Postdoctoral Association at Western

History of PAW

PAW was officially formed in 2004. It acts as a collective voice for postdocs on issues of interest to the group and disseminates relevant information.  PAW also co-ordinates professional development opportunities for postdocs, and serves as a liaison between postdocs and university administration.

If you’re a postdoc, you fall under PAW. There are no membership fees. Once a year, we hold an annual general meeting and as issues arise throughout the year, we hold meetings as needed.

Postdocs invisible to universities 

Peter Ferguson  

Friday, November 26, 2004 

postdoc n. 1. a person performing studies, or designing and conducting research, for a short training period after obtaining a PhD. ~vb. 2. to serve, on a short term contract basis, as a free-agent researcher or scholar, esp. in a university setting, usu. with the purpose of proving oneself to be qualified to become a tenured university professor. also called post-doc, post-doctoral fellow, post-doctoral associate, research associate, non-tenured adjunct junior faculty.

Postdocs often feel invisible.

In the movies invisibility is a physical advantage - with a price. After revelling in this new power, the invisible ones inevitably succumb to their dark side, leading lives of crime.

Ultimately, they are detected and captured after being sprayed by a coating of paint or powder.

Postdocs across North America and Europe do not revel in their invisibility, it confers no power (but also no life of crime!). Many aspire to coat themselves with the colours of the tenured professor and earn the respect and financial rewards they were told having a PhD would bring.

In the labs and offices where they work, their skills and knowledge are appreciated by supervisors and grad students. Professors are so busy writing grant proposals, preparing lectures and serving on committees, that doing hands-on research and providing day-to-day assistance to graduate students is difficult.

This is the sort of work they hire postdocs to do. In the lab, postdocs are not only visible, some even shine. But as they travel from the lab to the departmental level, they grow fainter, and by the time they've left their building and walk about the university, they truly are invisible.

At most universities, postdocs have no official status. They are not faculty, not students, not staff. Universities report difficulties in tracking them and often do not know how many postdocs work on their campus (There are about 150 postdocs at Western).

Postdocs are transient workers, often with no organization to represent them.The postdoc position arose in the 1950s and 60s as a short (one to two years) stint meant to be a polishing step for newly minted PhDs before moving on to a tenured academic job. Since then, graduate schools have produced more PhDs than could be hired by universities then facing (and still dealing with) the financial crunches of the 1980s and '90s.

Many postdocs now do two, three, or four stints of two to three years each, chasing the elusive goal of a secure faculty job.

They range in age from mid-20s to mid-50s. It's not necessarily the low pay ($25,000 - $45,000 per year, with no benefits or pension) that bothers most postdocs. Their research is a labour of love, but they would appreciate the same access to university services available to every other campus group.

Career guidance would be nice. A recent American study tracking a cohort of postdocs in biomedical sciences found only 14 per cent of those with up to six years postdoc experience had obtained tenure-track academic positions.

What to do? Organize.

These problems arose through no fault of Western or any other university. It's a systemic problem. Postdocs at each university should organize to lobby for better visibility and real training opportunities.

Next postdocs should form national bodies and work with universities to lobby for change at the federal granting bodies. In the U.S., some of these changes are occurring. In Canada, postdoc organizations lag but are working to catch up.

The recently formed Postdoctoral Association at Western (PAW) aims to work with Western to advocate changes that benefit both sides: better working conditions for postdocs - higher visibility and marketability for Western.

But for now the message for postdocs is this: we have to be seen before we can be heard.

Peter Ferguson is a postdoc in the Department of Biochemistry. The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect the position of PAW.