A Fresh Focus on Postdocs

Submitted on October 2, 2017

By Elizabeth Labiner and Terry Pitt-Brooke

Postdoctoral scholars are critical to the university’s mission, but often our community is unaware of their valuable roles. They’re neither students nor faculty, not here long enough to set down deep roots, and isolated within their labs among a multiplicity of designations and titles. This lack of attention is coming to an end with the formation of two organizations dedicated to serving the group: Postdoctoral Affairs (PA) and the University of Arizona Postdoctoral Association (UAPA). Postdoctoral Affairs is a unit of UA's Reasearch, Discovery, and Innovation.

Sarah Richman of PA explains, “A postdoc is someone who has completed a PhD and is engaging in more training in their field.  Postdoctoral positions mostly last between one and three years.  In many scientific fields, a postdoc, while not absolutely required, makes you a lot more competitive for faculty positions.”  

Richman and Keaton Wilson, a member of the Executive Board of the UAPA, are both ecologists with a special interest in insect-plant interactions.  When asked how long he expected to be a postdoctoral researcher before getting a faculty position, Wilson answered: “In my case, I’m in a three-year postdoc, I’ve been here a year and a half, and I expect to be looking seriously for a faculty position starting in about six months—so three years total.  I’d say that’s average for biology—between two and five years.”

Wilson described the postdoc as a sort of journeyman phase of the academic’s career: “In my personal experience, you finish your PhD, and you’ve had some experience doing independent research, analyzing data, doing grant writing, and working on your budgets.  At the end of the PhD, I think most people need more experience with those things."

Wilson continues: “The job search at the end of the postdoc has become more stressful, more rigorous and more competitive, and that’s just a consequence of fewer faculty positions.  So the challenge is to provide postdocs the skills they can use outside of academia.”

In the transitional space between “student” and “faculty” status, postdocs face some unique challenges.  Postdocs are not hired on a campus-wide basis, but by individual labs and programs, so there’s a lack of consistency in benefit packages. Unlike students, postdocs all arrive at different times, according to the needs of the lab or department that hires them. This may not sound like a serious problem, but in practice it means that there is often no sense of cohort or community among postdocs. This is an issue that the UAPA has been trying to address with a schedule of social events.  “We try to organize one or two get-togethers a month,” says Wilson, “say, a happy hour at a local brewery or bar as well as some more family-friendly stuff like trips to the Zoo, Winterhaven, and the like.” Dr. Jenny Hoit, Director of PA, is addressing the varied arrival dates with programming to welcome arrivals throughout the year: “We plan to do about three [postdoc orientations] per year. We think this will go a long way toward making postdocs feel welcome and establishing community.” The first of this year’s orientations was September 20.

Both PA and the UAPA have emerged from the efforts of Hoit.  Says Richman: “I know that for her this has been a long time coming.  Over decades of her career, she’s noticed that when you’re a doctoral student, there’s a lot of structure, but when you move into the postdoctoral world, there’s a lot of freedom. At the same time, there’s a lack of community and consistency across campus.”  Wilson also stressed Dr. Hoit’s role in the creation of the UAPA: “When I arrived on campus, Jenny Hoit was in the midst of assessing the needs of postdocs on campus.  It’s something that she and others had been aware of for some time—that there was this community on campus that didn’t fit in to the traditional buckets of categorization.”

Hoit herself highlights the similarities between graduate students and postdocs, but notes that postdoctoral scholars are typically older than graduate students and often have their own families. Additionally, she says, the majority of postdocs are international. Regardless of individual distinctions, however, Hoit explains that “the overarching difference is in experience; postdocs have finished their PhD programs and are quite savvy in many ways, but they have not had the experience of being a faculty member, and some never will because not all postdocs want to go into academia.”

Hoit’s programs and initiatives provide structure, information, and, perhaps most importantly, unity to postdocs. This is a vital part of Hoit’s mission: “We hope that Postdoctoral Affairs will help bring them together to build their own community and give them colleagues with whom to socialize and share their experiences.”

For further information on Postdoctoral Affairs, visit postdoc.arizona.edu. To get involved, or to get more information on the University of Arizona Postdoctoral Association, visit their website at http://uapostdocs.weebly.com/.