Transitions to new career stages are always critical steps in one’s life. Whether you are moving on to be an undergraduate, graduate student, or postdoc, it is always comforting to have a group of people you can identify with. Joining a postdoctoral association (PDA) at an institution that already has a well-established society gives new postdocs the right platform to share their experiences and concerns and to build a sense of community. Being a postdoc at an institution without a PDA also has its advantages: You can be the one who establishes it! When I started my postdoc, I missed a group with which I could identify and I told myself: “Complaining will never take you anywhere, so roll up your sleeves and make your own PDA!”
How do you establish a PDA? A good starting point is to have a look at the PDA toolkit provided by the National PDA. Below I summarize what in my experience are the most relevant steps.
- Connect with peers who want to help. Having ideas and being passionate about your PDA project is the first thing you need to cultivate. It took me many months of chatting with other postdocs about their concerns and the possibility of establishing a PDA before I was sure this project was worth it. I realized that many postdocs did not know their rights and also felt the need for a community. Building a community from scratch is a lot of work—with new skills to learn, negotiations with the administration, many emails, and a lot of your free time. This means that you need to form a team of people with different and complementary skills to help. I first organized an informal meeting with the postdocs in my department and I looked for a co-chair and a treasurer/secretary. Because of the diversity of this group, one person cannot represent everybody, plus I think that sharing this project with other postdocs makes it more complete—and more fun! Paula Slater, co-chair and co-founder of the Boston College Postdoctoral Association (BCPDA), contributed with enthusiasm to the establishment of an association because “As postdocs, we are in a limbo where we are not students or academics and usually we are foreign people. The creation of a supporting network that worries about career development, family, and social well-being is extremely important in a community.”
- Contact your department and the Vice Provost Office (VPO). Establishing an official association requires a basic knowledge of funding, rules, and politics. For this reason, it is crucial to find someone in your department that is willing to help you out, such as the department administrative staff. Depending on the university or on the relationship you have with people around you, you might want to talk with the department chair or other people who want to help. Next, it is time to talk with the VPO, the office that usually is involved in the postdoctoral affairs. You need to convince the VPO that the PDA is important and that you have good reasons to fight for it. Explaining to the university that postdocs need space to foster a sense of community and a budget to promote career events can be challenging, especially on a campus where postdocs only appeared in the last few years. As Paula recalls, when meeting with the VPO: “You have to be really clear and transparent, and show yourself as a flexible and understandable person.” At the end, the key to convincing the VPO that your project is important is a really organized agenda (reasons to have a PDA, list of talks you want to organize, reasonable budget), and to show them how passionate you are for the project.
- Get official: the PDA needs a charter! When you put a lot of time and effort into a project you want to be sure it is written down and signed. I strongly encourage PDAs to have a charter where the general aim, rules, and roles are explained (for reference, here is the BCPDA charter. The most important university board members (including the President) read this official document and then, once it is approved, the Vice-Provost signs it.
- Know your target audience. It is crucial to know the people in your community and what they want from the PDA. To this end, send out a survey with general questions about postdoc expectations, needs, and concerns. The survey can also tell you the kind of career professional activities people need. In our case, the most popular topics were how to write grants or fellowships, how to transition to industry, and knowing more about visa options.
- Engage your peers in the PDA. The PDA is up and running! Your group got financial help from the VPO and it has a program for the first semester. How do you convince your colleagues to participate in the activities? It takes time and effort to decide whom to invite to give a talk, brainstorm the outline, arrange a date, buy food, or book a room. One of the things that worried us the most was that people wouldn’t come to the professional development talks we organized. When you trust a group of people, most likely you will go to their events. For this reason, the first event we had was an orientation party. A party is a perfect informal situation to talk about the association plans, and to get people to know each other—and us, the PDA representatives.
Sometimes it feels more comfortable to live in our own bubble and focus only on our science project. However, the truth is that we are all connected—as scientists and as humans. Giving something back to the scientific society is part of our duty as scientists. It is really a rewarding feeling, especially when after months of work your project is finally running, and you see that your peers benefit from the new group that has been established. No matter how big or small your university, if it does not have a PDA it is time to establish one!
The views and opinions expressed in this blog are the views of the author(s) and do not represent the official policy or position of ASCB.
About the Author:
Margherita Perillo is a postdoctoral fellow at Brown University, where she studies germline stem cells in development using primarily the seastar as model system. Previously she was a postdoctoral fellow at Boston College where she studied nuclear positioning at the neuromuscular and myotendinous junctions. She earned her PhD from the Open University of London working at the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Napoli, where she studied cell-type evolution. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; twitter: @Marghe_Perillo