Get data and create a focal point

When I first arrived at Stanford to begin my postdoc, I was fortunate to have a conversation with a long time staff member who had been a postdoc at Stanford in the late 1990’s.  According to her experience, when she first started as a postdoc here, there was no postdoc association. A few visionary postdocs changed that. She then connected me with another woman who had also been a postdoc during that time. She was on the frontlines of change as an original member of the Political Action Committee (PAC). The following is based off of an interview which took place in December of 2013 and has been edited for clarity and length.     - Kate Brown


In the late 1990’s, Stanford lacked a comprehensive postdoctoral administration. Principal investigators, with little oversight, were responsible for hiring postdocs. Rumors circulated that many postdocs had salaries well below the cost of living.  But rumors are merely rumors, and insufficient for action. A few concerned postdocs approached university administrators to ask for their input regarding postdoc salaries and benefits. To their consternation, they learned that Stanford maintained almost no oversight on the postdoctoral population and had few statistics concerning the postdoctoral experience. Without data, the postdocs could neither pinpoint the real problems postdocs were facing nor advocate effectively for a solution. Since there was no postdoctoral association, these concerned postdocs set out to assemble the postdoc community on campus and gather metrics to advocate for change.

A handful of postdoctoral scholars formed the Political Action Committee (PAC).  While some of the postdocs felt their positions were at risk by participating in this activity( by pressure from their PIs), many received support from their PIs and the PAC proceeded to distribute flyers and mass emails to call a town hall meeting of postdocs. Hundreds of postdocs participated in the meeting, constituting a significant fraction of the postdoctoral community. Postdocs from the various Stanford schools came to the meeting, with the bulk coming from the School of Medicine and School of Humanities and Sciences (largely from the Biology and Chemistry departments). The postdocs who attended were concerned about the low pay compared to cost of living in the Palo Alto area, and the very limited health benefits included for their appointments. Some international postdocs claimed they had been given an initial offer of pay, and then received only half of that amount upon arrival from abroad.

From the interest and momentum gained during the first meeting, the PAC organized a second town hall meeting.  The meeting was even covered by the school newspaper, the Stanford Daily. At this meeting, surveys were distributed for the purpose of quantifying the initial concerns, such as determining the distribution of postdoc pay.

Although the response rate represented only a little more than 12% of the estimated postdoc population, it was enough to draw some important conclusions. The results indicated that there were huge variations in average pay among the postdoctoral population, with some being paid below $15,000 per year ( for comparison the NIH postdoc level 0 levels for 1999 were $26,250). Most importantly, there was an egregious gender discrepancy: women were being paid less than men. The data provided clear enough evidence of a widespread practice of gender pay inequality among the university postdoc population. 

With this information in hand, the PAC had identified a concrete issue and contacted the university administration to discuss its findings. The PAC advocated that the gender pay discrepancy was patent justification for initiating policy changes at the administrative level to have more oversight protecting postdoctoral status.     

Although it was still a difficult process and required sustained effort, within two years the administration implemented a major policy overhaul and set a minimum salary for postdocs.

The experience of the initial PAC members serves to show the importance of determining central focal points for advocacy. Even though the town halls and the surveys brought up many concerns within the postdoctoral population, the PAC leadership was able to agree on the most tangible item to move forward in discussions with the university administration. They developed distinct focal points for advocacy to keep discussions with the administration clear and on target. Additionally, the PAC collected quantifiable data on the issue of gender pay discrepancy which provided a very effective tool for broaching an emotional topic with the administration. 

The momentum created by the PAC also led to the formation of the Stanford Postdoctoral Association, now known as SURPAS. SURPAS continues to follow this example in its ongoing advocacy efforts as the needs of the postdoctoral community change, and the administration continues to be willing to listen.