GREAT Expectations

For many years, postdocs have been “a category of individuals [to whom] institutions have not paid any attention, … a category that needs a status of its own and its own infrastructure and administrative structure,” says Nancy Schwartz, dean for graduate and postdoctoral affairs at the University of Chicago in Illinois. Now, an influential academic body has taken a major step toward establishing that clearer status and a structure that can help institutions deal with postdocs’ issues and concerns.

The Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) Group of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), one of the organization’s 14 standing professional development groups, is creating a separate section on postdoctoral affairs. Since its inception in 1996, GREAT has served as a national forum whereby academic leaders and administrators designated by the 126 AAMC member institutions can discuss issues and share practices related to the training of researchers. GREAT is now transforming its committee on postdocs into a body that will have its own independent, university-appointed membership, elected leadership, and meetings.

A separate constituency

“We’ve had a postdoc committee for about 5 years, but this will be more formal,” says GREAT Group executive secretary Jodi Lubetsky. Once AAMC gives formal approval–a step regarded as a foregone conclusion–the new Postdoctorate Leaders Section will be able to “have their own committees … and be more independent from GREAT, doing projects and their own initiatives,” according to Lubetsky. This adds up to “a lot more clout,” says Schwartz, immediate past chair of GREAT’s steering committee. In GREAT, she has seen the power of “an organization that can get the relevant administrators and deans together.” Now the postdoc section “will have a real status. … It’s the way to get our own faculty to pay attention.”

After AAMC approved a separate GREAT section on M.D./Ph.D.s in 2004, “it became very clear that the GREAT Group is really serving three constituency groups: the graduate student, the M.D./Ph.D. student, and the postdoctoral scientist,” says Trevor Penning, former associate dean for postdoctoral research and training at the University of Pennsylvania and a former chair of GREAT’s steering committee. This implied a need for a postdoc section with “its own separate identity within the group. The deans and associate deans in charge of running postdoc offices at their institutions did not have a place that they could meet in an organized way and share best practices and policies under the umbrella of an organization that could make a difference at the decision-making level in schools and medical colleges.”

Movement toward establishing the postdoc section came in “progressive steps, little by little,” says Philip Clifford, associate dean for postdoctoral education at the Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and co-chair of the GREAT postdoc committee. “The GREAT Group has done some things over the past few years, such as establishing a definition of postdocs, and then a couple of years ago, the postdoc compact,” a formal statement of mutual obligations and responsibilities for postdocs and principal investigators.

Last fall, the postdoc committee held a meeting to “explore the idea” of a separate postdoc section, Clifford continues. “In the intervening year, we established a mission and goals” for the proposed body. Then, this past 19 October, the postdoc committee convened another meeting of some 70 deans and administrators representing their medical schools, plus other interested individuals, and voted to establish the new section and adopt the mission and goals.

Leaders of the effort view the new section as complementing, not competing with, the National Postdoctoral Association. “The NPA I see as a grassroots effort” for postdocs, Clifford says, but change “could also happen in a top-down manner.” “The NPA has really brought many issues … to the fore,” Schwartz agrees, but on most of them, “implementation has fallen to the institutions.”

“One of the things we’re definitely working on now is to get many if not all of our member institutions to have … a director or an office, a point person to assume responsibility” for postdoc matters on each campus, Schwartz says. Another important initiative, Penning says, will be gathering–in some cases for the first time ever–“really good data on who our postdocs are. Where do they come from? How long are they in programs? How much do they publish? What do they do next? Where do they go? Without that information, we can’t make postdoctoral policy at the national level appropriately.” Also vital, adds Schwartz, will be finding out “what kind of infrastructure the institutions are putting together” to serve postdocs. The section will also work to make university postdoc policies “more uniform,” she continues, no longer “just allowing faculty members to do whatever they want to.”

GREAT also “has historically … been a fantastic lobbying group to improve funding and funding policies for individuals in training,” Penning notes. He expects the Postdoctorate Leaders Section to continue that tradition. One early goal will be getting “the mentoring piece” into National Institutes of Health research grants, “as the National Science Foundation has done,” Schwartz says. “We’re going to have a lot of weight now to push for that.”

Catalyzing campuses

Because AAMC consists of only medical schools, the new section “doesn’t represent all of the postdocs in the world or all the postdocs in biomedical sciences,” Schwartz says. But the great majority of postdocs are in life sciences, and the great majority of those are at medical schools, so the new section covers institutions with “a big chunk” of the nation’s postdocs. And, she adds, when medical schools lead, “the rest of the institution will often follow.” At her university, for example, the medical school has been “a catalyst” for postdoc programs and infrastructure campuswide. “Now our whole university is coming on board,” Schwartz says. “The provost’s office wants to adopt most of the policies that we set up and use them for the postdocs in the social sciences and the physical sciences.”

So the Postdoctorate Leaders Section has the potential to spark change nationwide, she and her GREAT colleagues expect. It’s questionable whether the section can do much about underlying realities such as the severe shortage of tenure-track positions or the drive toward cost cutting occasioned by the current highly competitive funding environment. But the assembled administrators could certainly influence many university policies. “When the AAMC makes a statement about postdoctoral education and training, it goes directly to the deans and the provosts and they pay attention,” Penning says. Adds Schwartz: “The funding agencies can do certain things, and obviously the postdocs themselves can continue to lobby for more, but who really has the power to implement anything? It’s the institutions where the postdocs are employed or are trainees.”

2006 Top employer survey: It all starts with science

The Unspoken Things of Science