They do the heavy lifting all year long in labs
across the globe. The third week of this month
is dedicated to showing our appreciation.
National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week runs from Sept. 19 through Sept. 23. Initiated by the National Postdoctoral Association in 2009, the observance is intended to highlight the contributions that postdoctoral scholars make to science and to spur institutions to show their appreciation in various ways. Here, Robert Barrett and Kate M. Sleeth of the National Postdoctoral Association explain how the observance came to be and how their organization can serve the postdocs you rely on every day.
National Postdoctoral Appreciation Week initially began as a one-day event known as National Postdoc Appreciation Day, which was held Sept. 24, 2009. The inaugural observance was a great success, with more than 50 institutions in the United States and others as far away as Australia participating.
The one-day celebration subsequently was expanded to a full week in September to allow institutions greater flexibility. In 2010, more than 110 events were held in 30 U.S. states.
What happens during the observance
The events that are held vary widely depending on the needs and resources of the participating institutions. Some host mini-research symposia that allow postdocs to showcase their current projects. Others invite noted speakers to give lectures. Still others provide seminars on grant writing and careers outside of academia. Seminars also are used to showcase the latest technology available for use by postdocs. Almost all institutions support networking events with free food and drinks.
Why postdocs deserve recognition
The NPA initiated the observance so that institutions collectively could recognize the value of postdocs to campuses, facilities and the scientific enterprise in general.
The number of postdocs has been increasing steadily in the U.S., and the training has become the natural next career step for newly minted Ph.D.s. The temporary period of mentored research or scholarly training allows them to acquire the skills needed to pursue independent careers.
In earlier years, there was no limit to how many years one could remain in a postdoctoral position, but new rules for National Institutes of Health grant eligibility have capped the experience at five years for many institutions.
Postdoctoral scholars are responsible for the majority of research output in the United States and drive the entire research enterprise in both academic and industrial settings.
In 2008, the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators report estimated that there were about 89,000 postdoctoral scholars involved in research in the United States. In addition, although postdoctoral scholars often work up to 80 hours a week, they earn an average of only $38,000 a year.
Postdocs are motivated by their passion for discovery and the scientific method and their wish to make a positive difference in the world. To fulfill these desires, many sacrifice financial security and often work in countries far from their families.
The National Postdoctoral Association
The primary aim of the association is to advance the U.S. research enterprise by maximizing the effectiveness of the research community and enhancing the quality of the postdoctoral experience for all participants. The nonprofit was founded in 2003 by seven members at institutions throughout the U.S. Now headquartered in Washington, D.C., the NPA serves more than 1,500 members and more than 180 institutions that employ 40,000-plus postdoctoral scholars.
Throughout the years, the NPA continually has advocated for better conditions for postdocs, playing a prominent role in how the NIH and NSF have defined the position; advocating for the NIH Pathways to Independence award, which substantially helps postdocs transition to tenure-track faculty positions; and asking the NIH and NSF to expand their data collection regarding postdocs supported by research grants and to ensure that postdocs are properly mentored and trained. In September 2010, the appreciation week was recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives.
Building a support network
The NPA also offers assistance and advice on how to form postdoctoral associations and postdoctoral offices at various institutions. Associations are generally run by postdocs, and offices are generally run by academic faculty directors or nonfaculty directors or coordinators. Yet the aim of both is the same: to improve the postdoctoral experience.
PDAs often welcome volunteers who wish to capitalize on related networking opportunities.
If you are a postdoc and are unsure if your institution has either an association or an office, check with your graduate program leadership or your institution’s human resources office. If there is no PDA on campus, combine forces with other dedicated and enthusiastic people and start one. Lots of PDAs across America have started as grassroots efforts.
Offices also have been opened by institutions that have strong associations, which lobby the administration and communicate how important postdoctoral training and support are.
Even if your institution’s association has limited funds or none at all, it is still possible to organize a postdoc appreciation week event. For example, you can coordinate something as simple as a coffee hour in a local café or a happy hour at a bar or restaurant at which everyone purchases his or her own food and beverages. If your city or region is home to multiple research institutions, consider pooling resources and having one large event.
As a result of an editing error, the name of the postdoctoral observance was wrong in the print version of this article. It has been corrected in this online version.
Robert Barrett (Robert.Barrett@cshs.org) is a postdoctoral scholar in the Inflammatory Bowel & Immunobiology Research Institute in Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
Kate M. Sleeth (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of immunology at the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope.