The world “postdoc” simply means “after doctorate,” which does not define the job, but rather simply states that one got a PhD. For me, it is like being a frog in the tadpole with legs stage: I don’t look like a tadpole anymore, but I also don’t know how to jump like a frog either. A postdoc is the time when early career scientists become scientifically mature and jump to their next goal. The National Postdoc Association defines postdocs as: “An individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.”
Despite this standard definition, postdocs are a really diverse group of people. We come from different backgrounds, countries, interests, and family situations and we have different mentors — which means different trainings. When I started my postdoc at Boston College (BC) there were not many postdocs and we did not have a postdoctoral association (PDA). Being a new postdoc at an institution with mostly undergraduate and graduate students can make you feel like a fish out of water because most of the people you interact with do not know what kind of strange chimeric beast a postdoc is. I felt like I did not have a defined role in the lab and I started to wonder how universities see postdocs. Guillermo Nuñez, Executive Director of Research Administration at BC says: “I believe postdocs have three main roles: further the research and scholarship of the [BC] community, provide mentoring and training to graduate and undergraduate students, and be an active member in university life (get out of the lab every now and then!)”
Do postdocs really need a PDA? As the above definition states, postdocs are scientists transitioning to long-term positions, and they should be mentored and trained to acquire the professional skills they need. Do you think that postdocs always get the support and training they need from their lab? Unfortunately, not all postdocs have the fortune of working with fantastic and supportive PIs and lab members. Postdoc life can be really hard. Sometime postdocs are not seen as trainees but rather as “paper-makers.” “I think one other reason [why postdocs need a PDA] is for research support within postdocs” explains Sushama Sivakumar, postdoc at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and co-chair of the ASCB Committee for Postdocs and Students (COMPASS) Communications committee. “In our university postdocs can email each other for reagents or to talk about research (troubleshooting or just for ideas etc). We also can talk to each other for career help and this is all facilitated by PDA. We have a PDA that actively arranges networking events like coffee or ice cream breaks, and these events are good for talking and interacting with other postdocs on campus.”
There is a general view that in a research group postdocs are the only category that does not have a voice. Unlike undergraduates and graduate students, who are protected by university rules, there is nothing like such a network for postdocs. For all these reasons, peer support from your PDA can be extremely beneficial. However, postdoc associations are relatively new additions to many universities. “I think postdocs, not only at BC, but across many institutions, are an often overlooked group of an institution’s academic community,” says Jiin-Yu Chen, Associate Director of Research Integrity & Postdoctoral Affairs at BC. “They [postdocs] form an important component of an institution’s research enterprise, but are often in a precarious position there because they are not students, but also may not be staff (although postdocs are staff at BC), and are at an institution for a short time. Broadly speaking, I think there is increasing recognition of the vulnerability of postdocs and the need for institutional policies and standards that protect postdocs.”
Together we are stronger! From single PDAs to a coalition of PDAs: the case of Boston. PDAs can foster communities within and outside the hosting universities. The Boston PDA (BPDA) was founded in 2013 by a group of passionate postdocs who were already co-chairs of their PDAs to promote synergy among the Boston area PDAs. “I think that over the past years, we have seen an increased involvement of the postdocs in various efforts aiming to actively improve the conditions and quality of the postdoctoral experience in particular, and the conditions for young researchers in general,” explains Tobias Otto, Co-chair of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute PDA and co-founder of the Boston PDA. “One prominent example is the creation of the National Postdoctoral Association in 2003. Similarly, the initiation of the Boston Postdoctoral Association in 2013 and the formation of the Future of Research in 2014 are widely recognized examples. Furthermore, PDAs at many institutions have recently managed to improve the conditions for postdocs at their particular institution by interacting and negotiating with the leadership of these institutes.” These examples show the desire and need for a supportive postdoc community.
Are postdocs actually trained for a specific career? Most of the time, postdocs do not have in their labs all the resources they would need to prepare themselves for a given career. However, combining forces and sharing resources provides many benefits, such as career development, for the postdoc community. Over the last few years, there has been a huge demand for courses and training that can better prepare postdocs for jobs outside academia. But the connection with the industry world can be hard to achieve for a small PDA, making it an important and attainable goal for a bigger organization like the BPDA. “The BPDA and other regional postdoctoral associations that are forming across the nation are helping our postdoctoral communities in multiple ways,” says Sarah Dykstra, Tufts PDA President and BPDA Career Development Committee Co-Chair. “By sharing resources and actively collaborating, the BPDA is slowly changing the way training and other critical information is accessed by thousands of local postdocs. This improved communication and increased collaboration across our 17 PDA members has resulted in enhancements in professional development and training opportunities, increased transparency with respect to workplace benefits and better networking and social opportunities among postdocs in the Boston area. Moreover, the BPDA has also had the opportunity to invite partners such as postdoctoral officers and external industry collaborators to join the conversation about how best to work together to improve postdoctoral training and career outcomes”.
Final thoughts: are you engaged with your PDA? After talking with many postdocs, I realized that too often they do not know their rights as trainees. Support and training from your supervisor with a competitive salary and benefits should not be your only view of what a postdoc entails. Your local PDA is a place where you can leave your lab bubble, learn about the experiences of your peers, and understand your rights. PDA members plan professional development events together, aimed at improving their training and career prospects, as well as social events to create a community. Although committing to a PDA might sound like it won’t fit into your busy schedule, start by attending meetings and if there is anything you think your PDA is lacking, speak up, and offer suggestions. If you have the time and motivation, sign up to take on a small project or leadership role. Science is a team effort and we need everybody’s contribution to make our environment and our experience as postdocs the best possible.