Trainees, claim your seat or get left behind.

This is a point I was planning to bring up later, but since a comment on the last post has already hit it, let’s start now. IHStreet said,

My worry with this discussion for sustainability is that Ph.D.’s and postdocs will not be considered ‘major stakeholders’/not be a voice in the room (we have numbers but no money, and sadly money matters more than people do in many, many cases– I really am trying not to be cynical).

I replied in the thread, but I think it’s worth pulling this out as a separate thread. My comment:

I didn’t include it in the post, but I especially had trainees in mind when I close, “It’s time to pull up a chair”. Because in these discussions, I’m looking around and wondering, Where are the postdocs and the students?

The National Postdoctoral Association is probably the biggest advocate for this group in the US, and they have some very engaged participants. They’re pushing important issues for postdocs and gathering data.

But having an advocacy organization doesn’t diminish the need for individual engagment. Trainees talk and vent a great deal, but I feel it’s often only in their own circles and often without broader context, e.g. data and understanding the complexity of the system. I was both surprised and not by the lack of trainees present in the session. I don’t know if it’s disenfranchisement, complacency, fear… I understand that many might not feel comfortable speaking up, but at the very least, I think they should be showing up to learn more about the issues in broader contexts, beyond their personal experiences, and to understand the solutions proposed and how these might affect their futures.

Students and postdocs, this is your future we’re talking about, and I’m concerned in many places it’s happening without you. So few of questions for the trainees out there:

  • With regard to participation in these discussions, where are you?
  • If you’re not showing up to at least listen, why not?
  • How are you going to get your seat at the table?
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12 Responses to Trainees, claim your seat or get left behind.

  1. ihstreet says:

    I am happy that the NPA (and local postdoc associations) exist; as I imagine there must be national grad student organizations as well.

    To answer your questions at the end of your post (as I think you’re spot on in the large lack of individual engagement):

    With regard to participation in these discussions, where am I? I talk about it on Twitter some, but it’s mostly with colleagues; I try to listen to the broader questions/structural issues (one reason I follow you; you know a lot about this stuff!) of science as an enterprise…my own particular area of interest being the mental health of scientists, especially the young ones whose careers might be derailed because of it (I don’t write for a wide audience, but writing about it is for me more than anyone else & it helps me in a lot of ways).

    If I’m not showing up to listen, why not? For the listening I do, it does feel pointless/hopeless/beyond me; i’m a member of ASPB and AAAS, but I don’t vote in their elections even though I could because I truly don’t know if there are differences in candidates, if it matters who the next president of AAAS is, it’s a PI only discussion in my mind; I’m just supposed to crank out research & not think about the bigger issues…big pictures are a PIs job…at least that’s been my strong sense). I am involved in some committees for ASPB, but again, it takes back seat to my research.

    How are you going to get your seat at the table? I am trying to write more about the structural issues and even want to talk about engagement of scientists on social media platforms; my goal would be to get a guest post onto the ASPB blog this year…just need to be bold enough to send the one I’ve been working on for a long time into them for consideration. I am also not sure who to talk to; Do program officers at NIH/NSF listen to postdocs? Are reforms needed local (to institutions) or nationally? Do states matter here? I don’t know exactly how to get involved, but know I want to; if all I can do in my career is make science a better place for people to do research, then I’ll consider that a very good career.

  2. The NPA has been very active on this for years, in fact it was the driving force behind the organization being created in the early 2000s. By 2007 we had managed to get NIH Director Zerhouni to give the keynote at the annual meeting, however the fixes between then and now have been small (see this piece I wrote in 2005 to see how little has changed http://arstechnica.com/science/2005/03/science-20050326/).

    ihstreet: many of the required fixes will involve stakeholders other than NIH; universities and medical centers will need to get on board, and Congress will have to change some existing laws. As a citizen, tax payer, and voter, it’s your reponsibility to make your views known on this to your elected officials (unless like me you live in DC and don’t have any). Write them letters about it. Go and visit their local offices and ask to talk to them about the problem and how they can help fix it.

    • ihstreet says:

      What existing laws will congress need to change? (I ask out of genuine ignorance here; I assume it’s beyond the budget appropriation for Science funding agencies).

      My thing with bringing the plight of postdocs to Congress is that in any given district, we’re such a minor population that they don’t need our vote (I have written my Congressional delegation in the past). Science is also such a tiny part of the budget that my sense is most politicians don’t think much about it; it’s an (important) footnote in the budget, for sure. I know there’s a (sub?)committee that manages science; though not all of it falls under HHS, right?

      and I agree it goes beyond NIH; maybe I make the mistake of thinking that research universities and NIH agree on nearly everything with regard to PhDs and postdocs.

      I know postdocs have to start doing something differently if things are going to change, but even me, as one who’s fairly engaged, still has my head in the lab bench :-/.

      • With regard to addressing Congress, your voice is actually quite important to your representatives. The size of the postdoc constituency is irrelevant–you should talk about the benefits you bring to the state/district you’re in. YOU are the one who is working toward breakthroughs in critical issues related to human health. YOUR work brings NIH/NSF/other federal dollars into the state/district that improve the economic well-being of the community. And YOUR discoveries have the potential to make significant change, otherwise you wouldn’t get funded. These are the stories Congress needs to hear, and they do listen to them, especially when they come from constituents. Besides, every member of Congress loves to brag about the awesome science being done in their district/state.

        Also, Congress does think quite a bit about science and innovation. They just had a 2.5 hour hearing on with the directors of OSTP, NIH, NSF, DOE, and DARPA. (See our recap: http://wp.me/p4oszW-w9). As to your question about Congressional committees, at least 6 committees deal directly with science issues-funding or oversight-and that number goes way up if you start including other ancillary issues like immigration and travel of federal scientists.

        As far as getting involved, look to the member societies you’re a part of. ASPB, AAAS, NPA and others have great advocacy programs. You don’t have to vote for/care about the leadership of those organizations. But you can send the public affairs office an email saying you’re interested in postdoc issues and asking how you can get involved. They’ll do a lot of the work in clearing up your questions at the end of your first post. And they understand the bench science must come first. The great thing about advocacy is that it can be a 90 second phone call or a much longer investment.

        The only thing I’d add to what Jonathan Gitlin said is that industries outside of academia need to get involved wrt changing training, in addition to universities and the government. The places that require a Ph.D. as a precondition for getting a job need to be involved when it comes to modifying grad student and postdoc training.

  3. ihstreet says:

    Reblogged this on postdocstreet and commented:
    BiochemBelle posing some very important questions for Ph.Ds/postdocs. We had better speak up now, more than ever and not just in our own confined circles.

  4. If I’m around (I wasn’t at EB this year), then I generally go to listen. Participation is another matter entirely, though. Part of it is that I don’t know what needs to be changed. Obviously, I know that something should be changed, but I’m fuzzy on the finer details. Still, for everything that is proposed I feel like there are PIs talking about how that will destroy their science programs, etc. (For example, increase in PD pay seems to be met with the response of “You’re taking away money from the science. That’s only going to shoot you in the foot, when there’s no money left for experiments.” The same is said about creating staff scientist positions.Similar sentiments about decreasing the production of PhDs.) I mean, I’m ok with being culled from the herd (I almost certainly will be next year), but I don’t know if that’s what’s best for the community at large.

  5. psycgirl says:

    I’m behind on posts, so I hope this isn’t off topic – I feel like I’m struggling with similar issues (claiming my seat, changing the system) as an Assistant Professor. On one hand graduate training/PD training/Assistant Prof has a very clear goal – get a PhD/job/tenure. And you have to work very very hard for it. At the same time, I am developing pure hate for the system I’m working in – but every time I spend emotional energy on that system and trying to effect change, it takes away from the time I should be spending on the tasks I need to get tenure. It often feels like I have finite emotional resources (and “real” resources) so I can only do one or the other. I’m keeping my head down for tenure now and hoping i can “claim a seat” after tenure. I did the same thing eventually as a grad student. There is also an inherent power differential – am I going to be “punished” as an individual if I get involved and speak up about issues in academia, science, granting? I’m not sure… but the risk feels very great and potentially not worth it. (So I have no solutions here, just the thoughts of someone who is very burnt out!)

  6. JP Atmosci says:

    I did one postdoc in the UC system before getting a fellowship in DC and am now doing research support at East Coast U. When I was in the UC system the postdocs unionized, and that’s another way to gain a seat at the table (I thought it was hilarious to be represented by the UAW, but whatever, I think the union does some good).

    One thing I can’t escape about organizing postdocs is that no one intends to be a postdoc for very long. As psycgirl noted, there’s real incentive to just work hard for that brass ring; why rock the boat when it’s ‘only temporary’ anyways?

    I’m more inclined to agitate in the interest of postdocs now that I’m out of the research game (for now) but also am cognizant that East Coast U. may not appreciate it. And I just got my first permanent job in 9 years…excuses excuses…

  7. katiesci says:

    As for being at the session… I should have been and really wanted to go but my body revolted after little sleep and hours of travel and I ended up napping. Terrible excuse.

    • biochembelle says:

      Oh, I definitely hear that. And there will be times that other factors keep us away from sessions. Bigger picture (eg why general trend) is important to understand.

  8. Pingback: EB Sustainability Discussion…Input Sought | Data Hound

  9. Legal Alien Postdoc says:

    I agree with many of the comments made so far. I feel like there are other priorities that have to take precedence. I’m not fully aware of how to go about getting more involved. I’m hoping this position is only a temporary step in the ladder. There is also the feeling that you have to learn the system to change the system. Some of these feel to me like excuses than reasons (for my self, I don’t know about others).

    However, I would also like to bring up the fact that a large proportion of postdocs and graduate students in the system are foreign. They are here on a visa and have a very different mindset about the whole thing. For many, the goal is to be exposed to science in the US, publish well and then return to the home country. The idea that they can contribute to change anything is beyond their goals. One other issue is that the whole visa process drills into you the impression that you DO NOT make waves. We have no representatives to contact, we pay taxes but we can’t vote, the whole experience is a “take it or leave it” situation, or as it’s often phrased, “if you don’t like it go back to your country”. When you’re made to feel like you’re lucky to even be here and easily replaceable, it’s difficult to muster up the energy to demand for more.

    Having said all that, I am in the privileged position to be able to and interested in getting involved. So, it’s really a matter of trying harder and investing some energy into it.

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