Dr. Aaron Reifler – Reflecting on the First Anniversary of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs

Dr. Aaron Reifler – Reflecting on the First Anniversary of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs

Interview by Anne-Sophie Bohrer, PhD – Recorded on November 2, 2020

Anne-Sophie Bohrer – As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), how was your experience launching the new office at MSU?

Aaron Reifler – It’s been an outstanding opportunity, I am still in the honeymoon phase, because I love it. It’s been a really welcoming and supportive community from the postdocs at MSU as well as from the administration, the Graduate School and the departments.

I still feel like I’m getting to know the lay of the land – the different departments, getting to know the important people – and that in and of itself is a big part of what I’m still doing.

So far, it’s been great getting to know the people and seeing how much progress has been made. It started even before I got here and it continues to be made through new collaborations in terms of overall support, awareness and just community building for the postdocs here.

Absolutely! To give a bit of context, the MSU-PDA started to heavily advocate for the need of an official entity to represent the postdoctoral community at MSU in the form of an OPA in the Spring 2018. The creation of the OPA, supported by the Office of the Provost, was eventually officially announced by Provost Youatt in November 2018. In October 2019, you officially became the Director of the OPA!

As you freshly came in, despite everything that was already in place on campus, did you see challenges in uniting the postdoctoral community at MSU?

I think that there’s still a challenge, first, to make people – both postdocs and administration – aware that the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs exists! Secondly, there is the challenge understanding what exactly the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs can do. I imagine we can do just about anything, but in practice it’s a little bit more limited.

When I was appointed, my role was mainly split between curriculum development, advising and outreach, which means I am trying to help people figure it all out. I, myself, am still trying to figure it out because it is really at the core of defining this new office.

Relationships I am developing are central to everything I do. These are the relationships with the Postdoc Association, with the Graduate School, with the Provost, with the Office of Research and Innovation or with the Academic Advancement Network. I’m understanding how all these different offices support each other as well as how we can make MSU a better environment to attract people while supporting people who are already here. It really is the goal we are all working toward.

As you know, postdocs are often, if not always, referred to as trainees. However, our postdoctoral appointments are, in most cases, 100% dedicated to research, which feels like the goal of this training period is for us to become independent in our research. However, we need to be trained for a lot more to prepare for our future careers.

Can you think of strategies that could be implemented to improve the training of postdocs? Would it be more community engaging to do so?

You hit the nail on the head! Ultimately, I think it really comes down to how we structure this relationship between a PI and their postdoc(s). The power differential and the origin of funding is often what defines what that postdoc position is going to look like. The institution rarely has the resources to provide anything in exchange for “protected time” for each postdoc. It would just be out of the goodness of the PI’s heart. Why aren’t postdoc engaging in the opportunities we offer? We have lots of events that are geared towards all sorts of different interests, whether it’s in academia or not, a wide range of careers and professional development events are organized and available to postdocs, yet we don’t have a large attendance. Ultimately, it comes down to that – it is on your own time, after all the rest of the work is done.

To give all postdocs the opportunity to explore, and not just on their own time, and become more engaged with the resources we offer, this needs to be built into the description of what a postdoc is. It should be tied into a title that we can all recognize, a MSU identity, and it absolutely needs to be written into policy – there must be protected time given to the postdocs you hire.

I wholeheartedly agree that, if our postdoctoral appointments were to be 90% research – 10% training for example, postdocs would certainly be a lot more comfortable attending workshops or engaging in activities outside their research. As you said earlier, the purpose of the OPA is to help the postdoc community while at MSU, and to prepare us for the next step of our career!

Mentoring is challenging and it is not something that comes naturally. The problem is that we ask a lot of our faculty. Given that we know how difficult it is, all the more reason why our faculty need to agree to let their postdocs and graduate students take advantage of these other opportunities for further development. If the faculty aren’t going to show up at the trainer mentoring workshop and do not want or don’t have time to learn how to be a good mentor, then they’re saying that it’s not a priority for them to be a mentor. If that’s the case, mentoring opportunities must be delivered some other way. When the mentors aren’t going to the faculty development workshops offered to them at MSU, it can indicate it was not important, so the postdocs pick it up, and so do the graduate students.

Modeling good behavior should start from leadership and on down. But it is tricky – does it need to be mandated? How do you enforce it?

It is true though that we need to create better incentive and better access to career and professional development and other opportunities to ultimately improve the experiences of postdocs at MSU. But this needs to be agreed upon as a collective.

We are in the middle of a pandemic, which doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon.

Despite the many challenges it has brought, especially in the early stages of launching a new office like the OPA, what do you hope to achieve in the next year?

There is real COVID-19 fatigue. Acknowledging hard work is so important and there are a few things that are tied to this idea of acknowledgement. One of the biggest ways that we can acknowledge hard work is by giving financial support – we can retool the annual travel awards* into something more suitable for a COVID-19 era where traveling is compromised. I have been working with colleagues on getting online opportunities for the postdoctoral community to access – one program in teaching, starting in January*, and additional professional development opportunities online.

The collective also really needs to take a step forward and acknowledge postdocs. It was wonderful to see so much support from different departments and units stepping up during the annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week 2020*, but it should continue year-round.

Another aspect that goes along with acknowledgement has to do with identity. MSU is using a variety of job titles when referring to postdocs – (senior) research associates, postdoctoral fellows, specialists, or research assistant professors, but also adjuncts or visiting scholars. We need something that people will identify with and will be able to use, regardless of whether they have external funding (i.e. fellowships) or not. This is part is extremely challenging though, since it involves many different policies – some are MSU-specific, but others are dictated by federal agencies that have ultimately defined who postdocs at MSU are.

Another acknowledgment piece is to get recognition and representation of the postdoctoral community in Academic Governance, at a University level. Our postdocs are a unique group of trainees and need to be acknowledged as such.

These are all big priorities, and I am aware that some will be more demanding and challenging than others, so I don’t know if I can get all that done in the next year, but acknowledgement and awareness are at the forefront of my priorities.

How do you see the OPA evolve in the next three to five years?

That’s a great question. I wish to see the Office have its own place, its own identity, just like I hope postdocs have their own identity.

One thing people might not be aware of is that, before the creation of the OPA, postdoctoral affairs were supported by the Graduate School for many years, more specifically by Tony Nunez, who I see as the godfather of postdocs at MSU. He has been an advisor, a leader, and an advocate for postdocs at MSU, and a voice for postdocs on the national level as well. The Graduate School has been, and still is, supporting postdocs through several initiatives such as the Postdoc Academy, the MSU BEST program (formerly funded by NIH), and other initiatives. Many faculty members within the Graduate School are still very invested in postdocs’ success. Their resources provide the same kind of development that overflows beyond the time of the graduate student into the time as a postdoc. It is extremely useful obviously, since for now, the OPA is a ‘one-man-operation’, where it is just me.

The question remains though – does the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs belong in the Graduate School unit or does it belong to another unit, such as the Office of the Provost?

Little changes like this might not seem obvious for people outside of the OPA to see, but I would like to see them over time. There needs to be more work around the identity of the OPA to figure out what makes the most sense.

As far as seeing the office evolve, I hope to see growth over the next few years. I would like to have more availability and opportunities for advising, and for creating and increasing the professional development offer. It might mean taking on more administrative duties such as recruiting and hiring additional personnel in the office.

You mentioned the MSU-PDA a few times already. How do you see this relationship grow? And how do you think the MSU-PDA will look like in three to five years?

The postdoc association from MSU is incredibly strong. The organization and leadership in the PDA at MSU are second to none. We have absolutely incredible initiatives and I have seen the potential maximized in terms of what the PDA can do in bringing people together. The PDA has done some heavy lifting in the past – in terms of communication, organizing events, providing opportunities and professional development, and by keeping a community together.

I want to be able to relieve some tasks and the busywork that goes into all that has been developed, implemented, and done so far. I want to make sure this work is being done by people who are paid to do so because I think the PDA deserves more than what it has been given so far.

I agree with this, but I would argue that, until now, the postdoctoral community did not have an officially recognized entity such as the OPA – an entire office dedicated to the cause of postdocs. It is certainly the reason why the PDA, working with Tony Nunez (our former Postdoc Officer), was involved, and engaged in so many administrative aspects of the postdoctoral life at MSU. Now that the OPA exists, my hope is for the PDA to be primarily a community builder – to gather, share experiences, create new connections and collaborations between postdocs. Building a strong postdoc community would then allow the PDA to be the beacon of the community to advocate for the postdoctoral community and to relay information to the OPA.

That’s an excellent point. It is important that postdocs have a voice and an outlet, and it is my wish for the OPA to be the outlet that connects postdocs to the administration. As I mentioned earlier, I want to take it one step further and get the PDA recognized by Academic Governance, which will provide a direct access for postdocs to the higher levels of our institution. In the short term, I really want to see advocacy as the centerpiece of the PDA and a shift where the OPA does the heavy lifting, along with other offices on campus, to provide support and professional development and other things that are hard to put together when you’re just a volunteer in the PDA.

During the postdoc monthly orientations, I am glad someone from the PDA joins and introduces what the PDA is all about. I’ve seen some of our new postdocs participate more and I think it’s been helping get that community-building rolling. For now, it is a small contribution as I am still working on getting information about the existence of the orientation to all the different department out. But it shows that the orientation is important to connect people.

Faculty members could attend the orientation, to see what is out there for their postdocs and encourage them to attend and get the information they need to have the best experience possible at MSU.

You have a background in STEM, with a postdoctoral experience. What made you choose a career in Academic Administration, specifically to help postdoc communities?

That long background in STEM I have, mostly in neurosciences, got me where I am today, and I do enjoy talking about what I did. During my training, I had been interested in being in a classroom and advising and helping with the program side of things, but I didn’t know it existed as a career. Back in 2017, I saw a job posting at the University of Michigan to work in the Medical School’s Office of Postdoctoral Studies and I thought “That’s a real job? Can someone actually do that?”

While I was working at the University of Michigan, it was about the time when the ideas around creating an OPA at MSU were being formulated. When I saw the job description for the position of Director of the OPA, I basically told myself “this is my life now and this is what I live for!”

Over the past few years, I met people at the annual National Postdoc Association conference, at the American Association of Medical Colleges, or the GREAT (Graduate Research, Education and Training) Group conference and they are now colleagues and peers that I want to have, always. It is such a supportive group! We are constantly talking about initiatives, about policy, about advocacy, about ways that we can bring people together. And it is everything that is important to me.

This job is also about serving the most awesome people in the world who are postdocs. Every time I get to interact with our postdocs – the smartest people I’ve ever known, the most passionate and the most humble and self-serving – it just really brings me joy.


* The annual travel awards were made available this year as “Virtual Conference Registration Reimbursement Awards” as allocations of $250.00 for selected individuals.

* The teaching opportunity for postdocs is a 9-week seminar series organized and facilitated by Diane Ebert-May, University Distinguished Professor in the Department of Plant Biology at MSU. Here seminar series “Pathways to Scientific Teaching” is meant for the participants to learn about instructional materials development for intro biology classes.

* The 11th annual National Postdoc Appreciation Week took place September 21-25, 2020. In celebration, the MSU-PDA and OPA organized and hosted the Michigan Regional Postdoc Symposium (October 7-9, 2020) that gathered postdocs from MSU, the University of Michigan, Wayne State University, and other institutions.