Tuesday 2 October 2012

UNITED STATES: Postdocs – A voice for the voiceless

Issue No:241

In universities around the world, postdoctoral students are the unsung heavy lifters.

Not only do they take on much of the academic load in running tutorials for undergraduates but they are also crucial in many science and engineering research programmes, carrying out the most technically demanding tasks and helping write up papers but not always acknowledged by the professors who benefit from their work.

In a report in the journal Nature, Karen Kaplan says that in its first 10 years, the US National Postdoctoral Association, or NPA, helped to raise the profile of postdocs but that “championing their cause still presents challenges”.

“Before Alyson Reed became head of the association, she had only the vaguest ideas about what a postdoctoral researcher does,” Kaplan says. “Reed was hardly alone. After she took the job as the NPA's inaugural executive director in 2003, she learned that few outside science and academia knew what postdocs are or do.”

As is the case in the US, on university campuses in Britain, Europe and Australia, Kaplan says many postdocs feel invisible and anonymous, crucial to research but suspended in limbo with no means of networking, creating a community or being heard.

“We are ghosts,” as one declared.

But Kaplan notes that almost a decade of efforts by the NPA have helped generate change. Based in Washington DC, the non-profit organisation has worked hard on behalf of its 2,700 members and the nation's more than 60,000 postdocs.

“It has helped stakeholders – including federal agencies, members of Congress and policy-makers – become eminently familiar with what postdocs are, what they do and the conditions they face. It has raised the issue of shoddy compensation and highlighted the difficulties of career development,” Kaplan says.

“Yet most US academic postdocs still work long hours for trifling pay and have no clear route into a permanent position. Observers say that the NPA has made progress, but should do more. The association would like to boost outreach and advocacy and offer more services but a meagre budget, a small staff and funding challenges present significant obstacles.”

Reed told Kaplan that before her association could advocate for postdocs – not to mention collect data about their roles at research institutions – it had to define what a postdoctoral researcher was. The association helped the US National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation to adopt a formal definition in 2007.

That definition states, in part, that postdocs are “engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence”.

This helps institutions and principal investigators to see postdocs as trainees and protégés seeking to advance their careers, rather than as just a pair of hands at the bench, as is still the case in many universities around the world, Reed told Kaplan.

Kaplan says that perhaps the NPA's biggest accomplishment was encouraging US universities to set up their own on-campus postdoctoral offices and associations.

The national association now has about 130 member offices on US university and other research campuses, and has inspired the creation of postdoc organisations in other countries, with several fledgling groups asking for advice, including those in Australia, Canada, China, France, Ireland, Japan and Qatar. 

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