Executive Summary

The concept of a postdoctoral scholar in science and engineering arose about a century ago when a handful of PhD researchers were awarded small stipends for the purpose of augmenting their skills and experience. The postdoctoral population in the United States, after decades of gradual growth, leapt ahead quickly in the 1980s and now outnumbers the graduate student population at some US institutions. The total number of postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs, has grown to an estimated 52,000.

The primary purpose of the postdoctoral experience is to broaden and deepen the research and other skills that are required for a significant contribution to society and satisfying, professional employment. Ideally, this is accomplished through the guidance of an adviser in whose laboratory or department the postdoc works; the administrative and infrastructural support of the host institution; the financial support of a funding organization; and the professional development support of a disciplinary society.

The postdoctoral experience does not always succeed in its educational purpose. In some cases, the postdoc is poorly matched with the research setting; in others, there is little opportunity for growth toward independence, guidance is poor, or a mentoring relationship fails to develop. Sometimes mentors, institutions, and funding organizations have been slow to assign postdocs the status, recognition, and compensation that are commensurate with their skills and contributions to research.

For their part, many postdocs express frustration at their low professional status and inability to fulfill their own expectations to mature as professional researchers, collaborate productively with colleagues (and advisers), and advance



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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Executive Summary The concept of a postdoctoral scholar in science and engineering arose about a century ago when a handful of PhD researchers were awarded small stipends for the purpose of augmenting their skills and experience. The postdoctoral population in the United States, after decades of gradual growth, leapt ahead quickly in the 1980s and now outnumbers the graduate student population at some US institutions. The total number of postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs, has grown to an estimated 52,000. The primary purpose of the postdoctoral experience is to broaden and deepen the research and other skills that are required for a significant contribution to society and satisfying, professional employment. Ideally, this is accomplished through the guidance of an adviser in whose laboratory or department the postdoc works; the administrative and infrastructural support of the host institution; the financial support of a funding organization; and the professional development support of a disciplinary society. The postdoctoral experience does not always succeed in its educational purpose. In some cases, the postdoc is poorly matched with the research setting; in others, there is little opportunity for growth toward independence, guidance is poor, or a mentoring relationship fails to develop. Sometimes mentors, institutions, and funding organizations have been slow to assign postdocs the status, recognition, and compensation that are commensurate with their skills and contributions to research. For their part, many postdocs express frustration at their low professional status and inability to fulfill their own expectations to mature as professional researchers, collaborate productively with colleagues (and advisers), and advance

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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies in their careers toward rewarding professional positions. While some of this frustration results from a job market that, in some fields, has fewer positions than it does good candidates, it also reflects inadequate administrative attention to mechanisms of the experience that can and should be rectified. In considering needed improvements, it is essential to recognize that the situations of postdocs vary markedly from discipline to discipline and between academic and non-academic settings. Postdocs vary in proficiency; some are quite experienced with little need for guidance, while others are apprentices who require substantial coaching. They also vary in their rate of growth; some learn quickly while others require more time to develop sufficient knowledge and skills to move to the next stage of their career. Moreover, slightly more than half of US postdocs are non-US citizens, many of whom face additional challenges of acculturation and language. GUIDING PRINCIPLES After extensive interviews, workshops, and deliberations, COSEPUP drew up a series of recommendations for all participants in the postdoctoral experience—postdocs, their advisers, host institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies. These recommendations are based on the following guiding principles: The postdoctoral experience is first and foremost a period of apprenticeship for the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and professional skills that advance the professional career. Postdocs should receive appropriate recognition (including lead author credit) and compensation (including health insurance and other fringe benefits) for the contributions they make to the research enterprise. To ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, all parties to the appointments—the postdoc, the postdoc adviser, the host institution, and funding organizations—should have a clear and mutually-agreed-upon understanding with regard to the nature and purpose of the appointment.

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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies TEN ACTION POINTS In order to enhance the postdoctoral experience, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies should: Award institutional recognition, status, and compensation commensurate with the contributions of postdocs to the research enterprise. Develop distinct policies and standards for postdocs, modeled on those available for graduate students and faculty. Develop mechanisms for frequent and regular communication between postdocs and their advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies. Monitor and provide formal evaluations (at least annually) of the performance of postdocs. Ensure that all postdocs have access to health insurance, regardless of funding source, and to institutional services. Set limits for total time of a postdoc appointment (of approximately five years, summing time at all institutions), with clearly described exceptions as appropriate. Invite the participation of postdocs when creating standards, definitions, and conditions for appointments. Provide substantive career guidance to improve postdocs' ability to prepare for regular employment. Improve the quality of data both for postdoctoral working conditions and for the population of postdocs in relation to employment prospects in research. Take steps to improve the transition of postdocs to regular career positions.