Friday, April 23, 2010

Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate: vol. 3

Here's (finally!) the last of my posts summarizing the 2-day Summit on Gender and the Postdoctorate. The first two posts are here and here.

Overall, the meeting had a heavy emphasis on mentoring: why mentors are helpful, how mentors differ from advisors, how to find a good mentor, how to be a good mentor, etc. (The most amusing comment was that one should avoid "tor-mentors" or "de-mentors".) And while mentoring is good for everybody and so is training and career development, these activities focus on changing individuals to get them through the system, rather than taking on the broken system from the top down. So, for the breakout sessions, divided into Mentoring, Professional and Career Development, and Effective Postdoctoral Policies, I opted to attend the last session.

This session was basically about Postdoctoral Offices (PDOs) and ADVANCE grants. A PDO is basically an institutional office that helps administer postdoctoral hiring and helps postdocs navaigate the system. As someone who has never been at an instituion with a PDO, this sounds like a great idea. At one particular institution I have been at, setting up a new postdoc involves navigating a byzantine bureaucratic system that can take months to get through before you get everything you need to actually begin working. And despite the fact that this institution hosts lots of postdocs as a whole, an individual research group takes charge of only a few at a time so each new postdoc often has to ask three or four people before finding the right person to talk to about a computer account or salary or what have you. By the time the next year rolls around, everyone seems to forget what the process was, or maybe they were so traumatized by it that they've blocked it out, and the new person has to start from scratch. A centralized PDO would do a world of good in this case.

The NSF ADVANCE Transformation grants are awarded to institutions to help create and change policies to help the hiring and retention of women faculty. These programs seem very successful within a given institution, but they also take a lot of dedicated effort to change established attitudes. And while they do a lot of good within an institution while they are active, when happens when the grant period ends? How effective is change on an institution-by-institution basis?

The institutions that apply for these grants are willing to make a commitment to change from within to begin with. But there are institutions who would probably never even apply for an ADVANCE grant because they think that they are too Excellent to need such a thing. How do we convince such places to realize that there is a problem that needs fixing to begin with? It's not simply a matter of waiting for the old guard to pass on. It's the 21st century already, and we still see problems regarding the advancement and hiring of women. I'm not sure what the solutions are to such things, but sitting on our hands waiting for change to happen on its own certainly isn't a good one.