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Fostering Postdoctoral Community

by Sunny Merik, Public Affairs
posted Mar. 18, 1998

The buffet is sumptuous; the conversation sparkles as the honored guests – 200 mostly young men and women, their spouses and toddlers – sample hot pasta, cold meats, fruits and cheeses. The Strawberry Creek String Band fills the background with lively old-time music. The March 2 event at the Bancroft Hotel is the first reception for Berkeley postdoctoral fellows.

Quoting USC President Steven Sample on the value of postdocs to their institutions, Graduate Division Dean Joseph Cerny welcomes the fellows and pledges his commitment to improving the postdoc experience at Berkeley.

“The lab would not be the same without the energy and dedication of the postdocs,” adds Pier Oddone, LBL deputy director.

Their remarks bring Berkeley into a national conversation that has taken place since 1993 when Sample’s speech, “Postdoctoral Education in America,” at a meeting of the Association of Graduate Schools, started university administrators discussing postdoc contributions, salaries and working conditions.

More recently, a 1997 report from the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology of the American Association for the Advancement of Science described postdocs’ situation as “no man’s land.” The report on career prospects said that postdocs’ unstructured existence is “compounded by shortages in faculty positions, low salaries, little or no job security and ever-tightening budgets.”

The report added that “The number and percentage of new doctorates who go into temporary postdoctoral positions immediately after graduation have increased substantially in recent years.”

Linda McPheron, Berkeley’s coordinator for postdoctoral affairs and a speaker at the reception, cited another concern. “While in the past, a new PhD might do one postdoc fellowship to gain additional experience, now it is more probable that she or he will perform several postdocs, especially in the life sciences,” she said. “They find themselves in this low-paid ‘holding pattern’ for several years. This is a very difficult situation.”

Maresi Nerad, director of graduate education research added, “Major research universities have a larger number of postdocs who are staying longer than ever before. We want to help them with the next step of getting a good job.”

Toward this end, the Graduate Division is compiling a postdoctoral appointment handbook describing rights, regulations and privileges of postdocs here.

Cerny described two additional efforts to improve the postdoc experience at Berkeley: reviewing health insurance and developing better career placement services.

A workshop series is also planned. (see below)

Since 1995, postdoctoral organizations have begun to take shape. At the March 2 reception, three speakers shared their experience with such organizations – Sophie Lelievre, co-president of the LBNL Postdoctoral Society; Sharon Stranford, a member of the executive committee of UCSF’s Postdoctoral Scholars Association; and Brian Rowning, president of the Coalition of Life Sciences Postdoctoral Associations.

Sam Castaneda, visiting scholar and postdoctoral appointment coordinator in the Graduate Division, said the reception was a first step in developing a closer connection between the campus and the postdoc community.

“We have more than 1,000 postdoctoral fellows on campus and another 200 at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and yet their connection with the university is sometimes invisible because half are not on Berkeley’s payroll,” he said. “We see these postdocs as an important part of our campus community and want to help them develop stronger bonds to the university.”

As Berkeley nurtures its postdoc community and develops programs to meet their needs, it will take its place among the higher education leaders who recognize the significant contributions postdoctoral fellows make to the life and research of the university.

The Graduate Division and the LBNL Postdoctoral Society Postdoc Workshops

Effective Science Writing
LBNL, Bldg. 66 Auditorium
March 27, 9 a.m.-noon or 2-5 p.m.
March 28, 9 a.m.-noon or 2-5 p.m.

Academic Job Search
April 9, 16, 23 and 30, 4-7 p.m.

Grant Writing
May 21, 4-7 p.m.

Nonacademic Job Search
June 4, 11, 18 and 25, 4-7 p.m.

Public and Professional Speaking
July 23, 4-7 p.m.

For workshop information:
call 839-4341

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