Widgets Magazine


Postdoc perspective: Sounding a note of optimism

Recently, postdocs met with Provost Persis Drell and Vice Provost for Graduate Education(VPGE) Patti Gumport. The small group of representative postdocs, made up of leadership from postdoc community organizations (SURPAS, oSTEM, Black Postdoc Association, AIMS, ACSSS and postdoc parents), presented data and anecdotes on the current experience of postdocs at Stanford University. While the issues facing postdocs are complex and nothing will be changed overnight, the meeting overall was positive.

With the new leadership in the administration, both Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Persis Drell have had direct experience with postdocs. At the meeting, Provost Drell even gave her own anecdote of being a postdoc in the Bay Area and her own struggles with the transition. Their experience implies that the new leadership is already a much stronger ally to the postdoc community than we had felt from the administration in the past several years. Their support is critical at this time.

The most tremendous concerns for postdocs are similar to what other groups face, and mostly revolve around the absurd cost of living in the area. For postdocs, on-campus housing is nearly impossible to come by, with wait lists lasting two years or more. The astronomical costs of living in the areas close to campus (i.e. Palo Alto, Mountain View, Menlo Park) have meant that almost half of postdocs live farther away, increasing commute time. A quarter of postdocs are parents, and a meager salary coupled with high childcare costs create a precarious, and for some, guilt-inducing stress. Those postdocs who can make the sacrifice to live here often have the socioeconomic privilege to do so. Socioeconomic pressure is one of several factors that can deter diversity. Considering that under-represented minorities have even lower representation in the postdoc population than the graduate or undergraduate populations, deterring diversity is not the right direction.

In the current heated political climate of the U.S., it’s no surprise that activism aimed at the Trump administration would start to spill over into other arenas closer to home. Indeed, in this atmosphere of ongoing insecurity about immigration and funding for research coupled with concerns about cost of living, some postdocs have started to take up the cause for unionization. They point to the apparent success of the University of California postdocs who have been able to leverage union power to improve salaries and other benefits.

For the last 20 years of its existence, the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS, formerly SUPD) has taken on the bulk of advocacy for salary, benefits and housing, as well as social and networking activities on behalf of the postdoc community. There have been good faith efforts by SURPAS and a generally receptive administration over the past couple of decades, which have resulted in continuing, if incremental, improvements for postdoc welfare. Sofie Kleppner and the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs have been particularly helpful liaisons in recent years. Because of this, we already have many of the perks that the UC postdocs only now receive with their contracts. But there remains room for improvement in a variety of areas: addressing economic needs, clarifying postdoc classification, ensuring consistent mentoring, providing professional development and improving diversity.

Fortunately, Provost Drell and VPGE Gumport are well aware of many of the ongoing concerns postdocs have about their experience and where they stand in the Stanford community. They are already convinced of the contribution by postdocs to research and the educational mission of Stanford, and the importance of the postdoc community as a pipeline for future leadership in academia, industry and government. However, they were grateful for the powerful individual anecdotes that the attendees of the meeting were able to provide. Providing anecdotes from members of the postdoc community will be critical in helping this new leadership to convey the priority of our needs to various decision making bodies on campus.

With all of the troubling activity happening at the federal level, it is reassuring that the current political environment closer to home appears to be friendlier to postdocs.  Postdocs, along with other members of the Stanford community, have fresh opportunities for contributing to the campus culture and advocating our needs. We have been asked to aid with long-range planning initiatives by contributing proposals and participating on the review committees. Former long-range planning initiatives led to more housing for graduate students, and it may be possible to create solutions for postdocs. Although it is still in the early days, all signs point to room for optimism that postdocs can continue to see improvements in their experience at Stanford; postdocs just need to keep participating.

– Kate Brown
Postdoctoral scholar


Contact Kate Brown at kvbrown ‘at’ stanford.edu.