Intercom Online......July 29, 1999

Helping postdoctoral fellows find
their place is new committee's goal

By Barbara Hale
Public Information

Postdoctoral fellows might be having an identity crisis.

Post docs, as they are usually known, are considered gifted individuals and future leaders, but they are not faculty, nor are they staff. They aren't students either.

For instance, Penn State's standard forms don't have a check-off box for postdocs, said Christine de Denus, a postdoctoral fellow in chemistry.

"If I go to get a parking permit, I check off the faculty/staff box. At the library, I also check faculty/staff. But at athletic facilities, I check student," she said.

Defining who they are and how many postdocs are at Penn State are two of the tasks being undertaken by the Committee on Postdoctoral Fellows which also has been charged with reviewing policies, campus environment and services for postdoctoral fellows.

Established this spring by newly appointed Provost Rodney A. Erickson when he was vice president for research, the committee is currently preparing to solicit feedback from postdocs and their mentors.

"For the past several months, we've been focusing on identifying postdocs and where they are located. In addition, we've been identifying issues important to postdoctoral life at Penn State," said Joan Lakoski, associate professor of pharmacology and anesthesiology and former administrative intern in the Office of the Vice President for Research. Lakoski chairs the committee along with William Taylor, emeritus director of Intercollege Research Programs.

Lakoski explained that a postdoctoral position at Penn State is usually a one- to five-year appointment to conduct full-time research in the laboratory of a senior investigator. Most are in the sciences and engineering. Some postdocs have support from outside agencies. Others are supported by their mentor and/or federally funded training awards.

A recent report by the Association of American Universities (AAU) on the status of postdoctoral fellows in the United States noted that their numbers have doubled in the last 20 years in the science, engineering and health-related fields, but postdocs expressed growing dissatisfaction with the training environment and employment prospects. The report said that most institutions have few policies regarding postdoctoral appointments; that compensation and benefits varied widely; and career placement assistance was seldom available.

"The picture is actually more positive at Penn State and the University is a place to which postdocs like to come," Lakoski said. However, the committee is investigating the issues identified in the AAU report and is looking forward to putting together recommendations to improve opportunities for these gifted individuals who are seen as future leaders.

"We would, for example, like to ascertain whether Penn State postdocs successfully move on to satisfying permanent positions and are avoiding the holding patterns that the AAU report found to be a concern on the national level," Lakoski said.

But deDenus, who is a member of the postdoc committee, is not stalled and is moving on schedule. She is joining the Hobart and William Smith colleges' faculty in August after just under two years conducting research in the laboratory of her mentor Harry Allcock, Evan Pugh professor of chemistry. DeDenus came with a $35,000-a-year fellowship from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. A Canadian national, she had earned her doctorate at the University of Manitoba and her undergraduate degree at the University of Winnipeg.

She decided to take a postdoctoral appointment, she said, because she wanted to broaden her base of knowledge in order to be more attractive to academic employers who can be more selective because of the tight job market.

"The committee wants to spotlight this terrific group of individuals and their value to the community," Lakoski said. "Interested members of the Penn State community who would like to forward input or suggestions can contact any committee member or the chairpersons."

The committee members are: Karen Bierman, director, Children, Youth and Family Consortium; Blannie Bowen, head of the agriculture and extension education department; George Dulikravich, associate professor of aerospace engineering; Joanna Floros, professor of physiology; Thomas Jackson, professor of electrical engineering; Clive Randall, director, Center for Dielectric Studies; Catherine Ross, head of the veterinary science department; Tom Whittam, professor of biology; Billie Willits, assistant vice president for human resources; and Steven Zarit, professor of human development. The committee expects to submit its report by the fall.

To reach Lakoski, send e-mail to jml19@psu.edu. To reach Taylor, send e-mail to wdt1@psu.edu.

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