Matthew Cook

Proposal: Postdoc Debate Do-Over

School of Medicine

Hope springs eternal. Even for postdocs.

As a second-time postdoc whose first postdoc experience at UCSF was littered with negative training experiences, I was anxious to attend “Thinking Creatively about Postdocs: A Roundtable Discussion with Gregory Petsko and Keith Yamamoto” on October 3rd, and I was happy to learn that the discussion was also being attended by such high-level administration members as Elizabeth Watkins and Bruce Alberts. Although I showed up at the event with high hopes, like many of my fellow postdocs who attended, I left the event disappointed.

Based on the way the event was advertised, I had thought we were going to hear creative ideas from administration and fellow postdocs about what UCSF could do to improve the postdoc training and mentoring experience. Instead, the two panelists focused almost entirely on graduate training and on science funding at the national level.

I have attended a number of roundtable discussions in my life, but none where there were a grand total of only two participants. This small number was apparently due to the fact that there were so many people, especially postdocs, who wanted to attend the original event that its format morphed into an ill-planned pseudo-debate between Yamamoto and Petsko. Besides the presence of an appointed moderator, there was very little in the way of structure or differing perspectives that would indicate a debate. In fact, I noted that the two panelists agreed on the vast majority of issues discussed.

One of the few differences between the panelists, however, turned out to be quite significant. Of particular note was Yamamoto's rebuttal to Petsko's revolutionary idea to double postdoc salary in a five-year period. Part of Yamamoto’s response was to lament the fact that more grant money would have to be spent on "labor" instead of “equipment needed to do the experiments." Yamamoto’s assertion could easily be interpreted to mean that a substantial increase in valuation of labor over equipment and reagents is not a good idea. Here I’ve always thought that skilled labor was the key ingredient in carrying out well-controlled experiments.

In addition to an insufficiently framed debate, no explicit goals or expectations were maintained. This left attendees in the dark about where this discussion fit in the broader context of the movement to improve the postdoc experience other than to “continue the conversation.”  And much to my dismay, not a single question was allowed from the over 100 postdocs in attendance, and no formal feedback was sought, without which this event seemed to me like a mere attempt to give the appearance of an administration working towards a solution, albeit a vague, circuitous, and unilateral one.

The one bright light following the event has been Christine Des Jarlais, Assistant Dean at the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, who has since sent two emails to attendees asking for “thoughts and ideas.” I replied to this request and discovered that only one other postdoc had taken the initiative to respond. This is possibly due to the cynicism I believe many postdocs feel about UCSF’s commitment to making positive change; nevertheless, postdocs, you MUST e-mail feedback to Des Jarlais at [email protected] if you want change to happen.

I propose that this debate be repeated, this time with a chance for postdocs to take an active role. I suggest a two-on-two format similar to the Intelligence Squared US podcast, with the debate prompt “UCSF should take the lead and double postdoc salary over a five-year period.” There should be at least one actual postdoc on the panel and equal time given to questioners.  In addition, there should be three rounds in the debate: (1) an opening statement round by both members of each team, (2) a question round where attendees speak directly to the debate participants, and (3) a closing statement round by both members of each team. The moderator’s job will be to keep the conversation civil, quick-paced and content-driven.

If you agree with my proposition, e-mail Des Jarlais and put “Debate Do-over” in the subject line and include your constructive feedback.

I have met with both Keith Yamamoto and Elizabeth Watkins, and I have heard them verbally commit to improving the postdoc experience at UCSF by incorporating postdoc views as part of the solution. I absolutely believe that this is the right path, but actions speak louder than words. So let’s have an actual debate.

*For more information on the Intelligence Squared US debate format visit