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Need for a nationwide Indian Postdoctoral Association

Prasad Krishnan, Penn State University

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), a postdoc is “An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path. From this definition the key point to be understood is that a postdoc position is not a permanent position. The postdoctoral culture has been in existence in the United States for several decades. The postdoctoral system in the USA used to be disorganized, with the relation between the principal investigator and the postdoc being sacrosanct. The National Academies have produced reports on the postdoctoral system in 1969, 1980, 2000 and 2014. The report in 1969 mentioned the need for studying the postdoctoral phenomenon. The subsequent report, in 1980, identified a few serious concerns of postdocs—lack of prestige, lack of recognized status and diminishing career opportunities.

In the year 2000 came another report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, which noticed that postdoctoral training had expanded very rapidly within the USA, but without adequate oversight. The report suggested several measures to improve the situation of postdocs, and was responsible for positive changes—the NIH and many universities created offices of postdoctoral affairs to enhance the experience of postdoc researchers, and the NSF added a requirement to include a mentoring plan for postdocs in any research grant that involved postdocs. Among all the outcomes, the creation of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) was most significant.

The NPA was formed by a group of postdocs who attended Science’s Nextwave Postdoc Network meeting in 2002. At this meeting, it was decided to create a body that would affect positive change for postdocs across the research landscape of the USA. The initial funding for the NPA came from the Sloan Foundation. The NPA today has close to 200 institutional members and around 2500 individual members. The postdocs in the USA now have a collective voice, and their issues related to salary, working conditions, career prospects, funding etc. are being heard by the NPA and presented more effectively to the concerned authorities like  NIH, NSF and Scientific Advisory Committees set up by the Federal Govt.  NPA actively advocates the creation of postdoc offices (PDO) in universities and also provides guidance to form postdoctoral associations (PDA).  PDOs are offices comprising of at least a senior faculty and administrative staff, meant to facilitate respective organizations in postdoctoral recruitment, appointment, career development and mentoring. PDA on the other hand is the association formed by postdocs to manage their career development, mentoring, social and professional activities along with PDO.  Many universities now have very active associations, run by postdocs. In addition, the NPA holds annual meetings to discuss issues related to postdoctoral training, conducts workshops on career development and acts as a liaison between postdocs and policy makers.

The changes in postdoc mentoring are not confined to academia and Govt. organizations. The changes are even felt in private organizations. Dr.Leslie Pond, Director of the successful Postdoctoral Program at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research (NIBR) shares in her own words how having a postdoc office is boosting the research activities. “At the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research, our postdoc program helps to support an innovative culture, while offering the postdocs an opportunity to do great science in a drug discovery environment. Our postdocs conduct their research with the guidance of a NIBR mentor, and where appropriate an academic mentor, and work on exploratory project areas that allow them to share freely their research findings with the broader scientific community. Having a dedicated postdoc office allows us to coordinate the program across sites and departments and offer community events and development workshops, among other support, for mentors and postdocs.”

The current career scenario for postdocs in the USA is not very hopeful, with diminishing job openings in academia, the traditional destination for postdocs. There is therefore a pressing need to expose and prepare postdocs for the spectrum of careers available outside mainstream academia. The NPA has identified several core competencies that are necessary for postdocs to make the switch successfully, and plays a major role in disseminating information about various career opportunities for postdocs. It has several resources and a career tool kit to help postdocs in pursuing their career of choice.

Philip Clifford, Associate Dean for Research at University of Illinois, Chicago, an ardent supporter of postdocs, stresses on the need for comprehensive training. In an email communication, he says, “With a burgeoning population of highly trained scientists poised to enter the job market, the competition is intense for recent PhDs in the sciences.  Regardless of career path, scientists need to have breadth and depth in their knowledge base along with appropriate technical skills. But these alone are not sufficient. Scientists also need expertise in communication, leadership and management, professionalism, and the responsible conduct of research (see http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/competencies).

Developing skills in these additional areas requires deliberate effort and time away from the bench. Leading universities across the US are recognizing the value of providing workshops, symposia, and courses on these topics for their graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.” Several such professional development programs are frequently organized by the postdoc offices and associations, in line with the guidelines from NPA on the competencies. While I served as the Chair of the Penn State Postdoc Association I took the initiative to introduce community outreach programs and research advocacy initiatives for postdocs at Penn State University. Volunteering for activities organized by the postdoc office and postdoc associations helped me in improving my own communication, leadership and management skills.

India is currently witnessing a surge in research activities, with the formation of newer institutions like IISERs and NIPERs. The facilities have been upgraded in many leading institutions to match international standards. The number of postdocs is also increasing, keeping up with the progress in research, backed by the good funding scenario. However, currently there is no proper record of the number of postdocs in India. The postdoctoral culture is still in a growth phase. With no formal association for postdocs, we might end up in a similar situation faced by the USA a couple of decades ago. As academic jobs get filled up, postdocs might have to look for other careers. There are some concerns that need to be addressed to make sure that Indian universities and research institutions are well prepared to guide postdocs. Are postdocs making the most of their mentoring relationships? Is there a proper system to monitor the quality of training received by postdocs? How do postdocs deal with stress or other issues? Indian universities and institutes with a sizable number of postdocs will need a separate postdoc office to manage postdocs. Similarly there is a need for postdoc associations to complement the postdoc offices. All these postdoc offices and associations, well connected centrally by a national postdoc association, will provide a one-stop place for postdocs to seek guidance and resources for planning their career. Establishing these systems now, when Indian academia is on the upswing, will ensure well-planned and mature growth of the postdoctoral community.

Prasad Krishnan is a postdoc scholar at Penn State University, University Park, USA and is an independent career advisor. He was the Chair of Penn State Postdoc Society-University Park during 2012-14 and is actively involved with the National Postdoctoral Association in USA. He can be contacted at PKrish2011@gmail.com

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