In the past year, dozens of Harvard postdocs–including several from the Molecular and Cellular Biology Department–have banded together into an organization that addresses postdocs’ unique needs through projects that include advocacy and hosting social and networking events. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences Postdoc Association (FASPDA)’s upcoming events include picnics, happy hours, and Postdoc Appreciation Week (September 18-22).
“As a postdoc association, we’re just trying to make the postdoc a better place to be,” says FASPDA president and MCB postdoc Adnan Syed. “Graduate students, undergraduate students, and faculty have all been a really integral part of the university system for pretty much as long as universities have been around, but postdocs haven’t been a major part of that until the past 20-30 years. And so postdocs don’t have a lot of resources.”
The postdoc years can be extremely stressful due to a variety of factors: many postdoc positions are low-pay and without fixed appointment lengths. According to the FASPDA’s 2016 survey report, about 57% of Harvard postdocs are married and are likely juggling their family lives with searching for faculty positions, paying off loans, teaching, and working long hours in the lab. With all of the responsibilities, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or let certain things fall by the wayside, but the FASPDA offers postdocs opportunities to connect with each other, interface with the university, and access career development resources.
“Shockingly, many of the problems that face postdocs can be solved through proper disbursal of information and opportunities like grants, hackathons and career support,” the FASPDA wrote in a statement. ”We hope to make communication amongst postdocs easier and to use each other as our best resource.”
By fostering opportunities for postdocs to interact with each other both online and in person, the FASPDA hopes to both offer solutions to common postdoc problems and build a sense of community. For example, the association is planning to launch a Slack group with a channels devoted to postdocs in specific fields, postdocs from overseas, and postdocs who have kids, as well as channels that simply focus on hobbies and miscellaneous mutual interests. The goal is for the Slack group to serve as both an advice-swapping forum and a way to make friends and organize smaller events, such as hiking trips.
Though the existing Office of Postdoc Affairs is a key resource for Harvard postdocs, it’s an office run by administrative staff. However, the Office of Postdoc Affairs and the FASPDA frequently collaborate on events and initiatives. “It’s been great partnering with the leaders of the postdoctoral association (PDA) to plan events and new initiatives that complement our office’s mission to support postdocs,” says Stephen Kargere, Director of the Office for Postdoc Affairs. “One of the great strengths of the PDA is to serve as an organization of postdocs for postdocs. We look forward to many more collaborations in the years ahead.”
MCB Scientific Director Polina Kehayova agrees, saying: “Postdocs are one of the most important driving forces of scientific research and innovation. It’s been a true pleasure for me to learn from the creativity, knowledge and enthusiasm of the MCB postdocs in setting up programming that would support them in their professional pursuits. I look forward to exploring new ideas and initiatives together with the PDA and the FAS Office for Postdoc Affairs.”
The FASPDA hosts a wide range of events including job talks, excursions to local landmarks such as the MFA, and science cafes, where postdocs gather to hear their fellow postdocs give informal presentations about their work. Career development is a perennial concern for postdocs, and events that provide career advice and tips for securing grant funding have been among the most popular. For many events, the FASPDA coordinates with the Office of Postdoc Affairs and postdoc associations around the Greater Boston area.
However, many postdocs who join the FASPDA just enjoy hearing each others’ stories and ideas. “When I heard about the FASPDA I thought it would be a great way to promote communication between people both at the scientific and personal level,” says postdoc Ana Pereira, who serves on the FASPDA’s finance committee. “Over the last year I learned a lot about the science done here in quite an informal and fun way as well as making many friends.” Syed says one of his favorite events so far was the FASPDA Symposium, where dozens of postdocs from different departments presented posters about their research. Over 100 people attended the symposium.
“The main reason I join[ed] the FASPDA was because I thought it would be a great way to immerse myself in the postdoc community to better understand all aspects of academic life both personally and professionally,” says Jadiel Wasson, an MCB postdoc who served on the PDA’s advocacy committee. “Once in the PDA, I realized the impact that could be made to increase the wellness of the postdoc community here in FAS through advocacy.”
The group’s advocacy projects are driven by results from surveys and in-depth conversations. The association organizes groups to brainstorm solutions to issues faced by subsets within the postdoc community. For example, in 2016, the FASPDA hosted a Parent Roundtable: “This is a roundtable discussion between postdocs who are parents and the FASPDA members about the kind of challenges they face like affordable childcare, healthcare, schools in the area, etc.,” the FASPDA wrote in their statement. “The idea is to identify problems and advocate on the postdocs’ behalf with the administration.”
In the coming year, the FASPDA hopes to host more parent-friendly events so that even more postdocs can come out and socialize. “Coming out of last year, we realized that postdocs with kids are a really forgotten group of postdocs, because once you have a family and you have young kids, you’re not really around and you’re not really active,” says Syed. “So we’re planning things like picnics that are going to be kid-focused and kid-friendly, so they can kind of get together and build that community among postdoc parents.”
The FASPDA will also continue organizing career-building and networking events, which are often co-sponsored by local biotech companies. Although most Harvard postdocs hope to start their own research labs, helping postdocs build industry connections is a key part of the FASPDA’s mission. “I was especially interested in joining the career committee and help postdocs to enhance their skills and provide opportunities for them to learn about a potential transition to a non-academic career,” says MCB postdoc Chris Tijs, who collaborated with the Boston Postdoc Association to organize an industry networking symposium.
Although many of the current leaders of the postdoc association are in science departments, particularly the MCB department, the postdoc association hopes to expand and include more postdocs from humanities and social sciences in their events and projects.
“We are always looking for volunteers to help put on events,” the FASPDA wrote in their statement. “If you would like to help, or have an interest in starting something new, please contact us!”
One of their big upcoming projects will be Postdoc Appreciation Week (September 18-22), which will include both Harvard-specific events–including an ice cream social and a sailing trip–and joint events with other Boston area postdoc associations, such as a Trivia Night at the Aeronaut Brewing Company.