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Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research
just as important to the quality of the training experience. In his opening remarks to the committee at its June 2004 workshop, Elias A. Zerhouni, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), noted “lack of money and lack of lab space are manageable; the thing that is not manageable is a culture where young investigators are discouraged from either entering the field or once in the field, get discouraged about taking risks and bringing science in the new directions it needs to go. The worst thing that can happen is the risk averseness that you see in many postdocs today. It’s not a good idea to have a scientific talent pool that’s afraid of risk.”
Given the amount of concern that has persisted for so many years about the postdoctoral experience, it is notable that not all institutions have agreed even on a single definition of a postdoctoral researcher.1 The committee endorses the definition2 adopted by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP, 2000), also found in Box 4-1, and wishes to stress and expand on several of its elements because they provide points of leverage for improving the postdoctoral experience.
First, the postdoctoral appointment is temporary. Several reports, including COSEPUP (2000), have recommended restricting the total duration of postdoctoral training to 5 years so as to not suspend postdoctoral scientists in indefinite periods of dependency. Second, the apprenticeship model emphasizes the requirement for quality mentorship by more senior investigators. In particular, the mentorship must evolve over the period of postdoctoral tenure from initially greater oversight to increasingly greater independence of the postdoctoral researchers (i.e., affording the postdoc with additional responsibility and freedom). Third, this period of training incorporates the development of skills beyond technical laboratory competencies to include training in areas such as laboratory management, business and budgeting, communication, and overall management. These activities are not separate from full-time research and scholarship, but rather integral to the experience.
In this chapter, the committee makes recommendations to improve the likelihood that postdoctoral researchers will have the opportunity to launch an independent career. It also provides an urgent recommenda-
In fact, some institutions can have as many as 15 or more different titles for postdocs (COSEPUP, 2000), including postdoctoral scholar, research associate, laboratory instructor, contract employee, research fellow, or visiting scholar (Klotz, 2000). Institutions may classify postdocs as employees, trainees, associates, faculty, students, or staff.