POSTDOCS IN DIFFERENT DISCIPLINES

Figure 2-1 shows the difference among disciplines in terms of the percentage of doctorates that seek postdoctoral appointments. The percentage is largest in the biological sciences, with physics, chemistry, and the earth sciences not far behind. Differences among disciplines in the median number of years spent in a postdoctoral appointment are discussed in Chapter 1.1 The early career status of postdocs is illustrated in Figure 2-2, which also shows how employment status varies by field. Figure 2-3 indicates the median postdoctoral salaries. The lowest compensation is provided to academic postdocs in chemistry,2 the highest to engineering postdocs who work in industry. Table 2-1 compares the number of graduate students in a field with the employment of all doctorates in a field—providing an indication of the likely job market.

The need for postdoctoral study also differs among disciplines. Postdoctoral work is now prerequisite for most long-term employment in the life sciences, especially for those planning academic, industrial, or other research careers, as well as teaching careers at many small colleges. In some areas, competition for positions is equally intense at universities and in the private sector, and many life-science PhDs find postdoctoral appointments in biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies. In the physical sciences (chemistry and physics), most PhDs who plan research careers are advised to do postdoctoral work. Postdoctoral positions are available at industrial and national facilities, where research facilities are often unique or comparable to those at universities. In mathematics, postdoctoral positions are few in number, competitive, and primarily found at universities. Postdocs in mathematics are usually hired as temporary faculty, carry a full teaching load (NSF postdocs teach less), and often have neither a structured research program nor an adviser.

Postdocs are less common among both engineers and social scientists. As mentioned above, engineers usually enter full-time employment after a master's or bachelor's degree. The number of postdocs in some areas of behavioral and social science (e.g., psychology) has risen recently, primarily in health-related areas.

According to a 1998 survey of four fields by the AAU,3 the proportion of PhDs accepting or seeking postdoctoral appointments increased from 25 percent in 1975 to over 42 percent in 1995. In biochemistry and physics more than 80

1  

As shown in Figure 1-5, biological scientists spend the most years as postdocs, with physicists not far behind.

2  

The low compensation of chemists is due in part to their relatively junior status compared to longer-term postdocs in the biological sciences.

3  

The AAU's Committee on Postdoctoral Education based its 1998 Report and Recommendations on “informal” surveys of “selected major research universities” in four disciplines: biochemistry, mathematics, physics, and psychology. The purpose of the surveys was “to gain insight into campus policies and practices governing postdoctoral education and to sample the views of postdocs.”



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