Activism: Frustrated postdocs rise up

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US postdoctoral researchers struggle with pay and career prospects. But some groups are fighting back.

The tribulations of US postdoctoral researchers — low stipends, spotty benefits, uneven training and hazy career prospects — have received plenty of airtime in the past few years. But efforts to combat these woes have been achingly slow. Frustrated that recommendations by universities, policymakers and other stakeholders are not quickly bearing fruit, grass-roots and advocacy groups are trying to address some of the problems on their own.

High-level reports have noted the problems for more than a decade. The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) outlined the hardships faced by science and engineering postdocs in 2000, and its 2014 follow-up report noted that the issues persist and have begun to bleed into other disciplines. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that same year found that the US research enterprise prepares most of its postdocs and graduate students for tenure-track positions that only 20% of them are likely to secure (B. Alberts et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 57735777; 2014). The reports have called for measures such as higher stipends, set training periods and broader career training.

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“There's a frustration with constantly talking about it and constantly writing about it,” says Gary McDowell, a developmental-biology postdoc at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and a member of Future of Research (FOR), a Boston-based group that is working to improve postdoc pay and benefits. Other organizations are fighting their own battles. A postdoc group at Stanford University in California helped to push for higher stipends there. Another group at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), expanded an internship programme to allow postdocs in addition to graduate students. And a New York University (NYU) group launched an effort to battle isolation among its postdocs, who are scattered throughout the metropolitan region, and provide them with professional networking and collaboration opportunities.

Postdocs stand to gain much by becoming active in such local and regional organized groups — including developing skills that may help with their career (see 'Activism pays off'). Change can happen much more quickly at local levels. And postdocs don't have to wait for a national level, universal solution that may never materialize. “I feel that there's a lot more hope,” says McDowell.

Money, for many postdocs, is the number-one issue. The Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS) has already made independent strides in this arena. Last year, it negotiated for higher stipends and, in October, it won a minimum level of US$50,000 a year for all 2,000 Stanford postdocs, regardless of their funding source, and a higher rate for those with more than 3 years in the position. That rate is 17% higher than the US National Research Service Awards minimum of $42,840.

SURPAS has also helped Stanford postdocs to defray their commuting expenses. Faculty members and staff have historically received free rail commuter passes, but Stanford postdocs had not been entitled to that benefit. In 2012 and 2013 polls, SURPAS found that many were upset about commuting outlays. With support from faculty and staff allies, it secured a pilot programme in 2014 to extend the free rail pass to postdocs: Stanford postdocs previously spent up to $2,100 a year on train commutes; now they spend $190. Stanford administrative offices are evaluating the pilot programme for renewal this year.

Other organizations focus on training that prepares postdocs for jobs beyond academia, because reports continue to document the dearth of jobs in the sector. Postdocs need time away from the bench to learn career-related skills, but they often can't get it, even when their host universities offer such programmes for graduate students. Such was the case at UCSF, where postdocs had been ineligible for career-exploration internships. P-Value, a UCSF-based postdoc-advocacy group that formed in 2014, changed that.

After a forum last March to discuss career training, members united to request that UCSF support short, flexible internships for postdocs in fields such as intellectual property and technology transfer. The university administration agreed to sponsor campus-based internships and created a pilot that launched last September and has drawn half a dozen participants so far. One of them, Jessica Lao, teaches a biochemistry class at San Francisco State University under the programme. A postdoc at UCSF's medical school, she decided to explore a career in teaching and wanted classroom experience. The course requires up to six hours a week of lecture and office time, and more for preparation, but her lab head has been supportive of her need for time away from the bench, she says. “He understands that it's essential.”

Box 1: Activism pays off

Postdocs are drawn to grass-roots activism to create better training conditions for themselves and their peers. In doing so, they can pick up and polish skills such as negotiation, time management, communication and leadership that aid their own career development.

Amita Bansal, a postdoc at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and member of the Penn Biomedical Postdoctoral Council, learned all of those skills when she developed a programme to help foreign national postdocs integrate into the Penn postdoc community. To get ideas for events, she reached out to fellow postdocs who were foreign nationals. And she had to negotiate with university leadership to get approval for the programme, which, she says, can draw up to 100 attendees depending on the type of session or topic. “I've learned how academic structure and administrative hierarchy work,” she says.

The planning aspect of the programme — inviting and setting up speakers, arranging sponsorship and securing venues — has forced her to hone her organizational skills. Although sessions take place after working hours, she sets aside an hour or so daily for tasks that must be done during the daytime and spends time in the evening and on weekends on others, such as e-mails and text messages.

“Time management is extremely crucial,” she says.

That same skill has also played a major role in Rodoniki Athanasiadou's advocacy efforts. The New York University postdoc formed a regional branch of the postdoc corps Future of Research (FOR) and co-organized and presented a day-long seminar for the branch last year. Like Bansal, she has learned to fit in e-mails and phone calls around her benchwork.

Advocacy efforts can teach postdocs to tailor their message. Jessica Polka, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, is active in the Boston-area FOR group and is a member of a national-level steering committee that is gathering information on postdoc problems and employment. In these roles she works with university administration, heads and members of postdoc organizations and national policy leaders, and has learned to adapt her messages to appeal to each. “Speaking about topics other than science has helped me communicate more effectively,” Polka says.

J. T. Neal, a postdoc at Stanford University School of Medicine in California and a member of the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association, has noticed a similar benefit from his work to negotiate postdoc stipends with the university.

“The whole process taught me about identifying each party's points of conflict and working collaboratively to address them,” he says. “And I learned to be patient, as the pace of change in institutions of higher learning can be glacial.”

For both Polka and her fellow FOR member Gerry McDowell, a postdoc at Tufts University in Boston, their advocacy efforts have also opened potential career paths beyond research. “I am now more aware of the super-important work in policy and communications,” Polka says. “I would be very happy in either of these areas.”

Katherine Thompson-Peer, co-chair of P-Value, attributes the success of the pilot to building it on an existing scheme, rather than trying to create a new one. She is optimistic that UCSF will formalize the programme when the pilot period ends.

These regional efforts are spreading nationally as local organizations seek to link with and support their counterparts elsewhere. SURPAS has created a postdoc advocacy plan for adaptation by other groups. FOR has extended into New York and Chicago, Illinois. Along with providing mutual advocacy, this expansion can also boost potential research connections. FOR New York's regular meetings and other events, for example, have helped members from different disciplines to form bonds and identify common research interests. The group organized and presented an interdisciplinary research symposium last year that included sessions on career issues and research policy. “This is quite an achievement,” says FOR member Rodoniki Athanasiadou. “Historically, postdocs in different departments at NYU have not interacted scientifically.”

Jessica Polka leads a FOR meeting in Boston.

Postdoc-advocacy groups have also triumphed together in another battle. The paucity of concrete data about employment trends for post-postdocs has plagued trainees for decades and stymies their career-planning efforts. Some groups are gathering their own data by tracking alumni.

At a national level, postdoc groups have been pressuring the US National Science Foundation to collect these data. Those efforts led last year to the creation of a website by the authors of the PNAS and NAS reports that aims to collect and organize such data. The web page also hosts suggestions to improve postdocs' training and funding, among other issues. Jessica Polka, a postdoc at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, says that the site provides a 'bottom-up' way for groups such as FOR to directly address top biomedical policymakers. She is a member of FOR Boston and of the site's steering committee.

Thompson-Peer, for one, says that she is delighted to have the opportunity to contribute to the national dialogue. The voices of postdoc organizations are growing stronger, she says, and postdocs have far more leverage as members of a collective group than they do individually. “We cannot make these structural changes on our own,” she says.

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  1. Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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