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Academic Ecosystems Critical to Sustainable Postdoctoral Workforce

Yimu Zhao, a doctoral student in chemical engineering and materials science, and Richard Lunt, assistant professor of chemical engineering and materials science, run a test in Lunt’s lab. Lunt and his team have developed a new material that can be placed over windows and create solar energy.

Postdoctoral scholars comprise an invaluable component of global research communities, yet their support and training systems are poorly aligned with today’s job market. These issues are widely discussed in academia and in lengthy reports and op-eds; still, there is glaring lack of succinct, data-driven publications that provide clear and feasible corrective steps.

Postdocs on Zoom call

Thirteen current and former MSU postdocs met up on a Zoom meeting in April, 2020, following the acceptance of their co-authored manuscript in Nature Ecology and Evolution outlining improvements to postdoc-centered policies and practices

To address this deficiency, a team of 13 current and former Michigan State University postdoctoral researchers co-authored a paper published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution that outlines strategic reforms to better support the world’s growing postdoctoral workforce.

“The project sprang from several informal meetings among the study co-authors during overlapping postdoctoral appointments,” said Eben Gering, a former MSU postdoctoral researcher who is now an assistant professor at Nova Southeastern University and senior author of the paper. “From there, it continued to gain momentum as interest grew around the issue.”

 

Following intensive analyses of relevant literature, data and personal experiences, the group identified five overarching goals:

  • Align career development with job markets
  • Sustain wellness and work-life balance
  • Enhance mentoring
  • Develop administrative support
  • Increase broader support.
dataset about sustainable workplace productivity

The authors analyzed published datasets to develop feasible aims for aligning postdoc careers with job markets and support sustainable workplace productivity

To achieve these goals, the group recommended progressive changes that target levels of organization ranging from principle investigators to broader communities that fund and support postdoctoral positions.

“Researching data on society support, salaries and the availability of postdoctoral associations and office of postdoctoral affairs across institutions and countries was fascinating,” said Murielle Aalund, IBIO research associate, member of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action and the Ecology, Evolutionary Biology and Behavior graduate program,  and one of the paper’s lead authors. “Although I think things are improving thanks to initiatives coming from all levels of organization, our investigation also reveals important regional disparities in the support afforded to postdocs.”

It is unusual for such a large and diverse team of postdocs to collaborate on an independent project. In this case, the team was invigorated by shared passion for their subject and complementarity in skills.

“As ecologists and evolutionary scientists, we all understand how integrated systems function,” said Nate Emery, research associate in the MSU Department of Plant Biology and co-lead author. “As postdocs, we felt it was important to convey how academic ecosystems can better function by supporting and training postdocs.”

About half of the paper’s co-authors have moved on to diverse jobs around the globe. According to the team, the publication’s fruition illustrates two important points.

First, all stakeholders in postdoctoral success (including postdocs themselves) can advocate for reform to enhance the quality and productivity of shared workplaces.

Second, the authors note, progressive aspects of their home institutions ultimately facilitated their success in a collaborative research and writing process.

“We were very lucky to overlap at MSU during a large influx of ecology and evolutionary biology postdocs, whose mentors afforded us time and flexibility to invest in our own career development,” said Gering, who is also affiliated with Nova Southeastern University’s Halmos College of Natural Sciences and Oceanography, on the team’s behalf.

In addition to facilitating a high-profile publication, the supportive climate appears to have fostered an enduring network of interdisciplinary scholars. The team recently met up again on Zoom to toast the final acceptance of the manuscript.

Other participating postdocs in the paper are: Benjamin Jarrett, Nadya Mamoozadeh, Jory Schossau, Andrew Thompson, Alexa Warwick and Erin Zylstra (currently at MSU); Kirsty MacLeod (Lund University, Sweden); Helen McCreery (Harvard University); John Phillips (University of Idaho); and Kelsey Yule (Arizona State University).

Val Osowski via MSUToday

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