Sample Surveys of Postdoctoral Populations

Some postdocs seeking to enhance their experience have started with basic questions: How many of us are there and how can we reach each other? This was the motivation at Baylor College of Medicine in 1997: “No faculty or administrator knew how many postdocs were working at Baylor,” recalls an official, “let alone how to contact them.” It took six months to design a survey that asked the right questions and to establish a web site. The survey asked for issues of importance to postdocs, how postdocs rated their tenure so far, and what goals and priorities should be set for the newly formed postdoc association.

Postdocs at the University of California at San Francisco conducted an extensive survey in 1996 that received 419 responses from 1,076 postdoctoral scholars (one-third with MDs, two-thirds with PhDs). Respondents, whose mean age was 32 years and half of whom were foreign, reported poor perceptions of the job market and of prospects for their own careers. These perceptions were most pessimistic when interactions with their mentors were infrequent. Of the PhD postdocs, 21 percent said they had prolonged their postdoctoral position because of difficulty in finding other employment. This finding led to a recommendation for improved career guidance, mentoring, and performance evaluations, and to ongoing efforts with the administration to enhance those functions.

The postdoctoral association at Johns Hopkins, founded by postdocs, gathers survey information annually from both program directors and postdocs. Of the program directors, it asks if their division: 1) has a committee to help with postdoctoral issues; 2) has a mentoring committee to provide guidance and evaluation of postdocs; 3) does annual performance reviews of postdocs; 4) has a formal orientation for new postdocs; and 5) pays for fellows' health benefits.

The exit survey of postdocs at Johns Hopkins has grown more sophisticated and extensive over the years, and now poses 81 questions on issues related to compensation, source of support, benefits, goals, responsibilities, career planning, mentoring, accomplishments, future employment, issues of concern, and family issues. The primary concerns of postdocs have changed somewhat over the years moving from personal to professional issues. In 1992, the greatest concerns were personal safety and health insurance; in 1997, the greatest concerns were salary levels and future job placement (Figure 5-1).

Best Practices

In its 1998 study of the postdoctoral experience, the AAU committee wrote that “...the lack of institutional oversight of postdoctoral appointments, coupled with the evolution of postdoctoral education in a number of disciplines into a virtual requirement for a tenure-track faculty appointment, creates an unacceptable degree of variability and instability in this aspect of the academic enterprise.”1 Through its meetings with postdocs and advisers, COSEPUP has found that uncertain status, low pay and benefits, and lack of professional recognition


AAU, 1998. Cited above.

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