Just what the postdocs ordered

February 25, 2000

Invisible societies of postdoctoral researchers worldwide, most noticeably in the United States, are beginning to reveal themselves in efforts to win better working conditions.

Postdocs have long suffered silently. Trevor Penning from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, says: "We didn't know how many postdocs we had." Neither did Patricia Bresnahan of the University of California at San Francisco: "No one had any idea there were 1,000. One of the principal investigators thought there were no more than about 50."

Because postdocs are very dependent for advancement on their adviser's approval, they are cautious about seeking improvements.Despite their precarious positions, researchers are beginning to speak out.

When 30 people met for the first postdoc meeting at UCSF, Bresnahan, who is from the institute of virology and immunology and the postdoctoral scholars' association, says that no one took official titles. It was not simply the time commitment. Postdocs were frightened of being identified as rabble-rousers.

At the AAAS meeting, Bresnahan and Penning talked about taking action on postdocs' career development and on training issues.

The US has more experience than Britain of grass-roots and institutional-level postdoctoral associations and more success to show. Postdocs are winning better pay and conditions, career and development programmes, orientation handbooks, days with local employers, improved representation, written contracts and grievance procedures.

Some university managements are driving change by forming offices for postdoc programmes, establishing training standards, minimum stipends, appointing and training departmental staff to act as officers to deal with postdocs and creating an institutional policy on postdoc appointments. Jonghui Lee from the University of California at Berkeley developed a career seminar series that was so successful it was developed into a formal course. On her reasons for taking the time to create the series, she says: "I didn't need surveys to see that people around me were unhappy."

The first task in improving the lot of postdocs is to identify them all, Bresnahan says. This can be a huge task. A survey of the wants and needs of postdocs can be a powerful way of identifying projects and winning institutional support for achieving them.

Bresnahan says the biggest problem is "finding leadership among graduate students and postdocs" and locating sympathetic administrative staff. Many are initially resistant to change and fear that associations of postdocs and research students are a threat.

Postdoctoral associations also ask successful alumni to come in and discuss issues and advise on careers.

Although a handful of UK universities have been tackling postdoc issues, it seems that they have something to learn from the US.

Share your postdoc horrors with others. Email us at: research@thes.co.uk

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