A time for strategy

When you take on a leadership position, others will look to you for direction. This can be a paralyzing moment.  How should a leader determine what direction an organization should take?

When I got elected to the co-chair position, I had made a exciting election pitch. I had big ideas, about starting an internship program for postdocs to get industry experience, and throwing social events for all 2,000 postdocs. In reality, I was naive to the workings of the association, or for that matter the complexity of the University administration, and did not realize how unrealistic that pitch had been. Nevertheless, a full council awaited directions from me and my co-chair. What to do? We decided to write a strategic plan.

What is a strategic plan, why do you need one, and how do you write one? A strategic plan helps you to focus your activities. The way we wrote it, it had three components: Mission, Vision, Timeline.

The mission details the goals of the organization. What is it that you aim to achieve? What is the point at which you’ll say: our work is done, the association is no longer needed? We felt that the most pressing need was at the level of empowering postdocs. When postdocs would feel in control of their careers, we reasoned, the association would have succeeded. Therefore, we set our organization's mission to enrich the Postdoctoral experience at Stanford, to enable Postdoctoral Scholars to explore career opportunities, and to empower Postdoctoral Scholars to become leaders in areas of their choice.

The mission is complemented by the Vision. Whereas the mission offers a general goal, it is unlikely that mission will be accomplished anytime soon, let alone during your term. We therefore formulated a vision to set more specific directions of the association.  We whittled it down to three primary aspects: improving social networks, improving training, and improving benefits. Accordingly, our Vision created a focus for the association’s work. With this in hand we could list challenges and make it our goal to press for a solution.

Finally, you need to set a timeline. How long do you estimate things will take, and more importantly, how do you prioritize? Here you can choose what you think is important, what you think is manageable, and above all, what you would like to spend your time on. Setting those priorities then helps you create a timeline for the council for the rest of your term. To help with manageability,  you can install committees and outsource tasks to volunteers. Even so, many goals were cut from our strategic plan due to lower priority and manageability. For other goals, we asked ourselves if we knew whether this particular goal actually reflected a true need. Housing was ( and is) a priority for postdocs, but would be a long term goal, on the order of years. In the shorter term, one suggested goal was improving transportation benefits to postdocs in the crowded and expensive Bay Area. But we had no idea how many people would actually benefit from improved transportation options to campus, and what challenges they currently faced without it. We therefore focused on finding out this information, with a timeframe of months. This timeline and prioritization put perspective to our plans and enabled us to turn large goals into manageable tasks.

With mission, vision, and timeline in hand we could approach administrators and council members and show what we planned to do short term and long term and how it all fit together. It made our work manageable. And it helped with the handoff to the next leadership group. When you start a leadership role, take a moment and write a strategic plan.

Antoine de Morree


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.