Neverland

Neither students nor staff, postdocs exist in a nebulous position at OSU

Siba Das, president of a new group for postdocs at OSU, hangs up a sign at da Vinci Days. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

When one thinks about the university community, a number of different groups come to mind. Students, both undergraduate and graduate, teaching and professional faculty, staff. They’re all distinct groups with their own needs, and their own set of protections and benefits.

But there is another significant and growing group of campus community members who don’t fit into any of those categories, and until recently, who have gone without much of the support and resources that are normally extended to the rest of the university community. Postdoctoral researchers, known colloquially as postdocs, are a multifaceted group who are defined rather nebulously, and while providing an important function on campus as researchers, don’t really fit in with any other groups.

Barbara Bond recently retired from her job as a professor in the College of Forestry, but has come back to the university half-time as the director of the newly created Office of Postdoctoral Programs, under the Graduate School at OSU. She is enthusiastic about the opportunity to provide resources and support to a historically under-represented group on campus, but also aware of the challenges of reaching out to and providing appropriate services for postdocs.

“This is a big, amorphous group,” she said.

Her first task was to create a database of all current postdocs, which is not an easy task, considering there are a number of sub categories that fall under that title, ranging from research associate (postdocs) to postdoctoral scholars and fellows. They’re also a particularly transitory group, hard to keep track of. But with the database, Bond is now able to reach out to most postdocs on campus with a weekly newsletter.

“The primary intention is to establish a relationship with postdocs, and let them know my office is here,” Bond said.

There are currently more than 300 people at OSU who fall into the group Bond defines as postdoc (her definition is a bit more broad than OSU’s official definition, see sidebar). They are spread out over a number of different schools and departments, with a majority finding homes in the sciences. Most of them are in their late 20s and early 30s, which Bond pointed out is a prime time for starting families. Because of the current tenuous situation with family leave and accompanying health care insurance for many of the postdocs, starting or adding to the family can pose some particular problems.

“One of the biggest problems for postdoctoral scholars, other than the isolation they often face in their own departments, is that they fall into this Neverland of not being students and not being employees. The benefits extended to students and employees often exclude postdoctoral scholars,” Bond said.

Postdocs LeeCole Legette, left, and Siba Das, play a trivia game with kids at da Vinci Days as part of their outreach with the OSU Postdoc Association. (photo: Theresa Hogue)

For instance, although postdoctoral scholars are able to receive an affordable insurance policy similar to the one graduate students receive under PacificSource, often the grants or fellowships they’re working under do not allow them to take time off to have a baby and continue to receive that insurance. This can cause serious difficulties, as Bond recently learned when she began working with a postdoc who was pregnant with twins and was afraid of losing her insurance coverage.

Working closely with the OSU Offices of Human Resources, of Legal Affairs and with Vice Provost for Academic Affairs and International Programs Becky Warner, Bond was able to secure a special exemption for the student so that her insurance will continue while she’s taking care of her twins. But the case has made it evident that further work is necessary to change policies so other students will not face the same issue.

What is a postdoc?

Barbara Bond and the OSU Postdoctoral Association use a broad definition of the postdoctoral community at OSU in order to promote inclusiveness. Everyone in a non-professorial job assignment at OSU that requires a PhD or equivalent advanced degree is considered part of this community. Five categories (below) fit this broad definition, although two of them (Research Associates and Clinical Fellows) aren’t considered “postdocs” according to the more common definition given in the text. The five categories include:
Research associate: Regular unclassified employee, also considered fixed-term faculty. Typically they are paid from grants and contracts, and conduct or direct research with faculty supervision.
Research associate (postdoc): The same definition as a research associate, but typically with temporary appointments, and generally include those in an earlier career stage.
Postdoctoral Scholar: Considered academic ‘trainees.’ They conduct research or scholarly activities as part of a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training. They must have received their PhD within less than five years, and the position typically lasts no more than three years. Postdoctoral scholars are typically paid from research grants and contracts awarded to faculty.
Postdoctoral Fellow: Fellows conduct research or scholarly activities as part of a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training, and are paid from a fellowship that is awarded directly to the fellow or from a training grant awarded to the university.
Clinical fellow: These are licensed practitioners, usually from human or veterinary medicine or counseling, who are engaged in a clinical practice with an expectation for scholarly accomplishments.

Ongoing education is another issue facing postdocs. Bond says postdocs are not usually interested in enrolling in courses on campus because they have already received their PhD and feel like they’ve “been there and done that.” However there are many topics that postdocs find useful and sometimes vital as they prepare for futures in academia or industry, including networking, publishing and research.

“One of the most popular topics is pedagogy,” Bond said. “These folks are hungry to get their credentials as educators, and that can be quite challenging as postdocs are not technically allowed to teach.”

So one of the focuses of her office is to develop noon sessions where postdocs can participate in brief workshops on topics tailored just for them. Working in conjunction with the Research Office and the Office of International Education, Bond is organizing workshops on a regular basis to offer topics important to postdoctoral success.

One thing that is important to recognize, Bond said, is that only 25 percent of PhDs who are in postdoc positions end up getting a tenure track position in academia.

“One of the most urgent needs is opening up everyone’s eyes to the need for training and the acceptance that non-academic career paths for PhDs are desirable and wonderful. In many parts of academia there’s a sense if you don’t become an academic you’ve betrayed your profession. We’ve got to get over that. It’s particularly relevant given that industry is hungry for scientific talent.”

As Bond works closely with the Research Office, she is looking to strengthen ties with industry in the hopes of broadening the focus of training postdocs to include the possibility of private sector jobs.

Postdocs are starting to organize in order to better support each other, and in an effort to reach beyond their own disciplines and laboratories to interact with others in similar situations. The OSU Postdoctoral Association (OPA) has recently been founded, and their first activity was a booth at the Corvallis community science festival, da Vinci Days.

OPA President Siba Das said the organization’s first focus is to educate the campus and surrounding community about what postdocs do on campus, and what they might be able to offer, including giving lectures or offering support for community programs.

“We just need to know who needs help,” Das said. “We are a good source of information.”

Das is a postdoctoral scholar working under Professor Robert Tanguay in the Department of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology. While he loves his research, which is focused on the effects of Bisphenol A on the development of the nervous system, he recognizes that postdoctoral scholars are a particularly vulnerable portion of the OSU population.

He said one of the most pressing issues for postdoctoral scholars is the loss of health insurance for women who go on maternity leave while working at the university.

“It’s a mess, actually,” he said.  And because postdoctoral scholars are not eligible for the same benefits and protections as other positions, maternity leave is just one of many issues of equity and fairness that the community is struggling with. Low pay and lack of paid time off are other issues.

“Many postdoc scholars get paid the National Institutes of Health/ National Science Foundation minimum wage, which is really low, borderline poverty level,” Das said. “That’s where the problem begins.”

He hopes that by providing outreach to the community, if OPA later goes to administrators and requests support, they can demonstrate the importance and value of the postdoctoral community.

Bond said the existence of the association will make her job easier.

“Now that we have the association in place they can help me prioritize what needs to be done to support postdocs on campus,” she said. “I’m happy they’re in place.”

 

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