Research in the space between
Postdocs’ quiet contributions to the University of Minnesota
They’re not grad students anymore, but they’re not considered faculty, either. Postdoctoral researchers, or “postdocs,” have earned a Ph.D. and have defended their research. However, they’re not always ready to open their own labs or do independent research – thus they come to research institutions like the University of Minnesota to get additional training and experience in their fields.
Postdoctoral experience, often viewed as a requirement for those seeking a tenure-track position in scientific disciplines, is increasingly considered a precursor to successfully landing a research position in industry or government.
“It is the stepping stone between being a graduate student and determining what to do next. It’s an uncertain and transient experience that can give researchers their first chance at being independent,” says Geoffrey Rojas, a researcher in the Characterization Facility and president of the University’s Post-Doctoral Association (PDA).
Unique drivers of the University’s research mission
Postdocs, who are typically appointed for three to five years, play a significant role in advancing the research mission of the University. Unlike many graduate students, postdocs often already have the professional training needed to get started on a project the moment they step in the door. These appointments rarely require administrative or teaching duties; postdocs aren’t burdened by coursework, dissertation preparation or writing grant applications. They’re in an unusual position in which they can devote themselves almost entirely to research and discovery.
“Postdocs can provide the University with many of the same resources that faculty bring,” says Rojas, “which is critical at a time when universities across the country are hiring fewer and fewer tenure-track faculty.”
Bringing postdoc concerns to light
And yet, because postdocs are on campus for a relatively short time, their contributions and concerns are often overlooked. The lack of a standard definition for postdocs from one institution to the next is confusing; some are considered employees or non-tenured faculty while others have temporary or trainee-status. Some receive full health, child-care and retirement benefits, while others do not. At the University of Minnesota, for example, postdoctoral associates are considered employees while postdoctoral fellows – who are funded by external grants – are considered trainees.
Rojas explains, “It’s a national problem that results in a lack of appropriate mentorship, workplace representation, and a voice in how universities operate. Getting that representation and voice takes a lot of effort.”
In an effort to address issues like these, a small group of postdocs on the University of Minnesota campus interested in helping to improve conditions for postdocs formed the Post-Doctoral Association in 2005. The organization has grown during the past few years and is open to anyone in the postdoctoral ranks at the U of M. Members can express their views to University administration, find help and proactive support regarding issues of employment and professional development, share information and ideas, and connect with one another.
“It [the PDA] provides a network of collegiality amongst postdocs, provides a voice for our interests on campus, and connects postdocs to resources for professional development,” says Rojas. “The fact that it is driven entirely by postdocs means that it reflects the desires of those we serve.”
The PDA provides a place for postdocs to turn when workplace issues crop up, such as conflicts with mentors or revocation of benefits. “We’re familiar with how these issues affect postdocs and we know how to resolve them in a relatively short time-span,” says Rojas.
The PDA is also heavily involved in policy development at the national level. For example, members of the PDA contributed to the discussions and deliberations of the White House and Department of Labor as they enacted the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), a law passed in May 2016 that contains salary and overtime pay provisions for employees across the United States. Among the 4 million currently exempt U.S. workers who will benefit from this law are an estimated 37,000-80,000 postdocs, effective December 1, 2016.
Among the priorities of the PDA are the reestablishment of a solid infrastructure of support for postdocs at the University and the implementation of a more formal mentorship plan for postdocs. “The scientific community has begun to reevaluate the concept of a postdoctoral appointment,” says Rojas. “It’s important that we, at the University, stay on top of these changes and adapt to this new environment.”
The Graduate School is also committed to improving the quality of the postdoctoral experience, which includes both employment and training components. In the coming year, the Graduate School’s priorities include establishing a vision for the future of the postdoctoral fellow training; improving the campus climate for underrepresented minority postdocs; and improving the quality of postdoctoral advising.
Postdocs: Take a break
As part of National Postdoc Appreciation Week which begins September 19, the PDA at the U is offering a number of professional development and advocacy activities for postdocs, designed to introduce them the postdoc association, make contacts in the private sector, or just get to know other postdocs on campus.
Highlights of the week include the Annual Postdoc Research Symposium, Outstanding Scholar/Mentor Awards, and an ice cream social.
Rojas encourages all postdocs to take advantage of Postdoc Appreciation Week: “These events benefit postdocs a lot, but very few feel they have the time to spend at the events. Tell the postdocs you know to show up...tell them to take a break from the lab for a few hours.”