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Paulo 2008 Nature

Article source: Nature

Nature 455, 426-428 (17 September 2008) | doi:10.1038/nj7211-426a

Strength in bonding

Paul Smaglik1

  1. Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

To discuss this article, contact the editor

Postdocs are attempting to organize and improve their lot worldwide — but results have been mixed. Paul Smaglik reports.

"It is not in numbers, but in unity, that our great strength lies," wrote Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense. His words, published in 1776, galvanized the American colonies in the fight for independence from Britain. That same sentiment applies to the growth of postdoc organizations in recent years. But despite the rise in numbers of postdoc associations (PDAs) and membership, they are still struggling to effect major policy change. Many PDAs — whose members seek better pay, benefits and career training — are making some headway locally (see 'Showing initiative'), but change on a regional level is a far bigger challenge.

Strength in bonding


The birth of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in the United States helped increase the number of PDAs at universities by 60–70%. In Europe, Eurodoc, which addresses both graduate student and postdoc issues, has grown to include 44 countries as either members, observers or networkers. Meanwhile, universities and research institutions across the United States, Canada, Europe and Japan are working to add associations every year.

Still, the useful change resulting from these efforts is minimal. The recent history of the NPA illustrates what such associations can accomplish — and how their power is limited. The most gratifying part of running the NPA for five years, former executive director Alyson Reed says, was bringing together and inspiring fellows who, before they had their own association, felt voiceless. "We created a community where before there was a lot of isolation and lack of connections," Reed says.

Reed says that the NPA has helped universities establish their own postdoc offices (PDOs), which connect to regional associations. The PDA–PDO links help address local issues, such as the need for better connections to business and career opportunities in local industry, and campus issues, such as access to childcare.

There are gaps in education and what industry expects.

Francesco Lescai

But Reed laments the NPA's failure to help increase stipend levels for US postdocs. The NPA wrote a policy paper, testified in Congress and had representatives meet with Elias Zerhouni, director of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) — all to no avail. The NIH is one of the biggest funders of postdocs in the United States and helps set the standard for stipends in government-sponsored research. "People made promises — people in leadership positions and government agencies. They are just falling far short of those pledges," Reed says. "Postdocs have been very patient and very collegial and trying to do things the polite way. But there comes a time when you have to say 'words are nice, but they don't pay the bills.'"

Between 2000 and 2004, the agency raised entry-level postdoc stipends from $26,900 to $36,900. There's been no significant increase since then, but the NIH has improved postdoc healthcare and childcare benefits, notes Norka Ruiz Bravo, NIH deputy director for extramural research.

American model

Strength in bonding

Paulo Silva, who helped set up Eurodoc, is frustrated by its failure to effect wider change.

The NPA's influence has already spread beyond the United States to Europe. Postdocs see it as a model, and some even use the 'tool kit' the association provides to help fellows start up their own PDAs. John Bothwell, a postdoc at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England, has contacted and visited members of the NPA governing board hoping to form a UK postdoc association. Results have been mixed. So far, Bothwell has about 30 universities on board — a fraction of the United Kingdom's total. Funds are a problem, although the UK government has shown some willingness to help. Included among the 2002 Roberts Review — a series of recommendations to foster science, engineering and innovation — were suggestions to improve the science and technology pipeline. One called for better retention of postgraduate scientists. As a result, UK policy-makers authorized £6 million (US$10.6 million) over five years to help improve postdoc conditions.

However, most UK universities averaged a few thousand pounds apiece, with little direction in how to spend the money, Bothwell says. It's mainly the larger institutions — such as the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Manchester and Dundee — that have active, well-organized PDAs; smaller ones have fewer active associations. Bothwell says his next step is convincing participants from 30 or so UK PDAs to meet in December. He wants to know their goals and arrive at a consensus on how to achieve them.

Dealing with difference

Achieving consensus in Europe is complicated by the fact that funding schemes from national governments, the European Union (EU) and foundations differ. There is also a wide discrepancy among more developed systems in the north, such as those in France, Germany and Switzerland, and the south, such as in Spain and Italy. Part of the problem lies with the EU's inability to enforce its own policies, according to Paulo Silva, now a postdoc in biochemistry and molecular biology at Pennsylvania State University. Silva helped launch Eurodoc in 2004, but is frustrated by the its failure to create widespread change. He notes one EU provision, launched in 2005, about research conduct that attempted to put graduate students, postdocs and faculty members on a more even playing field with regard to contracts and benefits. "Everybody should be treated as professionals, no matter what the stage," Silva says of the provision. But, he says, so far there's been no action.

Sometimes member nations clash when EU initiatives are misinterpreted — and the postdoc can be the one who suffers. Silva points to the Bologna Process, which aims to make PhD programmes more uniform in terms of length and quality across Europe, as one example. The EU recommends shortening the length of PhD programmes, yet some countries have interpreted that as shortening the amount of time they will support students and postdocs.

Strength in bonding


John Bothwell (left) plans a UK-wide postdoc association; Yegor Domanov, from the Marie Curie Fellows Association.

Many fellows active in European PDAs complain about a lack of oversight. EU policies cover only people with EU funds; fellows paid for by national schemes are subject to different regulations. But Detlev Arendt, head of the postdoc office at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, says that as the commission now funds about 40% of all postdocs in Europe, its influence is growing. And Arendt believes that even the European Charter for Researchers, which Silva criticizes as being toothless, has some merit. EMBL endorsed the charter, which sets rules of conduct for researchers. By doing so, EMBL improves its chances of earning EU funding — and attracting fellows who know they will be treated fairly under the commission's rules. "They set clear standards for working conditions," Arendt says.

But despite such charters, getting local institutions in line with EU policies is difficult, according to Yegor Domanov, secretary-general of the Marie Curie Fellows Association, and a postdoc at the University of Helsinki. Taxation is the biggest complaint, says Domanov — especially regarding supplementary income, such as mobility allowances and travel expenses, which are taxed by some host countries as income, even though the EU stipulates they should be considered expense reimbursement, not pay. Taxation of postdocs is also an emerging problem in Canada (see 'Showing initiative').

Domanov is collecting what he calls "horror stories" of postdoc experience, as well as other problems, such as visa issues for spouses, finding housing and language courses for foreign fellows. He aims to provide these to the EU in the hope that it will change its policies — or, at least, enforce existing ones better. Domanov echoes many fellows who say that creating real change by postdocs for postdocs is difficult — especially because of the transient nature of their fellowships versus the length of time it takes to effect real change. When fellows active in PDAs move on, many of the issues they have worked to address remain unresolved. Or else they get caught up in writing up their research, pursuing funding or landing their first permanent position — leaving them to pass the torch to the next generation.

Still, Domanov sees the rise of more European postdoc associations and their overall growth in membership as a sign that postdocs can make things better for themselves. "Little by little, people learn they have the power to change things," Domanov says.

Showing initiative

Although postdoc organizations worldwide have struggled to change national policy, they have been more successful highlighting issues specific to their individual constituencies. Postdoc organizations may have a hard time improving, for example, short-term contracts, benefits and stipends. But they have seen some success bringing in career-training programmes. Here is a sample of their ongoing initiatives.

Second that mentor

This autumn, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Heidelberg, Germany, is encouraging fellows to choose another mentor beyond the principal investigator they work under day-to-day. "This gives the fellow some outside input when a postdoc and lab head don't agree on the project or understand each other," says Detlev Arendt, EMBL's postdoc coordinator. Adding another adviser need not be burdensome for the faculty of the fellow: EMBL recommends that the two meet once in the first three months of the fellowship, then once or twice a year after that.

Survey says

The Young European Biotech Network (YEBN) this autumn is completing a survey of 1,000 members and 500 industry contacts about the skills needed in biotechnology and what young scientists can do to prepare for a biotech career. "There are gaps in the education and what industry expects," says Francesco Lescai, YEBN chairman and a medical biotechnologist at the University of Bologna, Italy. He hopes the survey will help young scientists fill those gaps. Lescai also says that European biotech regulations vary by country. "There are certain professions in some countries that aren't regulated at all, and in other countries they are very regulated." The survey will help clarify what those differences are and make scientists more aware of them, Lescai says. The YEBN is also planning a meeting in early 2009 to conduct focus groups with members of YEBN, the European Federation of Biotechnology and the European Commission (EC) to determine the hot issues. This will result in a white paper to the EC about how to better prepare young scientists for biotech careers.

Taxation representation

The Canadian government, eager to import new science talent and keep local stars home, has bolstered its scholarship schemes in recent years — offering as much as Can$50,000 a year for some young students. Although Stuart Netherton, chair of the postdoctoral association at the University of Calgary, applauds the generous funding, he suggests that this represents a double bind for postdocs. First, some Canadian fellows earn less than graduate students receiving the new scholarships, says Netherton. Second, stipends are taxed but scholarships are not — meaning graduate students could theoretically bank about twice the money of their more senior scientists-in-training. The Calgary postdoc association (PDA) is lobbying the government about this gap and hopes to get other Canadian PDAs on board.

Fellows receiving EC funding face similar problems in their home countries. Different nations treat their tax status differently, says Yegor Domanov, secretary-general of the Marie Curie Fellows Association. Domanov says this is the biggest complaint he hears from Marie Curie fellows.

Career scheming

Only a small percentage of postdocs will land academic jobs. At the College of Life Sciences at the University of Dundee, Scotland, that number is 6–7%, says Nicola Stanley-Wall, who runs the postdoc office. So when the university set up that office about five years ago, to coordinate with its PDA, the office decided to focus on jobs outside academia, such as work with contract research organizations that run clinical and preclinical trials. "Our postdoc career development scheme helps highlight different areas of career development that weren't necessarily highlighted before," Stanley-Wall says.

EMBL's postdoc association offers similar services, focusing on general career development, says Arendt. "There are language courses. There's a workshop about preparing for the job market," he explains. "Before they apply, they give a fake seminar and they are the fake committee. We give feedback on their written presentation and their oral presentation."

Yasuo Kanematsu, a biology professor at Osaka University, Japan, is pushing for a government-backed programme that more closely integrates training for both academia and industry. "If we separate the two paths that's not good," says Kanematsu, who has had difficulty getting postdocs to organize.


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