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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Appendix E Summary of Results from Institutional Focus Groups The rapid growth of the postdoctoral population is a recent phenomenon, occurring mostly since the late 1980s. As a result, relatively little has been published about the incorporation of postdoctoral scholars into the research enterprise. Therefore COSEPUP augmented its study with an unusual degree of on-site investigation and interviewing via 39 focus groups. The majority of postdocs were held with postdocs and/or advisers at eleven universities, seven national labs, two private institutes, and three industrial labs. When possible, staff met separately with postdocs and advisers in order to allow free expression of views; at some sites only postdocs were available. In addition, several focus groups were held at federal and nonfederal funding organizations. The following institutions assisted the staff in this process: Universities: Caltech, University of Chicago, Howard University, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Pennsylvania, University of Pittsburgh, North Carolina State University, Stanford University, University of Maryland at Baltimore. National labs and agencies: Argonne National Laboratory, Goddard Space Flight Center (NASA), Jet Propulsion Laboratory, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Naval Research Laboratory, National Science Foundation. Private institutes: RAND Corporation.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Industrial labs: Genentech, Eli Lilly, Microsoft. Funding Organizations: Howard Hughes Medical Institute, National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health The meeting at North Carolina State was also attended by postdocs from the US Department of Energy's Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory, Glaxo-Wellcome pharmaceuticals, Duke University, and the University of North Carolina. The focus groups with postdocs and advisers established many of the primary themes of this guide. Each meeting followed a standardized format, in which participants were asked to review the then-current draft of the guide, contribute their experiences and opinions on major points of the guide, and suggest recommendations and “best practices.” Some points were raised by participants at virtually every meeting (especially concerns about compensation, institutional status, and mentoring); other points were particular to specific fields, sectors, and individuals. This summary presents a list of dominant themes, as well as a brief sampling of experiences and opinions from participants. During the course of the study, more extensive summaries of individual focus groups were drawn up after the meetings and constituted an extensive body of information on which COSEPUP based its deliberations. DOMINANT THEMES Professional Status With regard to their standing as researchers, postdocs seldom consider themselves “students.” They feel they are skilled practitioners who may know as much or more about their work as their advisers and therefore should be considered junior colleagues. At the same time, postdocs say they have much to learn about their profession before they can be considered independent researchers. Depending on their career objectives, postdocs may have to learn such professional skills as grant proposal writing, lab management, writing papers, reviewing the work of peers, mentoring others in the lab, and teaching full courses. At some organizations, postdocs say they are still regarded as “glorified students” and have yet to gain the respect they deserve. Attaining full professional status may occur slowly, if the postdoc seldom leaves the research facility, or more quickly, if the adviser provides opportunities to interact with others, to take on new responsibilities, and to understand the context and traditions of research.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Many postdocs are confused about expectations. Said one: “I came here expecting to learn, but I find I am judged only by my output.” Postdocs are learning to be independent, but many see the need for more guidance than they receive to avoid “chasing down dead ends. ” The social sciences have been slower to accept the need for postdoctoral training than the physical and life sciences, and some prejudice exists against postdoctoral positions. Postdocs in the field feel a postdoc can launch their career more quickly and learn to write proposals. Administrative Structures for Postdocs Most postdocs are hired directly by researchers without going through institutional personnel procedures; thus they may be “institutionally invisible.” The may either lack institutional benefits or be uninformed about their rights. Few institutions have centralized offices or officers designated to address issues of concern to postdocs, clarify policies, or answer questions. Many foreign postdocs receive little or no orientation before or after arrival, and waste considerable time and energy searching for answers to relatively straightforward questions about visa requirements and American culture. Most postdocs do not receive a contractual letter of appointment that addresses such important issues as length of appointment, benefits offered, salary, intellectual property policy, and terms of completion. Postdocs at national and industrial facilities were generally better paid than academic postdocs, fit more easily into an employment/benefits category (such as temporary or contractual employee), receive better infrastructure support and more travel funding, and had fewer complaints about their supervision or recognition. Many, however, worried about their job prospects. Compensation and Benefits Postdocs in certain fields, notably the life sciences, feel that their pay level is insufficient given their advanced level of skill and experience. They often pointed to higher pay scales for postdocs with MD degrees and for technical staff with less experience and/or lower degrees. Wide variations in pay (examples of stipend levels reported to the committee range from $14,000 in the case of a postdoc on a foreign grant to $60,000+ for some postdocs at national labs) are usually unrelated to the skill or experience of the recipient. Postdocs performing similar work at the same institutions may also
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies receive different benefits, depending on their source of support. The 40 percent or so of postdocs who are supported by federal fellowships, federal traineeships, and nonfederal (including foreign) sources may or may not receive benefits, while the 60 percent or so of postdocs who are supported on research grants usually receive standard institutional benefits. Funding organizations and institutions often disagree about who bears primary responsibility for setting funding levels. Funding organizations point out that institutions or principal investigators may determine how much to pay their postdocs, but institutions often follow the lead of the largest funding organizations (notably the NIH) in making those determinations. Classification and Titles At some academic institutions postdocs are “unclassified” and have no institutional status. Institutions classify and treat them in various ways: as “students” (notably at Stanford, to allow universal provision of benefits), “staff” (common at national and industrial labs), “employees” (those who are paid under research grants may or may not have titles, although they usually receive the same institutional benefits as employees), and occasionally “faculty” (common in mathematics, for example). Some institutions place limits on the time a researcher can be a postdoc; most universities do not. Some postdocs continue working for many years (ten years is not unusual in physics) without acquiring regular institutional status or qualifying for matching retirement benefits. Many postdocs complain about their invisibility, that “no one outside the lab knows who we are.” Career Planning and Transitions Many postdocs would like more information about careers, especially nonacademic careers, but have little time to find good sources. Most institutions have no central career planning service for postdocs, who must rely on the knowledge of their adviser or other research colleagues for guidance. Few advisers assist postdocs in acquiring outside-the-lab career skills such as teaching, writing, public speaking, coursework, lab management, or grant preparation. Many postdocs don't know their adviser's policy on attending valuable professional meetings and are reluctant to ask. Many researchers look back on their postdoctoral appointment as a “once-in-a-lifetime chance” time to pick up skills and focus intently on research. Few postdocs in industry are hired by their institutions.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Postdoctoral Associations Some universities have supported (financially and logistically) postdocs' desire to form associations for the purpose of information sharing, social activities, and communication with the administration. These associations for the most part have developed good relationships with administrations, provided postdocs with a sense of community, and achieved many of their goals. Administration support is essential for the continuity of postdoctoral associations because the postdoctoral population is a transient one. Some postdocs described a need for a national postdoctoral association. Foreign National and Minority Postdocs Postdocs who are non-US citizens often have poor postdoctoral experiences characterized by difficulties with language, funding, visa status, mentoring, and/or acculturation. At the same time, opportunities for networking and jobs are often greater in the US, and many postdocs would like to stay on in this country. Many foreign postdocs don't know where to find needed resources at their institution and receive little orientation when they arrive. Foreign postdocs have an easier and more productive time when institutions make their existing international offices available and known. Few postdocs are members of minority groups who are generally underrepresented in science and engineering (African-American, Native American, Hispanic). Very few representatives of these minority groups participated in the focus groups, so that COSEPUP was unable to gather sufficient information to comment on the probable causes of underrepresentation. Mentoring and Evaluation There is little agreement among either postdocs or advisers about the adviser's obligation to serve as mentor. Most postdocs at universities express a need for mentoring and depend for this on a single faculty member. At national and industry facilities, mentors may or may not be significant because research settings tend to be more group oriented. Some members of both groups feel that postdocs should have the maturity to work things out on their own. Many postdocs choose a program in order to work with a particular mentor. At universities, in particular, they tend to identify their affiliation with that single person and may have no relationship to the host institution.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Some postdocs seldom see their adviser and receive little guidance either in their technical work or in regard to their careers. Postdocs disagreed about the value of a “famous” adviser. Some were willing to endure a lack of mentoring for the advantage of being affiliated with a renowned researcher; others preferred an adviser with interpersonal skills. Some postdocs at the most prestigious universities had the most complaints about a lack of good mentoring. One postdoc described her adviser as outstanding because she helped her avoid “dead ends” in her research. Another praised his adviser for being flexible and offering freedom to explore. Principal investigators are rewarded primarily for their research (in grant renewals, promotions, and tenure), and less often get any credit for teaching or mentoring. With the many demands on their time, it is difficult to give high priority to mentoring postdocs, especially if it is not explicitly valued or required. A few institutions use “mentoring committees” comprised of several potential role models to expand the guidance, feedback, and perspective available to postdocs. Postdocs agreed that ethical concerns are very important. One told of being asked not to publish something that went against his adviser 's work, and others agreed that this is not uncommon. A postdoc in industry may work on many different projects (unlike a postdoc in academia) under different advisers. Postdocs in industry still depend on their advisers for mentoring, career guidance, and expanding their professional network of contacts. OTHER OPINIONS From postdocs There was much discussion of how many job classifications exist, and how important they can be. “Fellows,” in particular, complained about their lack of benefits, vis-a-vis “research associates.” There were also many stories about the inequities of salaries and stipends, such as instances where lab directories gave very different amounts to equally qualified people for no apparent reason. Foreign postdocs on visas were adamant about the need for access to an office of international affairs to help with visa problems, of which many were described. Many voiced objections to using the J1 (student) visa for postdocs, saying the H1B is more appropriate. The H1 status is very difficult to get, however.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Many postdocs in academia felt faculty were “not responsive” to the concerns of postdocs—even those who had been postdocs themselves. Several institutions were in the process of starting a postdoctoral association. They were using other models (UCSF, Johns Hopkins, Einstein) and praised their value. A postdoc in mathematics is unusual. Such a postdoc is usually hired in a university faculty slot and teaches a full load, receives little mentoring, and is paid better than average. Many suggested that problems are inherent in the imbalance of power in favor of the adviser. The importance of good relations with the adviser: “They're your advocate in the field. Without them you don't have a chance.” What is lacking in postdoctoral training is not bench skills, but other professional skills. One reason it's difficult to get a job is that job offers are very specific, requiring a particular technical skill. Most said they were postdocs because they loved science, but that they deserved a living wage. Many agreed that “social isolation” was a serious problem for postdocs. Many agreed that there are too many graduate students, not enough jobs, and “something should be done to keep the numbers down.” There are subtle pressures to stay in the lab as late as everyone else. Some women felt they could not have children while doing a postdoc. Some postdocs said that funding agencies may unintentionally discourage having children by setting time limits after the PhD for applying for funds. Most felt that travel to meetings is essential for establishing a necessary reputation, network, and ultimately independence. A number of postdocs recommended the elimination of the “postdoc” category in favor of “scholars” or some other name. Many felt that even a productive postdoctoral appointment was a “holding pattern” compared to a “real” job. Some recommended the elimination of postdocs as a category, to be replaced by various forms of employment. Many felt they were being used as technicians and not really encouraged to learn new skills and areas. Postdocs at a leading industry lab felt they were more than trainees: “We're proving ourselves, and learning new skills.” Some postdocs at industrial labs felt they had a greater variety of stimulating research opportunities than postdocs at universities and more freedom to choose their research areas, although their work still had to support the theme of their mentor's work. Other reported advantages of an industry postdoc: learning how industry
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies works (more teamwork), “fewer hassles,” great resources (generous budget, technical help, travel funds), a more “sane” working environment than academia. Postdocs at national labs often like to maintain an academic connection, which makes it easier to return to academia. Work at national labs tends to be more practical than at universities. Many postdocs in national labs desired more help with 1) grant writing, 2) managerial skills, and 3) mentoring. Some national labs are group oriented, with groups making decisions about research and whom to hire. The group leader's job was described as “running interference for you and letting you do your work.” Some postdocs at national and industrial labs missed the fun of working with students and passing along their knowledge. From advisers Postdocs need more recognition that they and their work are important. The vast majority of postdoctoral experiences are good, but for those that aren't, each institution must recognize the problem and strive to do better. Faculty do want postdocs to have an educational experience, but this doesn't always occur in practice. Some advisers warned that if universities don't treat postdocs more “humanely,” they will not be able to attract the “best and brightest” to academia. Other advisers favor a more “free market” approach, whereby researchers follow the most interesting opportunities, including those in the private sector. The primary responsibility of the postdoc is research performance. An increase in salary for postdocs would only fuel the fundraising efforts of faculty. Faculty felt that evaluation does happen, and that the criteria for advancement are clear to postdocs as well as faculty. “They know, ” said one. “The clock is running as soon as they arrive.” Said another: “You can quantify their progress by what they do.” Said one adviser: “When people are doing well, they don't complain; when they don't do well, they look for a reason. We also see that with faculty who don't get tenure.” One adviser said the most serious conflicts occur over credit, who gets to give a paper, and harassment (i.e., general rather than sexual). In multigroup collaborations, conflicts are common over sharing credit.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies From institutions Institutions have the responsibility to establish a central office or officer to coordinate postdoctoral affairs. The primary advantage of a centralized office is to provide structure and standardization of policies and procedures, as well as a clearinghouse for information for postdocs. Institutions have a responsibility to provide some level of job placement/ career services. The institution's role in supporting a postdoctoral association for postdocs is crucial because postdocs are a transient population. Most institutions follow the lead of the NIH in setting stipend/salary levels. Prior to recent years, few universities had mechanisms for tracking, supporting, or even counting the members of their postdoctoral populations. Some institutions raise the levels of classification and compensation of postdocs according to the number of years in that position; beyond a certain time (e.g., 4-5 years) a “postdoc” moves to a new “track” with retirement and other employee benefits. One university system created a new category for postdocs so they could receive benefits (through the Graduate School). From funding organizations Advisers sometimes classify postdocs in different ways to fit the varying requirements of funding organizations. In the view of some funding organizations, the variability in classification is not a bad thing: “The system needs flexibility to operate.” Some officials at federal funding organizations are reluctant to specify the status of postdocs at various institutions, or otherwise dictate how grant money should be used. “We don't want to be seen as intrusive. ” The NSF has begun a more explicit effort to encourage good mentoring in recent years, primarily through the general tone and specific requirements of its research grant application forms. The NIH encourages good mentoring by requiring information about the careers of postdocs who have worked in a particular adviser' s lab. Under NIH guidelines, postdocs who are fellows or trainees are paid directly by NIH; postdocs who are supported under research grants are not paid directly; instead, the grant money goes to the institution, which determines compensation and benefits. The NIH does not require training on ethics, and gives universities a lot of latitude on the form, content, and amount of training. Some federal program officers are reluctant to set specific criteria for
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies mentoring (e.g., to require periodic evaluations of postdocs) because of anticipated resistance: “It would be a burden on the investigator, who would just generate a standard paragraph of text.” These officers suggest an alternative strategy: to make clear that postdocs require training, and to allow advisers to determine the most appropriate methods. GENERAL POINT Not surprisingly, the perceptions of postdocs often differed from those of faculty. Many postdocs, especially at universities, expressed dissatisfaction with established practices of mentoring, compensation, recognition, and career development, and were pessimistic about their job prospects. Faculty, while often sympathetic, tended to say that a good postdoctoral experience is the responsibility of the postdoc, and that those who are qualified and do their work will find the right jobs.
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