Optimizing Postdoctoral Training
Much has been written about the postdoctoral experience, including its value, length, and attractiveness, or lack thereof. Numerous reports have made recommendations to improve the quality and utility of this critical period of training (COSEPUP 2000; IOM 1990; NRC, 1998; ACS/BWF/HHMI 2000). All have recognized the importance of humanizing and expanding this experience to ensure the “continued success of the life-science research enterprise” (NRC 1998), and most have documented the declining appeal of the current mode of preparation for a career in science. For example, a 1994 National Research Council (NRC) report noted that “young investigators are not merely apprentices for future positions but a crucial source of energy, enthusiasm, and ideas in the day-to-day research that constitutes the scientific enterprise” (NRC, 1994, p. 2). A 1998 report commented that young scientists caught in the postdoctoral experience while searching for independence are increasingly frustrated and that the postdoctoral period has become too much of a “holding pattern” for many young scientists (NRC, 1998). Some postdoctoral researchers are poorly matched with mentors and some feel exploited, while others may be well-matched and respected but feel trapped by being unable to secure independent positions.
Federal agencies have discussed what to do about the situation for years, and have made adjustments in grant funding and stipends. But the number of postdoctoral scientists has continued to increase while the opportunities for independence remain limited. Clearly, many of the obstacles to launching independent careers do not merely relate to the amount or type of money available; rather, cultural and social factors are
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.
This definition closely mirrors those of others, including the Association of American Universities (http://www.aau.edu/reports/PostDocRpt.html), Association of American Medical Colleges GREAT Group (http://www.aamc.org/members/great/postdoc_definition.htm), and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) (http://www.faseb.org/opa/post_doc_def.html).
Postdocs have sometimes been called the “invisible university.” With the rapid growth and importance of the postdoctoral population, some institutions are attempting formal definitions using some or all of these criteria:a
Reproduced from: COSEPUP, 2000.
tion that NIH improve its data collection and evaluation activities about this most critical human resource.
LENGTH OF THE POSTDOCTORAL APPOINTMENT
The postdoctoral period should be a temporary apprenticeship and not extend beyond the time needed for training. However, because postdoctoral researchers have more experience and often generate more novel ideas than graduate students or technicians, the “cost” (financial and time investment) to the PI is lower than hiring non-postdoctoral personnel. This makes postdocs attractive laboratory personnel, resulting in appointment terms sometimes lasting 6 to 10 years. In too many instances, “postdoctoral training”—when a young scientist is learning new approaches and techniques towards independence—has turned into
“postdoctoral employment”—with the postdoc remaining at the same professional rank with little advancement or additional training (NRC 1998). In addition to the negative consequences of this trend for postdoctoral researchers themselves (e.g., increasing the age of independence), this cycle is ultimately problematic for the scientific community as a whole. It can result in disillusioned postdoctoral scholars working side-by-side with and providing discouraging advice to graduate and undergraduate students contemplating a career in science (Russo, 2003).
Between 1980 and 1998, the number of postdoctoral researchers at academic institutions doubled (COSEPUP, 2000, with data from Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering). Almost 75 percent of this increase was in the life sciences, likely a result of the interplay between a growing NIH budget and advances in biology. Concurrent with this growth, the average tenure for a postdoctoral appointment increased. In the early 1970s, 61 percent of the total biomedical doctorates spent 2–4 years as postdoctoral researchers; this increased to 76 percent by the late 1980s (COSEPUP, 2000, with data from Survey of Doctorate Recipients). Only 21 percent of doctorates spent more than 4 years as postdoctoral scientists in the early 1970s compared with 40 percent in the late 1980s. In the biological sciences, the median time spent by scientists with U.S.-earned PhDs in a postdoctoral appointment is more than four years,3 as compared to a median overall time of 2.5 years for other disciplines (COSEPUP, 2000).
NIH and many academic institutions and scientific organizations have recognized the need to set a limit on the length of postdoctoral appointments, with 5 years as the generally recommended limit. In fact, a 2001 NIH report stated:
The NIH supports the concept that federal funding from any combination of NRSA [National Research Service Award] and/or research grants should not exceed … five years for postdoctoral training. Universities should consider conversion of all individuals in postdoctoral training to staff or faculty appointments at the earliest possible opportunity. Certainly, by five years of postdoctoral training experience, training should be completed and individuals who are being retained at the institution should be converted to non-training positions that provide appropriate levels of income and a benefit package that includes such items as retirement, leave, and health insurance. The increased costs associated with such positions have been and will continue to be allowable under NIH research grants. Principal Investigators are encouraged to build such costs into the budget request for future competing grants (NIH, 2001).
But enforcement of term limits varies highly. NIH only requires adherence to the recommended limits for those supported on NRSAs and does not even mention the limit for R01-supported postdocs. Although NIH agrees with the limit and encourages actions by institutions, it has done nothing to enforce this desire, despite announcing a plan to do so:
The NIH supports the concept that universities should encourage the earliest possible completion of graduate and postdoctoral education and training. To foster this objective, the NIH proposes to limit the use of federal dollars from any source for the support of graduate training that exceeds six years and postdoctoral training that exceeds five years. (NIH, 2001)
The majority of institutions do not have a policy to limit postdoctoral tenure. According to an informal survey conducted by the National Postdoctoral Association in 2004, only about one-third of institutions have a term limit for postdoctoral appointments; those that do are generally consistent with the 5-year recommendation. A survey of the members of the Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) Group of the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC) showed that about half of respondents have a term limit on postdoctoral appointments; however, the response rate was quite low and likely biased toward institutions with well-developed postdoctoral programs more likely to have such policies in place. Moreover, even when such time limits do exist, they may regularly be ignored or waived at many institutions (AAU, 1998). This means that PIs generally decide on the term limit—if any—for their own postdoctoral researchers.
The only mention of term limits for postdoctoral appointments in NIH guidelines is in the fine print following a table that shows discrete levels for 8 years of postdoctoral support in salary guidelines for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs).4 Although the note clarifies that “the presence of eight discrete levels of experience should not be construed as an endorsement of extended periods of postdoctoral research training,” the listing of 8 levels provides a different impression. And, despite an implied desire to limit the length of federal support for postdoctoral training to 5 years (NIH, 2001), there is no policy for postdoctoral scientists supported on research grants—which are the majority of NIH-supported postdocs—and the issue is not even mentioned in the R01 guidelines.
The 5-year limit needs to be enforced as a maximum for all NIH-supported positions.
4.1 NIH should enforce a 5-year limit on the use of any funding mechanism—including research grants—to support postdoctoral researchers. The nature of the position, including responsibilities and benefits, should change for those researchers who transition to staff scientist positions after 5 years.
NIH should require and enforce that a person can only be classified as a “postdoctoral researcher”—regardless of what the position is officially called at an institution—for no longer than 5 years total (whether at one or multiple institutions), regardless of the type of award. That is, the time limit should apply equally to postdoctoral researchers supported with individual NRSAs, training grants, or R01s. In circumstances where a postdoc requires an extra year beyond the 5 years to complete an already-started job search, a professional development plan should be submitted to NIH indicating the need for a single extra year to achieve career success and independence. This recommendation has been made by others including COSEPUP (2000), FASEB (2001), and endorsed by the NIH (2001) itself; the committee stresses the importance of applying it equally to all postdoctoral researchers, regardless of funding source.
Five years is meant to be the maximum duration of a postdoctoral position, with the expected duration much shorter. A postdoctoral tenure should last only as long as needed to prepare the investigator for the next career stage. The committee hopes that the normal length of postdoctoral training is closer to 3 years, whether in one or multiple environments. This is consistent with an overall training period—including graduate and postdoctoral tenure—of no more than 10 years.
In some cases, a postdoctoral researcher might choose to remain in the same laboratory beyond the 5-year postdoc appointment. This choice should entail a change in career direction and a new title, and must be accompanied by compensation and benefits appropriate to a full-time employee of the institution. Researchers opting to make such a switch would then be in a career and no longer training for a career. Moreover, the staff scientist would become an employee of the institution—not a trainee—subject to the same pay scales and benefits packages as other institutional staff. External support from NIH or elsewhere could, of course, be used to support such positions (see also Chapter 6 for recommendation on maintaining the independence of non-tenure-track researchers). While universities take on the responsibilities of an employer, external sponsors could take on the costs of research.
The new position is not merely a continuation of the postdoc with a new name, but a new career path. This type of staff scientist appointment
must be a respected career option essential to carrying out the scientific goals of the nation and of the institution. (These positions and the necessary support are described in more detail in Chapter 6.)
Enforcement of this policy will obviously require enhanced data collection by NIH and reporting of supported personnel by PIs. Many postdocs are paid from a variety of sources over a postdoctoral tenure, including NIH, institutional, and other public and private funds. While the possibility of multiple funding sources introduces an additional administrative burden, the burden should not interfere with the career progression of postdoctoral researchers. The data collection and reporting mechanisms discussed later in the chapter can help provide the kind of information that will help enforce these term limits.
REALLOCATE NIH RESOURCES FOR POSTDOCTORAL SUPPORT
The use of the R01 as the predominant mechanism to support postdoctoral researchers is problematic; an estimated 80 percent of postdoctoral researchers are paid from a PI’s research grant (Singer, 2004). These postdocs may thereby be required to spend 100 percent of their time on the research plan described in the PI’s R01, stifling the ability of postdocs to pursue independent research. Postdoctoral researchers would benefit more if they received their own support through individual awards or training grants. At the same time, innovation and discovery in American biomedical science would be stimulated by postdoctoral scholars having more of a role in designing, conducting, and evaluating their own research projects, while still under the mentorship of more senior investigators (see Recommendation 4.4 for a more complete discussion of such mentoring relationships).
The NIH’s Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSA) provide support for both predoctoral and postdoctoral trainees via individual fellowships and institutional training grants. Although the NRSA award type includes both pre- and postdoctoral researchers, there are obvious differences between the specific programs geared to each population. This report focuses on biomedical researchers beginning with the postdoctoral period and on the success of those individuals in establishing an independent research career. As such, the committee addresses only the individual postdoctoral NRSAs (F32) and the NRSA postdoctoral training grants (T32) in the context of an individual’s career development.
The NRSA Individual Postdoctoral Fellowship (F32) provides the standard of excellence because study sections review applicants for their accomplishments and scientific promise. Applicants must put a great deal of thought into a proposal, the preparation of which is in itself an educational process that will serve the applicants well both for their immediate projects and for their future careers. Under the guidance of a sponsor or
mentor (see below for a discussion of the role for such a mentor), the F32 is designed to help a postdoctoral scholar receive the combined didactic and supervised research experiences needed to become well trained in any field within the biomedical, behavioral, and population sciences. After NRSA support, NIH expects the recipients to continue to contribute to science.
NRSA awards—and career development K awards—provide postdoctoral fellows with independence not afforded under R01 awards. The related NRSA postdoctoral institutional training grants (T32) also provide the postdoctoral trainee with a degree of financial independence from their PI; thus, they have more freedom to pursue research outside of the already-funded research in the host laboratory. In addition, because programs or institutions are awarded training grants—instead of only individual PIs—they share responsibility for providing appropriate research training and career development.
4.2 Postdoctoral researchers should be more independent and less dependent on the research grants of PIs. NIH should reallocate some of the resources for postdoctoral support away from the R01 and toward individual awards and training grants.
This realignment in mechanisms of support for postdoctoral researchers would increase accountability and oversight for mentorship and training responsibilities, while facilitating collaborative research. The proposed increase in the number of awards made to individual postdoctoral researchers would encourage postdocs to take ownership of the conceptualization, design, and scientific direction for their research. Such a refocus of support for postdoctoral researchers is not a new idea. In fact, as Figure 4-1 shows, close to a 1:1 balance between biomedical postdocs supported on research grants and those supported on individual fellowships and traineeships was the norm 30 years ago. Related shifts in the funding of graduate student trainees have been recommended previously by several NRC committees (e.g., NRC, 1998, 2000). The objective is not to restrict the R01, but to shift some support for postdoctoral researchers toward awards that provide the postdocs with independence or focus explicitly on training. Moreover, it helps to provide a separation between the scientific relationship between postdoc and PI and employment.
Although the committee was in agreement with such shifts in funding for postdoctoral scholars, others have come to a different conclusion (e.g., NRC, 2005).5 Some have been concerned about the effect on univer-
sity budgets with significant differences in indirect cost recovery between research and training awards (though there is no reason that such rates could not be altered). Others have been concerned about a possible mismatch between research funding of PIs and the workforce needed to conduct that research. But the viewpoint of this committee is that postdocs are not simply workers, but scholars with their own ability to contribute that must be nurtured. This committee’s focus on the quality of biomedical research training to foster independence causes it to conclude that funding of postdocs through individual awards and training grants is preferable to funding on PI research awards. Furthermore, if eligibility for postdoctoral training support is expanded to include non-U.S. citizens, as recommended below, then the size of the applicant pool could double.
One challenge will be to ensure that postdocs supported by such individual or training awards really do have some degree or independence and autonomy (see also Chapter 6). Another will be to ensure that
postdocs find willing mentors and laboratory space for projects that may not as closely relate to the existing interests within the host laboratory. And it will be important that postdocs supported in this way are distributed in different laboratories with PIs in various career stages, instead of concentrating in the large laboratories of a small number of prominent researchers.
The committee recognizes that significant shifts of funding from research to training would require Congressional action, as research and training budgets are separately enumerated in NIH allocations. For this reason, the committee has not set a target distribution nor suggested the amount of research resources reallocated to individual awards and training grants in support of postdoctoral researchers. However, NIH is encouraged to take steps to rebalance the distribution of support for postdoctoral researchers and to take this recommendation into account when submitting its budget requests.
One difficulty of an increased reliance on NIH training awards is their restriction to U.S. citizens and permanent residents (Box 4-2). Yet the number of postdoctoral biomedical scientists in the United States on temporary visas has increased dramatically in the last 20 years so that today, more than half the biomedical postdoctoral researchers in this country hold non-U.S. citizenship (Figure 4-2). Many researchers on temporary visas stay to contribute to U.S. research for years to come and many subsequently become U.S. citizens.
There are no reliable data on stay rates for non-U.S. citizens who conduct postdoctoral research here, largely because of the lack of data on those with PhDs earned outside the United States (see Chapter 2). However, Finn (2003) has used income and Social Security tax records to estimate the stay rates of those who received U.S. doctorates. For example, of those foreign-born individuals who received their life science PhDs at U.S. institutions on temporary visas in 1999, 74 percent were still here 2 years later (Finn, 2003). Moreover, of those who earned life science PhDs in 1996, 62 percent were still in the United States 5 years later, suggesting that many of these individuals stay for more than just a few years of postdoctoral work (Finn, 2003). While this analysis does not consider the growing number of those with PhDs earned outside the United States who perform postdoctoral work, it does provide some indication that even researchers on temporary visas are likely to stay for years. It is difficult to consider the U.S. biomedical research enterprise without acknowledging the critical role played by scientists from outside the U.S. In fact, these scientists are disproportionately represented among those making exceptional contributions to U.S. science, including membership in the National Academy of Sciences and authoring highly-cited papers (Levin and Stephan, 1999; Stephan and Levin, 2001). Since these scientists make sig-
“Citizenship. By the time of award, candidates for the postdoctoral fellowship award must be citizens or non-citizen nationals of the United States, or must have been lawfully admitted to the United States for Permanent Residence (i.e., possess a currently valid Alien Registration Receipt Card I-551, or other legal verification of such status). Non-citizen nationals are generally persons born in outlying possessions of the United States (i.e., American Samoa and Swains Island). Individuals on temporary or student visas are not eligible. Individuals may apply for the F32 in advance of admission to the United States as a Permanent Resident recognizing that no award will be made until legal verification of Permanent Resident status is provided.”
nificant contributions to the U.S. biomedical research enterprise, they must have equivalent opportunities for independent postdoctoral training, including those preferred in Recommendation 4.2. In addition, as biomedical research opportunities increase outside of the U.S., competition for the more promising researchers worldwide will become even more intense.6
4.3 In order to provide equal opportunities for non-U.S. citizens, the citizenship requirement for NRSAs and related postdoctoral training awards should either be modified, or alternative and equivalent mechanisms of support should be available for those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents.
Making NRSAs and other postdoctoral training awards available to those who hold temporary visas would greatly increase the competition for such awards since it could potentially double the pool of eligible applicants. The committee does not take this issue lightly, since there is already too much competition for the small number of training awards. But the best interest of biomedical research and biomedical researchers calls for effective training opportunities for all conducting such research in the United States. Moreover, these effects would be mitigated in concert with recommendation 4.2 that calls for increased support for individual fellowships and training grants overall. Making federal support available to those who are not U.S. citizens or permanent residents can be controversial (e.g., Mervis, 2004b). It is important to recognize, however, that those who would receive such training awards are likely already supported on research grants and are, in fact, critical to the advances in U.S. biomedical research.
This is not a new idea and consistent with earlier recommendations. In fact, in response to an NRC (2000) recommendation that international postdoctoral trainees receive a similar level of support and training environment as U.S. citizens, the NIH has already committed to it:
The NIH supports the continued funding of research training opportunities for graduate students and postdoctorates from foreign countries. The NIH endorses the recommendation that the training environment and the level of support for international students and postdoctoral trainees should be identical to that offered to domestic students and postdoctoral trainees. (NIH, 2001)
The NIH has launched its first training program that will support non-U.S. citizens in addition to U.S. citizens and permanent residents by combining training and research funds. The Training for a New Interdisciplinary Research Workforce (T90) program allows U.S. citizens and permanent residents to be supported with NRSA training funds and non-U.S. citizens to be paid out of the research budget in the same program (Mervis, 2004b). The committee is encouraged by this program and hopes that it will be expanded to include all training grant and individual NRSA postdoctoral awards. Moreover, the committee hopes that the evaluation of this program will help convince skeptics of the value of such openness and lead to greater flexibility in the use of training funds for non-U.S. citizens.
In order to further promote increasing independence for postdoctoral researchers, the NIH should create targeted mechanisms that allow them to receive individual research grants. They would conduct this research in the laboratory of an identified mentor.
4.4 A new research award is needed at NIH to provide postdoctoral researchers with the opportunity to conduct an independent project under the mentorship of a senior investigator. This postdoctoral independent research award would complement but not replace the existing NRSA.
The NRSA mechanism has been extremely beneficial and should be increased, as discussed in recommendation 4.2. These awards proposed here would not replace NRSAs, but provide an additional mechanism to allow for the most outstanding postdocs to achieve a greater degree of independence for specific research projects.
The new award would constitute a research grant to the postdoctoral researcher for a particular project conducted with an identified mentor. The project proposed by the postdoctoral applicant should be clearly and verifiably different from the ongoing research of the mentor. While the project would obviously be related to the general interests in the laboratory, it should be outside of the main thrust of the lab’s focus. Moreover, the proposed project would be under the direction of the postdoctoral independent researcher. These 4-year awards would be portable to enable recipients to continue the research even if the present postdoctoral position ended. As such, the recipient could identify a new mentor or retain the balance of the award without an identified mentor in an independent position. The award would provide sufficient resources for the institution
to provide benefits—as well as salary—for the postdoctoral scholar. Funds would be included in the new award for supplies, travel funds and all other monies necessary to successfully carry out the research project.
Research mentors at the host institution would provide the space and equipment needed for the proposed research. Mentors could also receive a small portion of the budget in recognition of their responsibility for mentoring the supported postdoc and the time that they are expected to devote to mentoring. The mentor would provide guidance to the postdoc on all aspects of the project, including by offering advice on the grant proposal, helping formulate research questions, appropriate experimental approaches, feedback on publications, etc. This mentorship would be in the form of guidance and advice and not as PI directing an employee. In return, the host laboratory would get exposure to new techniques and expertise, and expand its research focus into a new area. Peer review of such awards should take into account whether the named mentor is well-positioned to provide appropriate mentoring, and might include consideration of the number of other postdocs and graduate students mentored in the laboratory. Finally, as a research award, indirect costs could be recovered by the host institution in compensation for the space and other institutional needs of the supported research.
The proposed awards would encourage independence for postdoctoral researchers by offering them control in determining the subject and course of their research interests. Because they could take extensions of the project with them, the odds of achieving successful independence are enhanced.
The committee believes that 20 to 50 4-year awards each year would provide a large enough cohort to measure success should it occur. Since most of the applicants would otherwise be funded through R01s given to their research PI, additional funds would not necessarily be required. Recipients—and an appropriate control group of non-recipients—should be monitored for at least 5–10 years past receipt of the award to assess the success of this program in leading to independence.
CLARIFYING THE MENTORSHIP RESPONSIBILITIES OF PIs
The R01 is currently by far the predominant mechanism by which biomedical postdoctoral researchers receive support (see Figure 4-1). This use of the R01 has resulted in the dependence of PIs on trainees to produce work for their publications and grant renewals as well as the dependence of trainees on their PIs for support. Even though all postdoctoral researchers would benefit from enhanced training from their mentors, this training is not considered in review of R01 proposals; as such, training
only tends to occur at the discretion of the PI. The R01 application and review process should be modified to correct these deficiencies.
4.5 NIH should modify the application for R01s so that requests for postdoctoral research positions include a description of how the postdoc will be prepared for an independent career (training) and a description of the elements of the proposed project in which the postdoctoral researcher will be involved. PIs should provide basic information for all current postdocs and those supported within the last 10 years to include name, time in the laboratory, and their current title and institution.
PIs should be encouraged to implement a plan to assist the postdoc in achieving independence. Thus, the R01 submission should include an individual mentoring statement for each postdoctoral research position requested (similar to that used now for the F32 individual NRSA award). In cases where specific postdoctoral researchers have not been identified at the time of application, the mentoring statement should discuss a general training and mentoring plan for any supported postdoc. Adding these requirements to any R01 proposal that requests support for postdocs would reinforce to faculty the responsibility they have toward the postdoctoral researchers whom they supervise, not as employers, but as educators and mentors. It would also emphasize the critical interconnection between research and training and that, in fact, effective training enhances research.7 This would constitute a new component in the review of new R01 applications, and it would be an especially crucial component for the review of competitive renewals. However, it is critical not to dis-advantage new PIs who do not have a history of training postdoctoral researchers.
While some could see this as one more administrative burden for PIs and administrators, it only makes explicit what should always have been implicit: that is, all trainees should benefit from mentoring to allow them to achieve the goals of their training. Therefore, no additional funding should be requested for fulfilling these mentoring responsibilities. Just asking for up-to-date information about present and past postdoctoral researchers might help PIs recognize the realities of the current environment for biomedical careers. Moreover, NIH and peer reviewers should
Since the release of this report in prepublication form, Sigma Xi has released the results of its Postdoc Survey (http://postdoc.sigmaxi.org/). Among other findings, postdocs who developed research and career development plans with their PIs were not only more satisfied with their postdoc experience and had fewer conflicts with their advisor, but also authored a greater number of peer-reviewed publications per year. More detail on the survey is provided later in this chapter.
endeavor to determine the extent to which PIs have appropriately trained previously-supported trainees.
The information to be requested for postdoctoral researchers is very similar to that already requested when applying for predoctoral institutional training grants, so the mechanisms for reporting and collecting such information should be familiar to many institutions. What would have to be clarified by NIH is exactly how reviewers should assess this additional component of the R01. What measures could help follow up on whether a successful training experience actually resulted (see discussion below about data collection)? These issues are already addressed in the review of predoctoral training grant applications, which could serve as a model for consideration of training components of R01s.
It should be noted that the external reviews of intramural NIH investigators currently include conversations with a PI’s postdoctoral researchers. These outside boards have the ability to at least recommend that PIs with poor mentoring records not take on additional postdocs. Thus, consideration of mentoring for NIH-supported scientists is already part of investigator review for intramural researchers. A suggestion to make mentoring a formal requirement for receipt of all NIH awards was made by participants in the October 23-24, 2003, NIH meeting on “Post Docs: Training and Opportunities in the 21st Century.” The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been encouraged to place a similar priority on mentoring through its “second criterion” on the “broader impacts” of proposed research, using it to emphasize mentoring and the success of previous postdocs in the review of applications that request support for postdoctoral researchers (NSF, 2003).8
BROADEN EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
All parts of academia need to accept responsibility for developing training programs explicitly designed for postdoctoral scholars (COSEPUP, 2000; NSF, 2003). Many of the skills required of PIs and faculty members are not well taught—or possibly never mentioned—to postdoctoral researchers. Instead, PIs and postdocs spend almost all of their time on research without acknowledging the kinds of complex issues that faculty members and PIs confront. Courses and workshops specifically designed to address these issues can provide the necessary exposure and allow institutions and individual faculty to meet their responsibilities in this realm. Offsite courses and workshops also serve an
important function, by providing postdocs with the opportunity to discuss these important issues freely. Finally, programs should recognize that different individuals have different interests and career objectives. Thus, institutions and programs should provide a variety of opportunities offering training and experience in different skill sets. In fact, the committee encourages institutions to collect and make available information about the career outcomes of recent postdoctoral scholars (see NRC  for a discussion of career outcomes related to doctoral education).
4.6 Postdoctoral researchers should receive improved career advising, mentoring, and skills training. Universities, academic departments, and research institutions should broaden educational and training opportunities for postdoctoral researchers to include, for example, training in laboratory and project management, grant-writing, and mentoring. NIH should take steps to foster these changes, including by making funds available to facilitate these endeavors.
Funding should be made available for institutions or groups of institutions to develop career guidance and professional development courses (e.g., mentoring, grant writing, laboratory management, budgeting, publishing and authorship, conducting collaborative science, and project management). These activities could include workshops by experts from outside of the institution. The committee recognizes that in these times of fiscal constraint, new funds might not be readily available, but it urges NIH to release funds from other programs to support this critical aspect of the NIH mission, either as stand-alone programs or as supplements to existing awards like training grants. The resource needs will be modest and have the potential to impact a large number of postdoctoral researchers from each program. Institutions or consortia of institutions should define their vision of how their proposal will assist with independence and training, including an evaluation component.
NIH should consider launching such a program on a pilot basis and comparing success of postdocs at awardee institutions with those at institutions without such programs. The advisory council of the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering (NIBIB) and NIBIB leadership have identified poor grant-writing skills as a difficulty for new investigators and have suggested that individual institutions or even NIH itself offer workshops for new investigators or training grants to teach grant-writing (Laas, 2005). There are also many model programs that could be emulated, including at universities (see Box 4-3 for an example) and even within NIH itself (such as that described in Box 4-4).
The mission of the University of North Carolina’s (UNC) Office of Postdoctoral Services (OPS) is to enhance, support, and promote postdoctoral scholars while they are at UNC, and to prepare them for successful careers after they leave UNC. The office is jointly funded by the provost, vice chancellor, and School of Medicine and serves postdocs in all disciplines. The director has formal training and 10 years of experience as a career counselor. A research-focused faculty advisor consults on program planning, advises postdocs, conducts individual grant reviews with postdocs, and—critical to success—creates buy-in among UNC faculty.
The OPS director has taken a developmental approach to facilitating postdoctoral growth by creating a stage model, which works with discrete postdoc entry and exit points. A postdoctoral scholar typically moves through the following four stages: (1) adjustment (year 1); (2) skill enhancement (years 2 and 3); (3) search for positions (years 4 and 5); (4) and transition to independence (by year 5). These stages are fluid, and the amount of time actually spent in each stage depends on the individual’s specific skills, discipline, work environment, and mentor.
It is important for postdoctoral scholars to establish healthy patterns and behaviors, in order to achieve long-term success. Accordingly, during the first stage, postdocs can attend workshops in time management, personal finance, and communication, to name a few. The workshops are offered in different formats (i.e., daylong, semester-long, and symposia) to ensure all are able to access them. In addition, the office provides individual counseling and advising.
During the second stage, postdocs attend workshops such as “Bring Your Science to the Classroom” and “Bench Mentoring Skills for Scientists” as well as symposia on grant-writing and management skills. They also participate in individual grant reviews.
To assist postdocs in finding positions during stage 3, the office has developed workshops on writing curriculum vitae, interviewing, and negotiating job offers. A career symposium allows current UNC postdocs to hear the experiences of former UNC postdocs. The majority of UNC’s postdocs move into research-intensive careers, but the office works hard at meeting the needs of those destined for non-bench careers as well.
The university also offers services for faculty—in particular, a mentoring workshop—in response to a growing awareness of the impact faculty have on the work life and satisfaction of postdocs.
The model appears to be successful in that UNC has seen job success in its postdoctoral population and positive outcomes in terms of skill development through its program evaluations.
The NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS)—located in Research Triangle Park, NC—has had to establish its own career development activities because it is located too far from the main NIH campus in Bethesda, MD. The grassroots NIEHS Trainees Assembly (NTA) drafted a proposal for an office that would handle the career development needs of NIEHS fellows that could not be met by the NTA; the Office of Fellows’ Career Development (OFCD) was established within the NIEHS Director’s Office in the spring of 2003.
The OFCD brings career/professional developmental information to fellows in varied forms, including workshops, seminars, and brown-bag discussion lunches. It also acts as a liaison between the NIEHS fellows’ community and administration, and cooperates with outside organizations focused on enhancing postdoctoral training. OFCD programs complement those sponsored by the NTA, including the NTA’s “flagship” event: the annual Career Fair, which regularly has about 300 attendees from the local area. Some events organized by the OFCD include a Survival Skills workshop series covering issues such as job-hunting and teaching skills, seminars on management and networking skills, and brown-bag lunches featuring former NIEHS fellows discussing careers in biotech and the reality of being a new assistant professor. In partnership with Sigma Xi, the Scientific Research Society headquartered nearby, the OFCD developed and now cosponsors an annual weeklong grant-writing skills workshop.
Besides developing events, OFCD also disseminates information to fellows on employment opportunities, funding resources, career development resources, and non-NIEHS events. In order to determine ongoing needs of NIEHS fellows, the OFCD conducts informal information gathering and short surveys and administered the national Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey for NIEHS. In response to requests by both fellows and PIs, the OFCD is developing a web site, expanded recruitment and orientation materials, and informational materials for PIs, and is helping to recruit new fellows. All of the OFCD activities are coordinated by one part-time administrator, who continues to do part-time research concurrently.
By disseminating career and professional developmental activities to groups of fellows and serving as a central point of contact on the NIEHS campus, the OFCD has freed both PIs and fellows from independent individual searches for professional development information.
NEED FOR BETTER DATA AND PROGRAM EVALUATION
Postdoctoral researchers have become a large component of the scientific workforce. Yet very limited data on this contingent hampers the ability of decision makers to analyze the effectiveness of scientific programs and funding mechanisms (Kelly et al., 2004; NRC, 1998, 2000; COSEPUP, 2000; National Postdoctoral Association, 2003; NSF, 2003). The current best source of data on the postdoc population is the longitudinal Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) conducted by the NSF (see Box 2-1 for a description). However, this survey only includes about 8 percent of those who received their PhD from a U.S. institution, and it does not include the many postdoctoral scientists who have received their PhD elsewhere. Almost 45 percent of doctorate holders working in the life sciences are foreign-born (National Science Board 2004, with data from 2000 U.S. Census) and many of those received their PhDs outside the United States; the SDR does not include them. Foreign-educated researchers hold about two-thirds of all postdoctoral positions in academic institutions and an un-known number in other sectors (NRC, 2005).
The SDR also does not include those with MDs from either U.S. or international institutions. Data need to be collected for both U.S.-degree holders and those who obtained their doctoral degrees elsewher. Further, the SDR does not currently include questions specifically targeted to the postdoctoral experience (other than respondents identifying themselves as such).9
The Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey10 will provide valuable information about the postdoc experience at individual campuses nationwide, by allowing institutions to benchmark their postdoctoral training with other institutions. Among the data it will provide are information about mentoring experience, development of professional skills, degree of independence, and ability to apply for independent research support. However, the survey is aimed at providing about 50 participating institutions with data about postdocs locally—as well as benchmarking with other participating institutions. As such, it will not provide a statistical portrait of the postdoctoral community at all institutions nationwide.
Despite the large size of the NIH-supported postdoctoral population, insufficient data are available on this group, with almost no data available on postdoctoral researchers funded through R01s (despite the predominance of this funding mechanism for postdoctoral researchers). Although
The SDR included a special module on postdocs in its 1995 survey and another is planned for 2006.
NIH (2001) has agreed with the need for such enhanced data collection, steps to implement the plan have been slow.
4.7 NIH should develop enhanced data collection systems on postdoctoral researchers to include all NIH-supported postdoctoral researchers, regardless of specific funding mechanism. This will allow NIH to track the effectiveness of its programs and thereby make more informed programmatic decisions.
NIH needs to gather data on postdoctoral researchers supported through R01s and other mechanisms and track these individuals as they progress to their first independent award. Data should be collected annually on all individuals supported by NIH funds, not only as a requirement for initial application. The initial person budgeted may leave during the period of the grant, replaced by a new researcher; both postdocs should therefore be reflected in the annual reports for the time of their tenure in the laboratory.
Such data are likely to inform NIH leadership about the relative successes of various funding mechanisms and programs in fostering independence. Moreover, data should be disaggregated to detect different trends among different demographic and other groups. In gathering these data and conducting analyses, it will be necessary to better characterize the postdoctoral researcher and all of the possible titles associated with the position. Standard terminology should be developed and used by R01 and other applicants to describe each type of employee/trainee.
The committee suggests that the NIH work with other federal agencies and private sector funders that support postdoctoral researchers to enable cross-agency data collection on at least the postdoctoral population, but possibly including other research personnel. This could provide a common set of definitions and measures that would enable cross-agency comparisons. With increasing electronic grant submission and reporting, tracking of all federally funded research personnel across agencies should be simplified.
Maintaining updated personal profiles online could facilitate data collection. Such profiles could be a requirement for receipt of NIH funds and allow NIH to track individuals as they move from graduate student and postdoctoral positions into independent research positions. The information in the profiles would also serve to complement the information provided by PIs on their current and past postdocs as described in Recommendation 4.5.
Once it has collected information on postdocs, NIH could conduct a rigorous independent analysis of its programs.
4.8 NIH should commission an independent evaluation of the different models of postdoctoral support.
As data on postdoctoral programs and support become available, NIH should commission an independent review of different postdoctoral funding mechanisms to evaluate the relative merits and successes of each approach. This study could help answer questions related to the effectiveness of various postdoc programs that could address issues of balance between research, training, and individual support, as discussed in relation to Recommendation 4.2 above.
This review could compare postdoctoral researchers funded through, for example, R01s, individual NRSAs, NRSA institutional postdoctoral training grants, and NIH and other career transitions awards. The common set of definitions and measures described above would also allow comparisons to NSF programs, private research fellowship programs, and other mechanisms of support. The goal should be not only to address research achievements, but also to examine the process of postdoctoral training. As such, it should include consideration of mentoring, degree of independence and responsibility, and receipt of awards by PIs and institutions. The review should consider the subsequent positions of supported postdoctoral researchers to help gauge the effectiveness of different postdoc programs for different career objectives and the appropriate number of awards to give.
The next chapter focuses on ways to improve the transition to first independent position.