Hooray for postdocs, or is it?

So I am determined to keep my resolution, even if I got a slow start: keep this blog up and running!! Topic for the day?…my role in our university’s burgeoning postdoc association (aka PDA). Our postdoc office has been open for a year now, and I’ve been helping out on the PDA council since this past summer. It has really been quite an experience, in many different ways. I’ve learned more about our university’s bureaucracy than I ever hoped to, which I can only hope will come in handy later in my career. I’ve also become very familiar with all the obstacles we face. First and foremost – resistance to changing a system that has been rather ineffective at serving both postdocs AND mentors.

For those who aren’t familiar, postdoctoral research involves mentored, yet independent research, generally conducted under an established scientist. When a postdoc enters into this new career phase, he/she is faced with a bright new world of research opportunities, while simultaneously finding themselves back at the bottom of a new laboratory food chain. The postdoc must adjust quickly to the new surroundings, securing his/her own funding and kick-starting a novel research project. If this transition is successful, a postdoc will probably guide a significant portion of their mentors’ research, initiating new projects and generating publications at a much quicker pace than when they were in graduate school.

The goal is to obtain a position which will allow the postdoc to develop an independent research program, often as a tenure-track faculty member at an academic institution. However, many postdocs find themselves unappreciated, underpaid, and overworked. Additionally, since postdocs are by definition temporary employees, many research institutions have designated postdocs with obscure job classifications, complicating issues such as obtaining health insurance and tax preparation. These issues make the transition into successful postdoctoral research ever more daunting.

The solution: postdocs at many universities have organized PDAs, guided by the National PDA, which have lobbied for positive change at their institutions. Among these changes are increased access to health insurance options, tax preparation assistance, and career development resources. Additionally, postdoc offices created by these universities have begun providing protection against postdoc abuses, such as forced 80-hour work weeks at minimal pay, refusal of vacation time, and lack of recognition for research accomplishments (i.e. publication issues). Perhaps the biggest offering of PDAs, however, has been the increased visibility of and interaction between postdocs.

The hoped-for outcome? Contented postdocs are likely to do better research, get more publications and funding, and, in theory, generate happier mentors. So why the resistance from current faculty? I’ve heard many reasons in the past months, my all-time favorite being “This is how I did it and I made it; why change?” My response? The plethora of career opportunities out there for smart, innovative thinkers with PhDs has led to a massive exodus from academic research, which is bound to cause a dearth in new research talent in the coming years/decades. When this happens, everyone suffers, especially in health-associated research fields. It’s time to stop pining away for the old days and step into the times we live in. Come on, it’s 2010 already!

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