Wednesday, November 6, 2013

A Dialogue with Dean Polonsky – The State of the Postdoctoral Enterprise

by Beth A. Russell, Ph.D.

As postdoctoral researchers we work in a microcosm of our labs and our departments, rarely venturing out of our comfort zone. Deans, Provosts, and Presidents come and go with little effect on us but another email in our inbox. It is easy to forget that the University has an administration when one’s entire career seems dependent on the goodwill of a single primary investigator. But I have recently discovered that the administration is not in fact fictional after all. Last month I had the opportunity to sit down and talk with the Dean of the Biological Sciences Division (BSD) about the challenges that today’s postdocs face and the ways that the division could expand our opportunities.

Dean Kenneth Polonsky is a soft spoken man with a congenial manner and deep insight. In 2010 He returned to the University of Chicago to head the BSD after an 11 year stretch as Chair of the Department of Medicine at Washington University in St. Louis and Physician-in-Chief at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. Previously, Dr. Polonsky had spent over 20 years building a considerable reputation as a top diabetes researcher here in Chicago. Most of that work was done here at the University of Chicago. As Dean of the BSD, Dean Polonsky has to be a bridge between very disparate groups. On one side there are the basic sciences departments and academic programs and on the other are the clinical departments, medical school and hospital. While these areas share many issues, they also face different, sometimes conflicting, challenges; the tensions between these two missions were clear during “The State of Enterprise,” a presentation he gave for the faculty the day we met, that I was also invited to attend. The role of mediator-in-chief is not one that I envy but seems to be well suited for our patient and attentive Dean.

In truth, I never expected to have the opportunity to speak with Dean Polonksy. I assumed that my emailed request for a meeting would be replied to with the contact information for another administrator who might be able to help with the BSD Postdoctoral Association’s recent initiatives. Perhaps it was fortuitous timing. I was granted an appointment the very next day, a few hours before his presentation to the faculty. My intention was to start a dialogue between the Dean and the Postdoctoral Association. Many of the issues that postdocs face in the BSD are bigger than a single department and the role of the postdoctoral researcher in the BSD has begun to change as our opportunities to continue in academia have shrunk. It’s easy for the postdoc population to forget about the administration as we go about our experiments but it is just as easy for the administration to forget about us. We are the wallflowers of academia, hovering in a space that is ill-defined. It is unfortunately to the advantage of the faculty and granting agencies that the role of postdocs remains sketchy. In order to advocate for us, the administration faces contention of some of its loudest constituencies. It is much too simple for the administration to forget that we are also members of the University.

By accepting my request, Dean Polonsky signaled a sincere desire to recognize the role that postdocs play in the success of the BSD. He believes that the primary responsibility of the BSD towards postdocs is to provide a good education and research experience. The research tools available to postdocs here are exceptional; the relationship between the postdocs and the primary investigator might be the biggest limiting factor that we face in regard to research success. Dean Polonsky felt that these relationships are generally successful and was resistant to the suggestion of codifying the responsibilities of the postdocs and the PI. He was supportive however, of the postdoctoral association’s work with the provost’s office to develop a grievance policy for postdocs and the recent implementation of the Individual Development Plan in the annual review process. In the future, I hope that we can explore further what actually defines a “good educational experience.” I believe that it should include a strong professional development component. This is one of the primary functions of the BSD Postdoctoral Association and was central to most of my discussion with the Dean. Given the fact that so few of us (14%1) will end up in academic positions, postdocs need to develop skills that support alternative careers. This statistic seemed to come as news to the Dean and his eyes widened as I illustrated the disconnect between the career expectations of University of Chicago postdocs and the realities of the job market. He was supportive of the idea of developing opportunities for internal externships in existing sectors of the division such as the public affairs office and within the hospital administration so that postdocs could have the opportunity to explore alternative careers in-house. He also agreed to fund our initiative to have postdocs attend the 2014 AAAS meeting which will be held in Chicago in February. The world’s largest general science meeting presents an excellent opportunity for postdocs to learn more about and network in alternative scientific careers and develop skills to support academic careers. I suspect it was the 23 professional development workshops available at the meeting that sold him.

The Dean’s generous support has allowed the BSD Postdoctoral Association to hold a lottery for 10 free postdoc registrations and permits us to obtain a group rate of $235pp for any additional University of Chicago postdocs who wish to attend. While we are no longer taking entries for the lottery which about 10% of our postdocs entered, we will soon be announcing winners and begin collecting registration information from postdocs who wish to pay the reduced rate. This opportunity will be open until early January so keep an eye out for more information in upcoming bulletins.

The AAAS meeting initiative is a superb first collaboration between Dean Polonsky and the BSD Postdoctoral Association. We had an excellent meeting and are looking forward to more successful meetings in the future. Unfortunately, this is only the start of our work. In the “State of the Enterprise” presentation Dean Polonsky gave that night we heard about lots of new professors, patient care aims, financial challenges, and wellness promotion and faculty advising programs for medical students. Nary was a word spoken about postdocs. Perhaps the administration thought we were fictional. I hope our new dialogue shows them that we aren’t.