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Postdoctoral community forms new group

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A new association hopes to provide a voice for the 800 or so postdoctoral scholars at MIT who play key roles in the Institute's research mission but have lacked a central support structure.

"Our postdoctoral community plays a vital role in the research environment at MIT," said Vice President for Research Alice Gast, who initiated the association with Provost Robert Brown. "I hope that through their research experiences, and perhaps through the postdoctoral association, their years at MIT are a wonderful beginning to their careers."

The new association is working to provide opportunities for social and scientific interaction as well as professional development among postdocs, and is encouraging the MIT administration to look at the benefits for postdocs. An advisory council consisting of 18 postdocs from 11 departments, labs and centers has been meeting since the fall and is currently sponsoring a survey to better understand the needs of the postdoctoral community at MIT. The survey is on the web through June 15 at

"I think postdocs in general feel quite isolated," said Penny Beuning, a postdoctoral fellow in biology who is a member of the Postdoctoral Advisory Council.

"I feel that I'm fortunate to be in the biology department, which does try to build a sense of community among its members ... and also has a lot of support for postdoc initiatives in professional development. But I would hope that more of these kinds of activities would become Institute-wide," Beuning said.

Postdocs come to the Institute for high-level research after receiving their doctoral degrees, many hoping to begin a career in academia. The short-term nature of the job can cause problems that differ from those of graduate students and faculty members.

Beuning has been at MIT just over two years and expects to remain two more years. Her husband, a physicist, has a faculty position at Northeastern University.

"You could write a whole article about the two-career problem in the sciences," said Beuning. "Try to optimize two, especially academic, science careers while still living in the same place. Granted, Boston is a great place for finding jobs in science, but I think it's a pretty big problem leading to the disproportionate loss of women in science."

The Postdoctoral Advisory Council is collaborating with the Careers Office and the Graduate Student Council to offer a summer panel series about the academic career path. The first panel, titled "Why Choose an Academic Career?" will take place on June 4. Two winter social gatherings also were well attended, as were three April sessions on negotiation and conflict management, faciliated by Kelvin Chin of the Ombuds Office.

"While all of these things should improve the lives of individual postdocs to some extent, the major benefit already has been the feeling of official recognition by the institution and getting to know postdocs in other departments," said Beuning.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 14, 2003.

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