During their postdoctoral experience, scientists live in a "no-man's land," invisible to the university administration.
At Columbia University Health Sciences, we would like to make postdocs more fully part of the research community. A new Office of Post-doctoral Affairs will help identify the postdocs at Health Sciences, develop an institutional policy on appointments, create orientation packages and sessions, establish a database to track postdocs, create a Web site, and provide community building events for this invaluable group of investigators.
Postdocs constitute at least a quarter of all researchers at Health Sciences. They are an extremely productive group and contribute significantly to the success of our institution. They are the future of biomedical research. It is extremely important to provide this group with well-deserved visibility and respect. Because postdocs are mobile, they also are ambassadors for our institution. They can become important agents for recruitment and public relations around the globe.
In 1999-2000, there were approximately 650 postdocs at Health Sciences. Sixty-five percent were visa holders and non-American residents, with the majority coming from Asia. Twenty percent were U.S. citizens. Postdocs usually stayed up to four years and were typically men. Half were married and more than half were older than 35.
Postdocs take their positions at Columbia because they are attracted by the research project, the mentor, the institution, and New York City. They are recruited directly by a mentor through personal contacts. Before the creation of the new office, Columbia University did not have administrative mechanisms in place to facilitate recruitment and provide guidance concerning appointments, benefits, housing, and career planning. Administrative systems also did not exist to track postdocs.
The need for additional support for postdocs recently was emphasized in the Strategic Plan. A focus group of postdocs spoke highly of the research at Columbia, the excellence of the faculty, and the involvement of clinicians in research but complained about a lack of organization and support services or career planning for them. The postdoc representatives also said they were concerned about accountability of mentors, salary and benefits packages, including housing, pension and parking perquisites. They suggested we establish an administrative office to meet their needs.
Under the leadership of Dr. Joanna Rubinstein, associate dean for institutional affairs, and Dr. Rocky Kass, chairman of pharmacology, the framework for the office has been established. We now are in the process of recruiting an associate dean for postdoctoral affairs, who should be a scientist with an active lab and with a strong record as a research mentor. The position would be part-time and support staff would help in the office's administration.
Funding this crucial office will be challenging. We will rely on individual investigators, departments, and schools. This program will become a priority in our fund-raising efforts. It is estimated that $500 per postdoc per year will be needed.
But besides helping postdocs feel comfortable working at Columbia, we would like to recognize their excellent work. I hope the office will create special awards for postdocs and mentors and in general make them more integral members of our intellectual community.