Postdoc power

The situation for postdocs at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, and its four outstations (at Hinxton, Hamburg, Rome and Grenoble), resembles that in many smaller institutions around the world. EMBL postdocs generally lack organization and a unified voice.

So when a couple of brave fellows last year drafted a proposal for bringing colleagues from all five sites together for a ‘retreat’ — without management or principal investigators — the director-general and senior scientists endorsed the concept.

Initially many postdocs were sceptical of the retreat and resented the time it took away from the lab. But after the first session, the 100 or so participants began to praise the organizers, the speakers and the forum in general.

The broad nature of life-science research at EMBL made the retreat, to me at least, one of the most exciting and stimulating scientific meetings I have ever attended. The talks ranged from fluorescent mice to software that read papers for us — pausing briefly to poke out the eyes of embryonic worms and to jellify fish. The absence of supervisors meant that people (or perhaps just me) felt free to ask more naive questions than they would have dared had the boss been there. And enforced mixed seating over meals resulted in more than a few fledgling collaborations.

An equally important part of the retreat focused on career development. Speakers from the academic world introduced us to the next steps on the path of leadership — and spoke of the pressures, pitfalls and satisfactions these responsibilities might bring. Industry, publishing and intellectual-property speakers showed us an alternative world of career options, which is much broader than we are led to believe in our early research years.

The feedback from this retreat was overwhelmingly positive. The session on postdoc organization brought up many of the issues we often feel we face alone: payment, security and establishing our positions. It showed that far from being silent workers uninterested in the world around, we want to improve postdoctoral positions for ourselves and those who will follow. Everyone I spoke to had realized that this is the way forward, that a postdoctoral association will only be beneficial and that we are a surprisingly large, aggressive and driven group. We are postdoc. Hear us roar.