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URMC / Education / Graduate Education / URBest Blog / May 2019 / Give Postdocs Some Slack to Interact!

Give Postdocs Some Slack to Interact!

By Anthony M. Franchini, MLS(ASCP)CM Ph.D., out-going SMD co-chair; Melissa Polonenko, Ph.D., AUD(C), UR PDA Communications Representative; and Monica Javidnia, Ph.D., incoming SMD co-chair

In December 2018, the University of Rochester Postdoctoral Association (PDA) was invited by Dean Libby and Graduate Education and Postdoctoral Affairs (GEPA) staff to a town hall-style forum. More than a session of complaints, the town hall served as the starting point to addressing postdocs needs. One common and resounding theme that quickly became apparent was an issue PDA has been mulling over for months now: postdoc onboarding here at the University of Rochester. 

In total, UR has just over 210 postdocs, approximately 140 of whom work in the School of Medicine and Dentistry throughout the basic research and clinical departments on campus. But how many of these postdocs know of each other or interact in any meaningful way? The inherent nature of a postdoc complicates this matter immediately: postdocs arrive every month in small numbers, and are expected to dive right into their research in order to create their respective career paths to independence. The average length of a postdoc appointment sits between one and two years, the length of most master’s degree programs! Speaking from our collective experience, this usually leaves little time for social events, on-campus service, or down time. This is especially true of international postdocs, who may be experiencing America for the first time and discovering the many differences of living in a new country and systems at the foundation of American society. Networking and socializing while in a postdoc position is very important and can be rewarding and beneficial for our careers as well. Taken together, this has made the UR PDA wonder: how can we foster and expand interaction between postdocs without cutting into their research time?  How can we make it easy to get connected, enrich the postdoc experience, and incentivize socializing while here at UR?

Perhaps the most obvious answer to these questions was to digitally connect people. Facebook and Twitter get buried quickly. We needed a dedicated service for communicating; thus, we set up a UR PDA Slack workspace. For those who aren’t familiar, Slack is a cloud-based set of team collaboration tools and services. It is used by startup companies, large research groups, individual labs, and even fantasy baseball leagues to communicate in real time between members. It allows for the sharing of documents and for breakout groups to message privately. Of course, our group is not the first to ask these questions of their postdoc community and implement a service like Slack to reach out and connect to each other. In our preparation to launching the UR PDA Slack workspace, we investigated what postdoc associations at other Universities do. Places like Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Michigan State University, and University of California San Francisco have all started Slack workspaces for their postdocs. In our conversations with those other postdoc associations, we found that some even lacked an up-to-date email listserv for postdocs at their universities: something we at UR have had for more than five years now!  Instead, their postdoc associations relied on Facebook groups, emails sent to individual department administrators, and word of mouth to promote workshops and events.

So now that we’ve launched the UR PDA Slack workspace, where are we? As of this writing, 46 postdocs and four associated administrators have joined the UR PDA Slack workspace. The UR PDA Executive committee is sharing monthly agendas on Slack, and eliciting direct feedback on our plans – improving both our transparency and our  ability to communicate compared with input elicited via sending updates via the UR email listserv. We’ve already used Slack to address some important issues that have come up, such as finding healthcare providers who accept the postdoc healthcare and dental insurance plans and answering basic questions about coverage.  In the upcoming months, as the weather gets warmer, postdocs can look to the Slack workspace for social events, organized by PDA directly or by other postdocs. We have channels dedicated to career opportunities, writing and science communication, and funding and granting resources. We are working to integrate a unified calendar into Slack of relevant events across campuses and within the PDA. We’re setting up channels for obtaining feedback on writing and for gathering an audience to practice outside talks and prep for interviews. Anything we can do to share the success of current postdocs here at UR is also on the table. The project is still in its infancy, but this workspace will go a long way in supplementing and enhancing the resources that GEPA and the Dean’s Office of the School of Arts, Science and Engineering have already provided to empowered us as the voice of the UR postdocs.

Tracey Baas | 5/6/2019

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