointments, coupled with the evolution of postdoctoral education in a number of disciplines into a virtual requirement for a tenure-track faculty appointment, creates an unaccept- able degree of variability and instability in this aspect of the academic enter- prise.â1 Through its meetings with postdocs and advisers, COSEPUP has found that uncertain status, low pay and benefits, and lack of professional recognition 1AAU, 1998. Cited above.
72 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Child Care Health Insurance Personal Safety Research Funding 1997 1992 Campus Parking Dental Insurance Not Surveyed Salary Levels Future Job Placement 0 10 20 30 40 50 60 70 80 Percentage of Respondents Citing Issue FIGURE 5-1: Primary Concerns of Postdoctorates at Johns Hopkins University. Source: Data collected by Johns Hopkins University Postdoctoral Association as presented in Science, 1999, Vol. 285, p. 1514. are indeed issues of concern at many universities. This section describes those issues and lists initiatives that some institutions have found helpful. Variations in titles. COSEPUP found that postdocs at universities expressed more frustration about their institutional status than those at national or industrial labs. Many of todayâs postdocs find themselves with a clear function but vari- able titles. Postdocs may be categorized as research associates, research assistant professors, contract employees, adjunct professors, laboratory instructors, research fellows, and so on, according to local custom (see Box). Such variations How Are Postdocs Classified at Your Organizations? Most of the organizations surveyed (50 percent) used the term âfellowâ with smaller numbers classifying their postdocs as âemployeeâ (40 percent), âtraineeâ (35 percent), âassociateâ (23 percent), âfacultyâ (13 percent), âstudentâ (13 per- cent), and âstaffâ (10 percent). The âotherâ ways to classify postdocs included âemployees-in-training,â âscholars,â âvisiting postdoctoral scholars,â and âstudents in training.â COSEPUP Survey Results
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 73 have permitted significant differences in salary, taxation, health benefits, enroll- ment in a pension plan, periods of appointment, rehiring options, employment security, personal leave, and other aspects of professional life among people with the same work. Recently, for example, one medical school counted 17 appointment catego- ries for postdocs. After establishing a postdoctoral office, this number was reduced to three, and a uniform policy was applied to all. Other institutions report various systemic inequities. For example, postdoctoral researchers paid from the grants of advisers are usually considered temporary employees and qualify for employee health plans, parking facilities, vacations, and other benefits. Postdoctoral fellows, however, who have received their own funding directly, may be considered neither students nor employees and thus may or may not receive health benefits from (or through) their institution or lab. A standardized system of nomenclature can help avoid these inequities. (In addition, funding agencies, especially federal agencies, should require and fund health care bene- fits; see Chapter 6.) See Table 5-1 for a summary of some of the differences between classifying postdocs as a student or employee. Another advantage of consistent status is that it can allow universities to track their postdoc populations after they finish their terms. This is extremely difficult when postdocs are paid and classified in widely different ways. TABLE 5-1: Examples of Differences in Entitlements based on Classification of Postdocs as Students or Employees If a postdoc were an employee, If a postdoc were clearly a student, they might receive . . . . . they might be entitled to . . . . . â¢ Fringe benefits, such as â¢ Use the student health center and â¢ Health insurance mental health center â¢ Maternity leave â¢ Use student recreational facilities and â¢ Retirement plan entertainment discounts (e.g., to â¢ Employee grievance procedure athletic events, plays, etc.) â¢ Hours/wages protection â¢ Access student housing â¢ Due process before termination â¢ Receive exemption from some taxes, â¢ Follow equal pay for equal work such as FICA guidelines so that men and women â¢ Use student placement facilities are paid equivalently â¢ Access student grievance procedure â¢ Access employee assistance and other â¢ Register for courses services provided to employees â¢ Foreign post-docs would need J visas. â¢ Serve as a principal investigator â¢ Foreign post-docs would need H1 visas Note: These are two extremes. There are categories of employees who fall in between these two categories.
74 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS INCORPORATING THE POSTDOC INTO THE INSTITUTION Institutions have taken a variety of steps to incorporate postdocs into their programs and classifications structure. This section examines postdoctoral poli- cies, offices, and other mechanisms that respond to the needs of postdocs. Establishing institutional policies. The first step in improving the status of postdocs is to establish institutional policies for them. This often begins with a simplified classification scheme. At the University of Notre Dame, the Graduate Councilâs Postdoc Committee recommended a new category of employee for âpostdoctoral scholars,â distinct from students, faculty, or staff and placed under the supervision of the graduate school. Each institution needs to adopt policy guidelines that both suit its particular mission and gain the support of postdocs and faculty. Because of their hybrid training-and-working status, postdocs do not easily fit into simple categories at most institutions. Many institutions have struggled with this challenge, with different results: At Vanderbilt University the postdoc is a research fellow; at the University of Iowa, a postdoctoral scholar; at Stanford University, a student; at Eli Lilly, a postdoctoral scientist/fixed-duration employee. The vast University of California system tackled this issue in 1998. The Council of Graduate Deansâ Report on Postdoctoral Education recommended that âPostdoctoral scholars should be constituted as a distinct group of individuals â¦ clearly separate from students, other academic employees, staff employees, and resident and house staffâ¦â Although they did not indicate their reason for this decision, it was presumably because the nature of research funding deter- mined the classification of postdocs. The council recommended at least two sets of appointment titles: One set, for postdocs who are paid by an adviserâs research grants, must be employees and âtherefore require academic titles,â another set, for postdocs funded through fellowships and traineeships, are not considered employees. The San Diego campus decided on three titles: postdoctoral fellow (individual awarded a fellowship), postdoctoral trainee (supported by a UCSD training grant), and postdoctoral scholar (neither a fellow nor a trainee). 2 The Mayo Graduate School of the Mayo Clinic, which considers itself a âhybrid academic/industrial environment,â devised a different solution. Postdocs are considered âvalued professionals in their final stages of developmentâ and are offered a clear progression of positions from training toward full employment. The progression includes research fellow (up to three years), senior research fellow (3-7 years), research associate (a springboard to independence), senior research technologist (employment in technology), and professional associate in research (employment in research). Mayo believes that âsome mix of temporary and permanent research workers is necessary to achieve the end results.â 2See web site saawww.ucsf.edu/psa/
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 75 An adviser at the University of Pittsburgh concludes: âNobodyâs categories are perfect. Each institution has to devise something that works. The postdocs should get the best of both worlds, not the worst of both worlds.â Establishing a postdoctoral office. A second helpful step in improving the status of postdocs is to assign an officer the job of monitoring postdoctoral policies and providing advice and resources. At present, it is common for post- docs in universities to lack a âpoint personâ who can answer their questions and provide information. At the University of Colorado, all postdocs are now appointed through a central office, which allows that institution to apply appropriate policies and track its postdoc population. One goal of postdoc offices is to ensure consistent application of policies. The University of California at San Francisco, for example, now requires a formal hiring letter, jointly signed by the faculty mentor and department chair or other university official, along with a statement of goals, policies, and responsibilities applicable to postdoctoral education. These details include expected duration of support, compensation, and benefits. Initial postdoctoral appointments may last no longer than two to three years, and can be extended only when adviser and postdoc jointly agree that renewal would advance the postdocâs career. As a general rule, total time spent is limited to six years. A postdoctoral office can accomplish other useful functions: organize ori- entation and professional development programs; maintain a career center; pub- lish an orientation manual; encourage best practices by mentors; act as a liaison between postdocs, advisers, and administrators; provide a certificate of comple- tion; and keep a directory of the postdoctoral population, including more experi- enced postdocs who are willing to mentor new arrivals. Some offices help post- docs learn about research program development, job seeking, grant writing, teaching, the mechanics of running a lab, and other professional skills, such as management, negotiation, meeting organization, and conflict resolution. A well-conceived postdoctoral office is sensitive to the needs of the adviser as well as to those of the postdoc. âIt would seem that a postdoctoral office is logical if it helps define the postdocâs status,â said one adviser. âBut if it restrains the way the PI can do science, it wonât work.â The structure of a postdoctoral office will vary with the institution and size of the postdoctoral population. An existing office for graduate students can handle many functions for postdocs as well. Some of the needs of foreign post- docs may be met by an existing office of international students. In terms of staffing, two kinds of expertise are useful. The first is a person with postdoctoral and research experience who can offer informed advice to both faculty and postdocs. The second is a human resources person with expertise in student, staff, and faculty issues. The expense of a postdoctoral office is borne by the institution; however, costs are usually low because many functions are already staffed for other popu-
76 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Creating a Postdoctoral Office At the University of Pennsylvania, some 680 of the 1,000 postdocs work at the medical school. The Office of Postdoctoral Programs drew on a year-long series of interviews between medical school officials and postdocs to create a coherent plan which was able to: â¢ Offer dual leadership for the office: a faculty researcher who can discuss laboratory and mentoring issues, and two persons trained in human resource issues; â¢ Design a template for an appointment letter and compile an orientation package containing information on health insurance, housing, visas, taxes, off- campus living, the registration process, and other postdoc issues; faculty use both the letter and package to inform appointees; â¢ Standardize postdoc appointment procedure and employment policies, including stipends based on the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) scale, a six-week parental leave policy, and uniform health benefits; â¢ Initiate a database of information on postdocs, including date and institution of terminal degree, discipline, research specialty, publications, and visa status (45 percent of the postdocs at Penn are foreign postdocs). From the outset, planners realized that the office needed to serve not only the postdocs but also their faculty advisers. They created a web page that PIs can use to list their postdoc openings. The web page is advertised in Science and Nature, at no cost to the PI, and has links to postdoctoral associations and other resources. A postdoctoral association was formed to represent the postdocs. Another pioneering postdoctoral office was started at Albert Einstein College of Medicine four years ago. In addition to many of the functions at Penn, Einstein also sends a letter to all advisers after a postdoc has been in their lab for 18-24 months, advising them that it may be time for a salary increase. In the fourth year a more extensive letter asks for each postdocâs CV and publication record. The adviser and department chair are then asked to decide whether the postdoc will be renewed for a fifth year, and what might be expected after that; additional years require faculty-level benefits. This policy effectively places a cap on postdoctoral terms. The University of Alabama at Birmingham established an Office of Postdoctoral Education for its 325 postdocs in 1999. It serves as âa natural extension of the existing services already being offered to graduate students, and emphasizes the training aspects and formal communication linkâ between postdocs and the admin- istration. The explicit goal of the office is to provide opportunities for postdocs to identify and acquire skills needed for successful career development. A second goal is to âenhance the postdoctoral experience by promoting intellectual growth and facilitating the goals of mentors and scholars.â The office provides a model acceptance letter, specifies an appointment procedure (and provides a checklist), conducts a mandatory orientation for new appointees, sets a term of four years (with the possibility of extension to five), and maintains a âpostdoctoral scholar applicant tracking system.â Best Practices
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 77 lations at the institution. A few institutions levy a small per capita fee on depart- ments that hire postdocs. An institution cannot always solve practical problems of housing, parking, and day care, especially in large and/or expensive cities. But even basic informa- tional resources can improve morale and speed the search for a dwelling or other resource. As one dean put it, âEvery minute a postdoc spends looking for a parking space is a minute lost from more productive activities.â Career guidance. A primary function of the postdoctoral office is to pro- vide support for postdocs who are searching for jobs. While advisers are often best positioned to contact and suggest potential employers in their own field, a postdoctoral office can offer job counseling for other fields or sectors, coordi- nate and publicize recruiter visits, maintain contacts with former postdocs, post job openings, and hold workshops on employment trends. A career office can also assist with the basic mechanics of job seeking: how to write a CV, prepare a cover letter, organize slides for a talk, and so on. Especially helpful are statistics on recent jobs taken by postdocs, especially permanent positions. According to COSEPUPâs survey, only a few institutions have career service offices that are focused on postdocs (see Box). A central postdoctoral office constitutes not only a practical resource but also a focal point to unite a dispersed population that may number a thousand or more. At the same time, each large division or school (e.g., the school of engi- neering, arts and sciences, etc.) needs to address its own particular postdoc pop- ulation. For example, the Department of Medicine at Johns Hopkins designates a faculty member to discuss professional or personal issues related to the post- doctoral experience with any postdoc or faculty member. Postdocs need the most assistance when they first arrive. Argonne National Laboratory provides a Newcomersâ Office, whose offerings range from lists of recent appointments (to introduce newcomers) to recycled furniture for arriving families. A volunteer spouseâs program is also available. Does Your Organization Provide Job Placement Services for Your Postdocs? About half do . . . either as part of general student/employee services, through the adviser, or from an assigned individual whose sole responsibility is to work with postdocs (and/or graduate students). For the other half, job placement is the dual responsibility of the adviser and the postdoc. A few organizations mentioned such resources as career centers, job fairs, job placement web sites, and general stu- dent services. Several reported that job placement activities are localized and vary by institutional unit. COSEPUP Survey Results
78 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Developing âSurvival Skillsâ In addition to their disciplinary training, postdocs need additional career or âsurvivalâ skills to maximize their chances for a rewarding career. A Postdoctoral Taskforce at the University of Pittsburgh has developed a detailed program to educate postdocs on such topics as: â¢ How to choose a postdoctoral adviser â¢ What should and should not be expected from an adviser â¢ How to establish goals for a postdoctoral experience â¢ Intellectual property rights â¢ The resources available at their institution â¢ How to build a community of mentors â¢ How to develop a professional network â¢ How and when to become independent â¢ How to leave the institution on good terms As a key mechanism, the task force has developed a Survival Skills and Ethics Workshop for postdocs, graduate students, and faculty. The workshop, held sev- eral times a year, offers programs and advice on such topics as writing research articles, making oral presentations, job hunting, teaching, writing grant proposals, personnel and project management, and responsible conduct. Similarly, the NIH fellows organization sponsors three skills development sem- inars a year for its on-campus fellows. Topics include writing, speaking, and teach- ing; it has also arranged for a fall job fair, extra travel awards, and adjunct jobs teaching in the evenings. Postdocs often need help with practical questions: How do the requirements of research institutions differ from those of undergraduate teaching colleges? What kinds of internships provide the best preparation for professional careers? How is an industry job search different from a university job search? What different skills are required? Best Practices Benefits. Some of the most gifted postdocs come with fellowships, both from US and foreign sources, and yet they are often disadvantaged in terms of employment benefits. The institution has the responsibility either to provide equitable health insurance and other benefits or to require individual laboratories or departments to provide them. In addition, the institution should notify post- docs about the availability of benefits. According to COSEPUPâs survey of insti- tutions, many postdocs are either not notified about their benefits status or are ineligible for standard institutional benefits. The majority of institutions in the survey did not offer dental insurance, retirement plans, parental leave, personal
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 79 Postdoc Handbooks One of the early priorities of most postdoctoral associations (or postdoctoral offices) is to produce a handbook to orient postdocs to institutional and area ser- vices. The NIH Fellowsâ Handbook, produced by the Fellowsâ Committee, could be considered the granddaddy of postdoc handbooks, offering nearly 60 categories of information from Acronyms Used at the NIH to Washington Metropolitan Area Ac- tivities. There are informative sections on appointments, conflict resolution, ethical conduct, housing, leave policy, mentoring, ombudsperson services, parking, post- fellowship employment, research conduct, and many other topics. The fundamental goals of the Fellowsâ Committee, as explained in the Hand- book, include promoting education and career development, fostering communica- tion among fellows and within the larger NIH community, helping inform fellows about policies, and serving as a liaison to the administration. Similarly, the NRCâs Research Associateship program produces the Policies, Practices, and Procedures: A Handbook for Research Associateship Awardees to serve its approximately 700 associates, most of whom work in national laborato- ries. The handbook has chapters on definitions, accepting an award and beginning tenure, stipends, visas, insurance, taxes, travel, relocating, patents and publica- tions, renewing an award, and terminating an award. Like most handbooks, this one is found on the web.3 3For NIH, see ftp://helix.nih.gov/felcom/index.html; for NRC, http://www.nas.edu/rap Best Practices leave, cost-of-living salary adjustments, day care, life insurance, sick leave, or disability insurance. (See Box.) Most nonacademic organizations offered both orientation sessions to dis- cuss benefits and information about benefits with the letter of acceptance. OTHER RESPONSIBILITIES OF THE INSTITUTION There are many useful steps the institution can take, not only by offering services but also by publicizing best practices that help integrate postdocs into the institution and make their work more productive. Mentoring. Mentoring is the specific responsibility of the adviser. Institu- tions can help promote better mentoring practices that enhance the postdoctoral experience and reduce the chance of neglect or abuse. Simple mechanisms like mentoring awards can raise public awareness of the need for guidance. Even the signature of a division head or chair on the postdocâs admission document sym- bolically raises the institutionâs responsibility for the postdoc. The institution
80 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Which of the Following Benefits Is Provided at Full Compensation to All Postdocs, Regardless of Adviser or Funding Source? At academic organizations, the only benefits offered by more than half the respondents were e-mail accounts, library access, and vacation time. Smaller numbers offered on-campus parking or the equivalent (45 percent), sick leave (45 percent), parental leave (31 percent), dental insurance (28 percent), and disability insurance (28 percent). Only 7 percent offered child care, and 10 percent paid travel expenses to conferences where the postdoc would be presenting. Benefits at nonacademic institutions were relatively generous. Nearly 90 per- cent offered dental insurance, disability insurance, e-mail accounts, vacation time, sick leave, and life insurance. More than half offered parental leave, parking, retire- ment funds, and library access. One-third offered child care and cost-of-living salary adjustments. How Is the Postdoc Made Aware of Benefits that Are and Are Not Available? From academic organizations, the three largest categories with similar numbers of responses were as follows: 1) the adviser bore the responsibility of discussing benefits with the postdoc, 2) an orientation meeting where benefits were discussed was offered to all entering postdocs, and 3) each postdoc received a letter before arrival that outlined the organizationâs policies. Three organizations explicitly stated that no information on benefits was formally provided, and additional comments indicated that some institutions report this information informally or have initiated a process of including benefits information in an acceptance letter. COSEPUP Survey Results can also include mentoring in its guidelines for faculty review and offer to pro- vide training for advisers in effective communication and evaluation techniques.4 Finally, institutions can encourage postdocs to acquire teaching and other pro- fessional skills by recognizing the development of those skills as a worthwhile use of research funds. (See also box on mentoring in previous chapter.) Mentoring committees. Some institutions are experimenting with the use of formal and informal mentoring committees, selected by the postdoc, that meet every six or twelve months. The purpose of such a committee is not to alter the primary role of the adviser, but to provide additional perspective and guidance, as well as help in building a professional network. A committee can also help to 4For further details and examples, see the National Academiesâ Adviser, Teacher, Role Model, Friend: On Being a Mentor to Students in Science and Engineering, 1997, available via the web (www.nap.edu/readingroom/books/mentor).
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 81 What Neutral Parties Are Responsible for Handling Grievances of the Postdoc? Responses to this question indicated a wide diversity of mechanisms. The largest number of organizations (76 percent) said that a dean or department chair handled grievances; smaller numbers pointed to a human-resources staff person (51 percent), the adviser (46 percent), or an ombudsperson (43 percent). Institutions reported a wide variety of âotherâ methods for handling postdocsâ grievances, from âsame as junior facultyâ to âoffice of grad studies and researchâ and âombudsfolksâfaculty peer adviser selected by postdocsâ). A few reported that most of the responsibility lay with a single person; a smaller number described a more flexible process (âDispute resolution guideline for College of Medicine post- doctoral fellows; Ad hoc committee makes recommendation to associate dean for research and graduate educationâ). COSEPUP Survey Results counter the isolation experienced by many postdocs, especially those from over- seas, and protect against the occasional instances of abuse. It is true that experienced investigators have little time to spare for additional duties. However, postdocs have found that even brief discussions (one to two hours per meeting) can bring valuable rewards in new perspectives and sugges- tions. Ethical development. Institutions should emphasize the importance of pro- fessional development and ethics as a central feature of mentoring. By establish- ing seminars or workshops on research conduct and ethics, the institution can supplement what is learned from the adviser and provide a baseline code of behavior for all postdocs.5 Grievances. The imbalance of power in the adviser-postdoc relationship increases the possibility of misunderstandings and abuses. A desire for a griev- ance procedure is commonly reported by postdoc surveys, and the AAU recom- mends that each institutionâs core policies should provide mechanisms to resolve grievances. The University of California system, for example, 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.6 The COSEPUP survey shows that institutions handle grievances through a variety of mechanisms (see Box). 5As referenced earlier, the National Academiesâ publication, On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 1995, may be useful in such discussions. 6Council on Graduate Deans, University of California, Report on Postdoctoral Education at UC, Fall 1998. See web site www.ogsr.ucsd.edu/PostdocEdu/Report.html.
82 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS The role of the ombudsperson. What can a postdoc do when he believes his department chair or other senior scientist should just be thanked in a paperâs acknowledgements, but the adviser insists on including such individuals as co- authors? What can a postdoc do when she is told to work on a project in which she has no interest? One reason grievances are difficult for postdocs to resolve is that they often arise from the decisions or actions of their advisers. Similarly, deans or depart- ment chairs may be seen as siding with the institution. In an attempt to provide an independent and impartial person to assist in resolving disputes or misunder- standings, some institutions have found that an ombudsperson can be helpful. An ombudsperson serves as an informal information resource, receives complaints, and assists in resolving disputes on a confidential basis. The ombudsperson is a facilitator, not a decision maker. One university dean praised his institutionâs ombudsperson as a sympathetic and confidential person to whom postdocs can turn. The NIH, which has some 2,800 postdocs on its main campus, has hired an ombudsperson to head a Coop- erative Resolution Center, defined as âa neutral site for resolving work-related conflicts.â Special needs of foreign nationals. Postdocs on temporary visas comprise approximately half of all postdocs in the US. Many need help, both before and after they arrive, in resolving visa questions, finding housing, meeting other postdocs, and arranging bank accounts, credit cards, driverâs licenses, and Social Security numbers. Because of cultural and language barriers, foreign postdocs also experience far more social isolation than US postdocs, which potentially reduces their contributions as teachers, research collaborators, and members of the community. (For a thorough discussion of visas, see the US Department of Stateâs web site at travel.state.gov/visa;exchange.html.) Many institutions can respond to such needs simply by publicizing an al- ready existing office of international affairs. Access to information about visa issues and grant requirements, in particular, can make an institution far more attractive to foreign scientists and engineers, and increase the possibility that the best of them will choose that institution. Stanford University has enhanced its visa processing by contracting with an outside specialist. 7 Foreign postdocs often need encouragement in strengthening their command of English. Postdoc advisers at Vanderbilt University have found that verbal skills are the best indicators of overall career success, and that those with poor English require an average of two more years to find US jobs than those with language proficiency. 7Visa requests at Stanfordâs School of Medicine originate in the sponsoring department and are then routed through the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs for approval and forwarded to the Bechtel International Center for processing. Bechtel, which is able to process J-1 requests in one week, also offers seminars for administrators on visa completion.
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 83 Does the Organization Have Staff Who Deal Specifically with the Special Needs of Non-US or Foreign National Postdocs? Most respondents (70 percent) answered yes; only 8 percent answered no, and 8 percent reported that the needs of non-US postdocs were handled by the adviser. Most of the âotherâ responses indicated a pattern of offering postdocs the same access to international services as students and other scholars. If Offered, in What Areas Do Foreign National Postdocs Receive Assistance? Virtually all respondents (97 percent) assisted foreign nationals with visa issues, and more than half offered assistance with tax issues, housing, and English lan- guage studies. Smaller numbers reported assisting with Social Security questions (43 percent), driverâs licenses (11 percent), and credit references (11 percent). Several institutions offered help with household furnishings and support groups for spouses and dependents. COSEPUP Survey Results Postdoctoral associations. One of the postdocâs most common complaints is a feeling of isolation and the lack of a peer group through which to communi- cate with the institution. Postdoctoral associations can fill both needs, helping to build community and improve communication. Because postdocs are a transient population, these associations need institutional support to survive. An institu- tion that encourages a postdoctoral association signals to postdoctoral candidates that their concerns are taken seriously. These new associations (one of the first was founded at Johns Hopkins in 1992) sometimes begin with the indispensable step of counting the number of postdocs at an institution, as was the case at the University of California at San Francisco (see Box, Postdoctoral Associations). The UCSF Postdoctoral Scholars Association, formed in 1995, has worked with the university to formalize a grievance process, bring postdoc representatives to committees that set post- doctoral policy, establish an annual orientation for postdocs, and offer access to group health insurance. Postdocs working in industry settings have also formed productive associa- tions. At Eli Lilly & Co., for example, three postdoctoral fellows form the Post- doctoral Scientist Council, which â...serves to enhance the scientific and social experience of postdocs at Lilly.â The council has organized a research forum for postdocs, arranged on-and off-site social gatherings, suggested seminar speakers to address issues of interest to postdocs (e.g., how industry recruits for senior
84 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Is There a Postdoctoral Association or the Equivalent at Your Institution? Most organizations (58 percent) reported that no postdoctoral associations are available. Just over one-fourth reported the presence of postdoctoral associations run by the postdocs themselves. In some cases, postdoc associations or councils are run by the institution. The âotherâ responses included one other postdoctoral association run by post- docs and called a âpostdoctoral council.â One institution reported an association run jointly by postdocs and the institution. Most indicated that postdoctoral activi- ties were either informal, located within a laboratory or department, or focused on a particular group (such as a group of Chinese students and scholars). If Your Organization Has a Postdoctoral Association or Equivalent, What Are Its Main Functions? Almost all these organizations (93 percent) reported that postdoctoral associa- tions provided professional and social activities for postdocs. Most (79 percent) said that the associations acted as liaison between postdocs and administration. Half noted that associations provided information for postdocs on issues of general interest, and some (36 percent) said that the associations appointed representa- tives to the organizationsâ administrative councils. COSEPUP Survey Results positions, how to make the transition from postdoc to senior scientist), and pro- posed improvements to the postdoc program (e.g., a seminar/round table series, an orientation package for incoming postdocs, additional training in communica- tion, leadership, and mentoring). COSEPUPâs survey indicated that only a small minority of institutions have formed postdoctoral associations. The primary goals of existing associations are to provide a liaison with the administration and to provide professional and social activities for postdocs (see Box). Stabilizing the postdoctoral population. Institutions, notably universities, have a role to play in monitoring the number of postdocs (and graduate students) admitted to their programs, especially in the high-growth areas of the life sciences. As the NRC Trends report stated, investigators and training-program directors accept large numbers of students in part to meet their facultiesâ need for instructors and laboratory workers.8 That committee urged life-science faculties 8Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, National Research Council, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists, Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998.
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 85 Postdoctoral Associations The first postdoctoral association, organized at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in 1992, grew out of a concern for safety when several postdocs were assaulted outside the laboratory at night. âBefore we started,â recalls current co-president Lisa Koslowski, âwe had no benefits, no salary guidelines, and morale was very low. Now we have minimum salary guidelines on the NIH model, health benefits, and a good relationship with the institution. When we bring issues to them, such as safe parking facilities, they are more than willing to help us. In the last few months weâve worked out a plan for dental insurance.â To stay abreast of current concerns, the group conducts annual surveys of all postdocs, including entrance and exit interviews. Postdocs at the University of California at San Francisco formed their Post- doctoral Scholars Association (PSA) from a variety of motivations: to create a resource and sense of identity for a largely undefined group, out of the âfrustration that PhD scientists feel when they compare their career and mentoring with those of medical professionals,â and out of concern about career prospects for biomed- ical scientists. The PSA later combined with the Graduate Students Association to spur the creation of a Career Office for Scientists, which offers career counseling, helps with the mechanics of rÃ©sumÃ© preparation and effective interviewing, and compiles databases of alumni who have connections in academia and industry. Postdocs at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in North Carolinaâs Research Triangle Park developed a Traineesâ Assembly âto foster the professional advancement of postdocs, visiting, and predoctoral fellows and other non-tenured, non-permanent scientists.â The group disseminates information at a web site, publishes an Orientation Handbook, and sponsors a seminar series where trainees can present research projects or lectures and receive critiques. They also have forums on professional topics (e.g., grant writing, industrial and non-academic positions), a science fair with local scientific colleagues, a dis- tinguished lecturer lunch, outreach activities in the community, and monthly pizza socials. A group at Albert Einstein College of Medicine was formed in 1996, according to cofounder Paula Cohen, to revitalize its postdoctoral programs and image. âEinstein was faced with the problem of being the poor cousin of New York institu- tions.â Dominant themes in the response to a survey of postdocs were insufficient mentoring, a lack of interaction with other labs, and limited teaching opportunities. Most of the groupâs suggestions for improvements had to do with increased infor- mation and interpersonal contact. The administration was supportive in designing a series of reforms to improve career guidance, mentoring, and the overall quality of postdoc life. Best Practices
86 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS to seek alternatives to these workforce needs by increasing the number of perma- nent laboratory workers, and to consider restricting the numbers of graduate students supported on research grants. Although this COSEPUP report does not specify mechanisms for stabilizing the postdoctoral population, it does reiterate the concerns of the Trends report with respect both to hiring more permanent laboratory workers and restraining the size of the postdoctoral population. Mechanisms should be adopted by indi- vidual institutions. For example, an institution might restrict the employment of postdocs whose stipends/salaries fall below a certain level. If adequate compen- sation is not provided by the funding organization, the institution would then appoint the postdoc only if supplementary funding is made available. Some early predictions that postdoctoral associations would become adver- sarial or union-like organizations have not materialized. Leaders of the Johns Hopkins association, for example, describe their group as a vehicle for sharing information with one another and communicating their concerns to the adminis- tration. âThere is no need for a union,â said one member, âwhen communication is open.â Informing graduate students about the postdoctoral experience. Many, and perhaps most, postdocs begin their appointment without a clear idea of what to expect from the experience. The success of an appointment may depend heavily on early communication with the adviser about expectations and respon- sibilities. Therefore, institutions and mentors of graduate students have an im- portant role to play in educating them about the postdoctoral experience before they decide to undertake this advanced training. Important questions to consider are the level of their own research skills, training needs, and career goals. For further discussion of career decision making, see COSEPUPâs âCareersâ guide, cited in the bibliography.
THE POSTDOC AND THE INSTITUTION 87 SUMMARY POINTS In many institutions, the administration may have only an approxi- mate picture of the postdoctoral population and no policy to stan- dardize institutional status or benefits. An important step is to establish postdoctoral policies on such matters as titles, expected terms, and institutional status. This status may strongly affect benefits and other financial issues. Some institutions have established a postdoctoral office or officer to serve as an information resource for postdocs and to organize pro- grams for postdoc orientation, professional development, and career services. Such an office can also encourage good mentoring, act as liaison between postdocs, advisers, and administrators, and track the postdoctoral population. Many institutions offer financial and logistical support for post- doctoral associations, which constitute a vehicle for discussing issues of concern to postdocs, building a social network, and communicat- ing with the administration. Some institutions are experimenting with the use of âmentoring committeesâ to provide additional perspective and guidance to the postdoc. Institutions can help resolve grievances by establishing mechanisms, including an ombudsperson, to work toward conflict resolution. Each institution should ensure that foreign postdocs have a resource person or office to advise them on such issues as acculturation, visa compliance, income taxes, and language skills.