Power to the post-doc: the role of Research Staff Associations

Post-doc life can be a strange existence. Tied to short, fixed-term contracts and those with academic ambitions expected to move from place-to-place, post-docs are by very nature a transitory species. For those who are happy to shoulder the uncertainty in employment, it can be an exciting opportunity to travel and broaden one’s research expertise. For others, including myself, it has always felt like an imperfect career path that can, and does, discourage many talented individuals from remaining in research.

Within an academic department, post-docs come and go: only a small number stick around for more than a couple of years. As a result, they can be something of an invisible group of employees who have little say in the running of the departments and institutions they work for. Falling between post-grads, who still have access to all the offers, opportunities and organisations available to students, and full-time academic staff, post-docs are left with little representation and support.  They are expected to get their heads down and get on with it.

Things are changing, though. When I started my first post-doc position in 2010, the department I was working in had just created its first “post-doc forum”.  Its aims were, and are, to improve communication between senior management and research staff, give post-docs a chance to ask questions and air complaints and to provide opportunities for professional development and socialising. I went on to chair the forum for a few months towards the end of my post-doc and have worked with it in other roles over the past two years.

As my involvement in the post-doc forum grew I became more aware of other such organisations across the University of Nottingham and elsewhere. Known as Research Staff Associations (RSAs), these committees vary in size and exist everywhere from small departments through to University and national, even international, level. Some are structured formally and have enough authority to influence management and policy-makers, while others are looser, less formal and focus on organising social and career events. Whatever their structure or aims, all try and support post-docs through this potentially tricky period of their career.

Sounds great, but what has the Post-Doc Forum actually done?

I was recently asked by the University’s RSA to write a short summary of our post-doc forum’s activities and successes. When I thought back and did a bit of research, I was surprised to find it was actually quite a lot.

Typically RSAs will only have limited power to influence change, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make small but important contributions. For example, our forum has been responsible for helping write induction packages for new staff and suggesting improvements to performance review processes. The chairs have been able to represent post-doc staff on management meetings, while senior academics regularly attend forum meetings to communicate policies and decisions that directly affect researchers.

As a dedicated entity to support the post-doc community within the School, the Forum is able to organise events that educate and inform. Career support is often limited or hard to find for research staff and tends to narrowly focus on academic careers only (even if the data suggests only a small percentage will stay on that path).  To counter this, the Forum has helped organise career events and disseminate information on opportunities, such as fellowship schemes. It also helps post-docs get their heads out of their fumehoods and network with each other through social events and “coffee mornings.”

As a now established part of the School, the forum is beginning to gain more respect from academic staff. One of the chairs was an integral part of our recent AthenaSWAN self-assessment team and the Forum is often called up to help organise or promote major events.  

Are they really needed? Apathy and antipathy      

Several years ago, Vitae wrote a guide to research staff associations, outlining their benefits and the challenges that chairs and organisers faced. Apathy is a perennial problem. At a Vitae meeting I attended, one post-doc moaned that only seven colleagues turned up to the first meeting of her RSA, to which others replied “Wow! Seven? We’re lucky if we get four!” Apathy is understandable. The aforementioned transitory nature of post-doc life means that many just won’t have the time or interest to engage in an RSA. Others may see them as mere talking shops with little power to change things, or even question why they need a representative association. RSAs can be viewed negatively by academic staff that don’t see the point of their existence and would rather their researchers spend their time doing the research they’re paid for. There is also a feeling that RSAs are running against the hierarchy of academic life.

As I’ve outlined, however, there are benefits to RSAs, both for the post-doc community and the Chairs themselves, who can gain important professional experience. It is very possible that they will grow in number, particularly as UK universities going through the Athena SWAN process wish to improve the working culture in their departments. They shouldn’t, however, just be an instrumental means to an end for management. The best RSAs will be those that grow from the ground up and sustain themselves through the involvement of committed chairs and members.

If anyone wishes to share their experiences of organising an RSA or are interested in setting one up and want more information, please respond below. 

N.B. RSAs do not always just represent post-doctoral researchers but other staff who work in a research-only capacity, including on permanent contracts.

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