Community: if you can’t find one, make one

Based on an interview with Kasey Davis, President of the Stanford Black Postdoc Association at Stanford University

When Kasey Davis arrived at Stanford in October 2013, she anticipated being the only black person in lab.   After all, she had been the only black graduate student while completing her dissertation at the National Institute of Mental Health, yet she had managed to find black community outside of the Institute. But at Stanford, the lack of diversity stretched far beyond the confines of the lab. Black postdocs at Stanford hardly knew one another, and would have to go as far as San Francisco or Oakland to find the community they sought. One black postdoc that Kasey met said it was the first time in his 6 months on campus that he had met another black postdoc. He left within the year, at least partly due to the isolation he felt. Previous black postdocs would occasionally join in with Black Graduate Student Association events on campus, but felt a bit out of touch with younger people who were in a different stage of life. Kasey sought to remedy that isolation.

By chance, Kasey attended a meeting sponsored by the Graduate Diversity Staff Council, focused on diversity in the School of Medicine at Stanford. There were a number of black students in attendance, and up to 15 postdocs, many who were meeting each other for the first time. While at the event, she met Anika Green, one of the council members. Kasey told her that the only other black postdoc she knew at the event happened to have the same fellowship. Otherwise, there was no way to know or get in touch other black postdocs. Anika Green agreed that the postdocs should have a way to stay in touch with each other, and introduced Kasey to fellow council member Terrance Mayes, the Associate Dean for Graduate Education, and Sofie Kleppner, the Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs.  

Later, Kasey and Sofie discussed the feelings of isolation that black postdocs in particular keenly feel. The conversation then turned to how to take action: Could there be a Black Postdoc organization? How would it take shape?     

Like any good researcher, Kasey looked for examples of other black postdoc associations at other institutions. She reasoned that another association could set a good template. However, although she found a few examples of under-represented minority postdoc groups, she did not find examples of the type of community organization she wanted to create. She and other black postdocs on campus would have make their own way. She was able to reach out to other black postdocs on campus through writing a draft email for Sofie to send out. Fortunately, between the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, which appoints all Stanford postdocs, and the Office of the Vice-Provost for Graduate Education, there was a decent list of the black postdocs on campus, a valuable resource. Interested postdocs were then able to opt-in for further communications. Together with a group of 6 postdocs who showed up to the first meeting, she established the Stanford Black Postdoc Association (BPA).

Since its founding two years ago, the BPA has organized social happy hours, academic and industry career panels, as well as a “Pass on the Knowledge” event meant to provide information and mentorship to undergraduates and graduates. All of these events provide the unique perspective of Black students and employees as they progress through their careers.

The BPA, like any organization, faces challenges with attracting and maintaining membership and transitioning to new leadership. Yet these challenges are magnified due to the limited pool of available members. Postdocs are notoriously difficult to engage outside of their research. Strapped for time, sometimes with young families, they don’t have the energy or enthusiasm for organizational activity. Additionally, for attracting new membership, race is especially challenging as a category; international students who would otherwise self-identify as black may get categorized simply as “international student/postdoctoral scholar,” and miss being added to a mailing list or invited to relevant events. Maintaining membership and transitioning leadership also proves difficult, with the turnover of postdocs leading to a mixed bag of active members and substantially less active members.  

Still, the current focus of the organization is to solidify the community that the BPA mission statement outlines: 

The Black Postdoc Association seeks to build a community among the black postdocs here at Stanford, that will lead to a valuable professional network to support and promote diversity. It is our goal to provide information about opportunities such as conferences, workshops, seminars, grants/fellowships, travel awards and volunteer opportunities related to issues of diversity. 

Moving forward, Kasey hopes that once the BPA community is cemented, they will be able to turn to stronger advocacy efforts to improve the Black Postdoc experience. With any luck, these efforts can be expanded to surrounding communities, and show under-represented minorities that they have representation in higher education.   

Stand on the shoulders of giants

The person best equipped for a leadership position is often the person who just stepped down. They have the network, understand the process, and know what needs to be done. The people who step into their shoes can often use those skills, but find the previous leader eager to retreat to the background in search of peace. How can new leaders hold on to their predecessors as a resource and leverage their networks and skills?

When I took over as co-chair, the previous team and teams before them had done a terrific job managing a multitude of events and advocacy issues. They had built a massive network of volunteer postdocs and supportive administrators. Yet they were tired and glad to finally hand things over and leave it all behind. Here was a great resource, but I did not know how to use it. Should I pester them with questions and deny them their retirement? Should I wait for advice that might come too late or not at all? Eventually they all left Stanford, making it even harder to reach them. These questions are common for new leaders. Here’s what the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association (SURPAS) leadership implemented to support incoming leaders:

First, the SURPAS council created specific structures in their Bylaws that assign new and former leaders a specific role. Newly elected officials have a 3 month period that overlaps with the end of the previous term. During this overlap, they get to shadow the sitting leadership team at internal and external meetings. This way they mold into the network that had been built over the prior year and they learn what needs to be done in the near future. This structure helps new leaders get up to speed with a little investment. In addition, the council has the power to elect former leadership to a new position, dubbed Special Advisor. The Special Advisor is without decision making power and serves solely to offer advice to the council and leadership team. This structure acknowledges former leaders for the advisory work that they would do and made it more likely for them to take responsibility and help out proactively. Plus it enabled the new leadership to assume a leading role by navigating that election. Both roles created expectations on what was to be expected from all parties involved.

Second, we started to invite former leaders to offer quick feedback and to tap into their network. This can relate to specific ideas, or to which administrators should be approached first, or simply to get an introduction. Such specific questions are often easy to answer and therefore not a burden on the time of former leaders. You show how you value their input by approaching them and how you value their time by being specific.

Third, after our term ended we decided to stay in the loop of long term advocacy issues. Chances are outgoing leaders care about long-term issues and will want to stay informed. Keeping them copied on emails and invited to meetings will achieve that. At the same time, this signals continuity to outsiders.

These processes are now common practice at SURPAS and have made transitions smoother. Better interaction between incoming and outgoing leaders has strengthened the association’s ability to tackle long-term advocacy issues and to grow the volunteer base. This all makes volunteer leadership so much more rewarding.

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


Handing over the reins

Passing the baton, handing over the reins: these are all metaphors for a common problem for leadership transitions.  When their term ends, every leader faces the same challenge: how to effectively confer responsibilities and experience to the new leadership so that the organization doesn’t lose momentum. 

When I ended my term as co-chair of the association, I reflected on the way my term had started. The previous co-chairs had been around, but were burnt-out from a grueling year’s worth of their own leadership work. They had been glad to get back to focusing on research, and while they responded to inquiries and questions, I had always felt uncomfortable to reach out to them too much. As a result, we (my co-chair and I) reached out too little. On top of that, there were several curve-balls we had not been prepared for: budget deadlines, meetings with committees, sudden issues we had to solve right away. Whereas these things were challenging for us, we could now foresee that our successors would also be unnecessarily surprised by these responsibilities. So we asked: what can we do to facilitate this leadership transfer? We made three decisions.

First, we implemented structure to assist incoming officers with what to expect and when to expect it. We highlighted in the Bylaws when budget reviews were due internally, so the leadership would be prepared for external budget meetings with University administration. We added rules that ask for a strategic plan, which would be helpful in meetings with administrators. And finally we created an overlap time between elections and new-start dates, during which elected officers would sit in during internal and external meetings, so they could observe without the stress of being responsible yet. These rules build expectations for new officers, while leaving them free to design their leadership as they saw fit. Administrators saw that continuation was guaranteed, reinforcing trust in the organization. Such structural rules support your leadership and help the transition.

Second, we started relationships between new officers and administrators and volunteers. As outgoing leadership your biggest asset is your network. You know who to talk to about what. You know the volunteers that enjoy helping out with events. You know the administrators that are on your side and the ones who like to be convinced. When new officers need to build such a network, it will take time and energy and reduce the efficacy of the association. To help the new leadership meet this challenge, we introduced them to key administrators. In many cases we pointed then in the right direction by highlighting names and helping them write a cold-call email. And we kept records of who helped out with the many initiatives we had developed. This way, rather than having to build from scratch, the new team had a good starting point to grow their networks.

Third, we advocated on behalf of the new team. Most advocacy issues do not yield big changes during the course of a single term. Decision making processes simply take longer than that. A big risk of leadership transitions is that the focus on a particular issue wavers and then the issue loses traction. To meet this challenge, we made sure to remain involved with ongoing efforts to demonstrate continuity and focus. We also made connections to key administrators to show them that the issues maintained importance. And we took the time to sit with the new team as they established their goals. Such continued advocacy enables you to launch long-term efforts.

Now, several transitions have occurred, all based on this model. All incoming and outgoing teams have commented how it helped them by making a daunting task more manageable. And the association has been able to successfully conclude multi-year efforts for improved benefits and salary. When you lead an association, don’t just stop when your term ends; make sure that future teams can build on your success.

Antoine de Morrée

If someone else can do it, delegate

Newly elected leadership teams face a daunting task. There is a lot to do, and so little time. Although you may have joined the leadership because you are bursting with ideas and energy to tackle specific advocacy issues, there are only so many hours in the day. You also need to run the association and host activities for the community. If you go too hard, too fast, you run the risk of burn-out (like so many before you). So how do you make time for these commitments, when you’re already leading a busy life performing your research?

It’s not surprising that the elected leadership team members are often the most active volunteers. You take responsibility for the elected role and want to achieve something meaningful. However, you are often also among the most time pressured of the community, juggling research and personal relationships in addition to volunteer work. As a result, your ability to organize your time sets the tone of the whole volunteer organization.  Momentum and energy for activities often comes from the top-down, and if your organization senses that you have limited enthusiasm, others will also be less engaged in the process.

And so you have to be engaged, and it is true that the best way to organize a good event is to get involved yourself, especially when other people can flake out. But we found that carrying the burden of all of the enthusiasm and doing most of the work for activities is counterproductive in the long run. We burn-out, become bitter, and find our productivity decreases. To try to counter these problems, in 2013 we tried something different.

When it came time to organize and carry out an activity, we would ask: can someone else do this? And when the answer was “Yes,” we decided to find somebody else to take it on. We started delegating tasks.

At first we gave tasks to council members, but soon followed by recruiting postdocs from the wider community. For instance, when we wanted to organize a tennis tournament, instead of organizing it ourselves, we asked postdocs what they thought should be done.  We sought other postdocs with an interest in sports activities to contribute by taking responsibility for smaller specific tasks, such as making the tournament schedule, or arranging prizes. And we asked one person to take charge of the logistics. We set no deadline. And while sometimes people dropped the ball (no pun intended), pushing the event further in the future, more often than not they delivered. In the end the tournament did happen, with only occasional encouragement from the leadership team. This had the dual benefit of saving the leadership time and energy, and extending participation into the wider community.

When you want to delegate tasks, there are a few things to keep in mind. First, be sure to differentiate between important and unimportant tasks. If it is important that a task is executed well and quickly, delegate to someone who you trust will deliver. If not, delegate to whomever is interested. Second, give ownership and accountability. That way people will take responsibility. You can enforce this by building in social controls, for instance by asking people to give updates on their progress, or by asking groups to collaborate. For our sports committee, we often ask them to collaborate with other groups such as the transportation committee or the postdoc initiative fund. Such interactions enforce accountability among peers. Finally, dare to let people fail. Sometimes activities will fall through and that is ok. Everybody involved is volunteering their time and effort and everyone is learning how to manage their time. If you allow people to fail, it promotes creativity, and they will be more inclined to take ownership of their tasks.

In 2013, the tournament was one of many activities. By the end of the year, SURPAS had more than 20 active committees and a network of more than 50 active volunteers. Even council seats became contested in elections. Delegating effectively protected against burn-out among the few volunteers that previously would have shouldered all of the responsibility, and widened the visibility and credibility of SURPAS among the broader postdoc population. We now have a system where we can tap into the human power of our community and actively contribute on multiple fronts (advocacy, social events, career development, etc.)

Our advice to you on the leadership team: delegate, delegate, delegate. You’ll be stronger for it.