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Research Culture and Climate: It’s On Us (again)


We create culture in our moment by moment interactions with one another.”
—Teresa Posakony, Emerging Wisdom


As a number of recent National Academies of Sciences reports have shown, we have work ahead of us within academic and research environments across the country. As early career researchers, postdocs can struggle to fit in an institutional culture and risk being taken advantage of by later stage researchers (1). Other evidence also shows that women or otherwise under-represented trainees are not only vulnerable to harassment but are also at-risk of being excluded from research opportunities, either explicitly or implicitly (2). We must do better than this.

At the UW, there have been a few long-term efforts to advance organizational culture, in particular regarding how we treat one another. One example is the UW School of Medicine (SoM)’s  Policy of Professional Conduct. It was developed more than a decade ago by faculty and trainees together, and is endorsed by department chairs and the dean for use in annual faculty reviews and promotion considerations. The policy applies to everyone in the SoM, with the goal that all people — faculty, staff, fellows and students — act in a professional and ethical manner. The language was recently updated to reflect more of the unique features of research relationships and learning environments to complement the clinical focus of the earlier policy.

Here’s an excerpt from the policy, as the language is evocative of what we expect here at the UW and may be of use to you, whether in the SoM or elsewhere. After all, it is up to us to hold each other accountable to these standards. For example:

Unprofessional behavior means behavior that violates laws or rules regarding discrimination and harassment, violates rules of professional ethics (including professionalism in clinical, educational, research or business practices), or is disrespectful, demeaning, retaliatory, or disruptive. Bullying is unprofessional behavior that misuses power to control or harm others.

Discrimination and harassment is as defined in University of Washington (UW) Executive Order 31. As of the effective date of this policy, this includes discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, national origin, citizenship, sex, age, marital status, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, disability, or military status.

Disrespectful, retaliatory, or disruptive behavior includes, but is not limited to behavior that in the view of reasonable people has a negative impact on the integrity of the healthcare or research team, the care of patients, the education of students or trainees, or the conduct of research, such as:

  • Physical assault or other uninvited or inappropriate physical contact;
  • Shouts, profane or offensive language;
  • Degrading or demeaning comments;
  • Discriminatory or harassing behavior or language (as defined above);
  • Retaliation in response to a person raising concerns about a behavior that may violate laws or policies (such as discrimination), or present a threat to safety or security
  • Threats or similar intimidating behavior, as reasonably perceived by the recipient;
  • Exploiting, neglecting or overworking those in subordinate positions;
  • Unreasonable refusal to cooperate with others in carrying out assigned responsibilities;
  • Failure to respond to inquiries within a reasonable time frame; and
  • Obstruction of established operational goals, beyond what would be considered respectful dissent.

As postdocs, we know you can be especially vulnerable because your future may rely on letters of recommendation from powerful others. The National Academies report recommends, as the OPA has for many years now, that postdocs have a mentoring team: a deeper bench of faculty and advisors you can turn to so you do not become isolated or feel you have to endure faculty misbehavior. These conversations are growing on our campus and there are many faculty who support you. If you find yourself in a difficult situation, please seek help or advice from any of the confidential resource offices listed below.

Another recommendation: find community, or make your own. For example, postdoc Gilbert Martinez (Pbio) has come forward and offered to host a group conversation with other URM postdocs to find out what you need and to reduce the isolation you may feel. See below for his invitation to you, and please do reach out. We all need deep support systems!


  1. The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine (2018). The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers.
  2. Sexual Harassment of Women: Climate, Culture, and Consequences in Academic Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2018)
  3. Sexual harassment and the toll is takes.
  4. Have the Sciences Had a #MeToo Moment? Not So Much.
  5. School of Medicine Policy of Professional Conduct

UW Resources: