Opinion: How Postdocs Can Participate

Graduate students and postdoctoral researchers should be taking part in discussions on the future of biomedical research.

Sep 18, 2014
Jessica Polka

FLICKR, RICHARD RUTTERThe US biomedical research landscape is in flux, and a growing number of white papers, recommendations, workshops, and editorials speak to an urgent need for fundamental changes to the systems for distributing funding, evaluating work, and training scientists. However, there’s one key group missing from many of these discussions on how to fix biomedical research: graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. While the perspective and experience of senior scientists is invaluable, it is we junior scientists who will work in the landscape shaped by these decisions. While it’s easy to feel paralyzed by uncertainty, grad students and postdocs need to, as blogger Biochem Belle has put it, “claim our seat at the table or be left behind.”

Here are three ways to do just that:

Educate ourselves

Grad students and postdocs frequently talk about workforce stability, funding structure, and training, but much of this discussion is fueled with only anecdotes and generalities. We should understand the facts about the current state of the biomedical research system and share them to enrich the discussion and empower our colleagues.

Find a positive voice

Although we are directly affected by the ailments of the system, it’s vital for us to practice speaking without bitterness. Maintaining objectivity will make it possible to discuss these issues with people outside of our immediate circles—senior faculty, administrators, and other leaders—without playing into the easily-dismissed stereotype of the disgruntled trainee. Instead, we need to find ways to engage in a positive way. We share a common vision of a more productive scientific future, and young scientists especially must frame our arguments in these terms.

Organize meetings

We should focus our efforts on tangible goals, connect with stakeholders from different sectors, and provide a platform for aggregating a large number of trainee perspectives.

For example, my fellow postdocs and I from eight institutions in Boston, aided by our Pan-PDA (a network of local postdoc associations) have organized a symposium, called the Future of Research, to be held in October. If you’re in town, join us. If not, you might consider organizing a similar meeting.

Here’s how:

Identify like-minded peers. If there is a postdoc or grad student organization at your university, join it, and ask to organize a discussion group around these issues. Build a mailing list and meet regularly to plan your meeting, setting a mission statement, date, venue, speakers, sponsors, and publicity. Consider making parts of the meeting interactive and participant-driven while still maintaining focus and productivity.

Find sympathetic mentors who are passionate about your cause and have experience organizing conferences. Reach out to your network to find them. If they are more senior, they may be able to help forge connections to speakers, sponsors, or promoters.

Decide on a way to carry the message forward after the meeting, beyond the audience of young scientists. Consider writing posts for blogs with a wide audience. Pitch opinion pieces—like this one—to disseminate meeting materials to journals. Become involved in scientific societies and ask to help organize sessions on similar topics. Mount a social media campaign. Contact policy-makers directly. Whatever your plan, communicate it clearly to attendees: they must leave your conference with a sense of how they can contribute to the cause going forward.

While we can’t change the system by ourselves, our experience in organizing this upcoming meeting has shown us that decision makers are willing to listen to the perspectives of young scientists. In addition, discussing these issues will help us solidify our own vision for a scientific future that we, ourselves, will one day be in a position to shape.

Jessica Polka is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard Medical School, where her research focus is on the assembly and function of complex structures in bacterial cells. She is also working to organize a symposium on the Future of Research.