Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey
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Supporting Postdoc Advocates

A second obstacle that institutions face in improving postdoc conditions is that often the authority to implement reforms is widely diffused. Policies on formal reviews, job placement services, salaries and benefits can be set by thousands of relatively autonomous individual principal investigators distributed over hundreds of departments. The reach of centralized authority is further limited by the multitude of postdoc job titles, which can place them under multiple academic jurisdictions within one institution. In the absence of strong institutional advocates for postdocs, change requires buy-in from many stakeholders.

Postdoc offices and associations provide advocacy for postdocs, and a recent Postdoc Network survey strongly suggests that these organizations have been a powerful catalyst for improving the postdoctoral experience. Surveyed institutions with postdoc offices or associations offered significantly greater access to benefits and were more likely to have annual raise policies than institutions without such organizations. Our project helps existing postdoc offices and associations further their missions by providing them with data to support strong policies and practices and by demonstrating the benefits of initiatives that have already begun.

Our project can also help to foster the creation of new associations and offices by providing a simple way for these organizations to assess the needs of their postdocs. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), if funded, will send teams of postdocs from institutions with successful postdoc associations to help form postdoc associations at other institutions. The NPA has offered to have these site visit teams help newly forming associations with survey data gathering since the survey results will help the teams provide appropriate guidance to the new organizations. We will work with the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) to provide a range of methodological options that will accommodate participating organizations with a wide range of resources, and will strive to make participation as straightforward as possible for newly forming organizations.

Our project is inspired in part by existing campus-wide surveys of postdoctoral fellows conducted by postdoc associations and offices which have offered effective tools for creating and improving policies. Nearly half of the established campus postdoc associations have published online the results of their membership surveys. These surveys have helped postdoctoral associations focus on the issues that matter most to their constituents, and in some cases they have also guided administrators making policy changes that affect postdocs.

While these surveys demonstrate the power of data and the willingness of postdocs to complete surveys, their effectiveness is limited. Each survey was created with different aims and in different contexts. It is impossible to compare data across campuses because questions are phrased differently and each survey has a different focus. In addition, the surveys have been administered and analyzed by postdocs, who do not always have the time or expertise to do a thorough analysis or report and whose status may create perceptions of potential bias. Our project will build on the strengths of existing surveys by providing professionally-developed questions, data gathering procedures and analysis, thus making it possible to aggregate and compare data across many institutions.

Project Overview