Concern about the postdoctoral training system has been gnawing at the research community for decades. The National Academies produced reports in 1969, 1980, and 2000 that called for reforms to the system. In the past 5 years, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, the American Chemical Society, the Council of Graduate Schools, among others have expressed their concerns in reports.
The sources of uneasiness have changed only slightly over time. Is it really necessary for someone to remain in training until their mid-30s before being qualified for his or her chosen career track? Are these highly qualified Ph.D. researchers receiving the recognition and remuneration that they deserve? Is there an appropriate balance between the number of postdoctoral researchers that are trained and the number of jobs that require postdoctoral training? What happens to those postdoctoral researchers who do not get the jobs they aspire to? How concerned should the research enterprise be with the postdoctoral researchers in the United States on temporary visas? Who is responsible for ensuring that postdoctoral researchers are treated fairly and receive the mentoring and training that is essential to their position? Is the perceived status of postdoctoral researchers a possible disincentive to undergraduates and graduate students who are considering independent research careers? Why are more reliable data not collected about the current postdoctoral population and the career outcomes of former postdoctoral researchers?
What has changed is the percentage of Ph.D.’s who pursue postdoctoral training. It is growing steadily and spreading from the biomedical and physical sciences to engineering and the social sciences. Although the data are not definitive, the average length of time spent in postdoctoral positions seems to be increasing. The sources of funding have also changed. The number of postdoctoral fellowships and traineeships, which provide postdoctoral researchers relative autonomy and recognition, has remained nearly constant for decades, whereas the number of postdoctoral researchers hired as part of research grants or supported by non-federal sources has grown dramatically.
For some postdoctoral researchers the system works very well. They gain valuable research experience and career guidance from an accomplished researcher. They learn to develop ideas for independent research, apply for grants, and manage a lab; they cultivate professional networks and publish papers. They eventually move into tenure-track research faculty positions at
leading universities. However, it is known that this is not the norm because the growth in the number of postdoctoral researchers far exceeds the growth in the number of tenure-track job openings. Unfortunately, there is not clear definition for what the norm is because, in spite of repeated calls for better tracking data, the picture of the postdoctoral experience remains foggy. Whereas aggregate trends can be discerned, only rough estimates of the total number of postdoctoral researchers, and no good information about what becomes of the postdoctoral researchers who earned their Ph.D.’s outside the United States, exist.
One important finding is that the postdoctoral experience differs considerably among types of institutions. Compared to postdoctoral researchers working at universities, postdoctoral researchers who work at national labs or in industry are typically paid much more, remain for shorter periods, and are often offered fulltime jobs at the end of their appointment. Likewise, postdoctoral researchers who are on fellowships or traineeships have higher salaries, better mentoring, and more control over their research than those who are working under a principal investigator’s research grant. The majority of postdoctoral researchers are working under research grants.
The period since the National Academies’ 2000 report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (2000 Postdoctoral Report) has seen a number of significant advances in the treatment and understanding of postdoctoral researchers. Many universities have created offices of postdoctoral affairs to provide better services to postdoctoral researchers. The postdoctoral researchers created the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), which includes representatives of the offices of postdoctoral affairs, to provide information to postdoctoral researchers, a forum for discussion, and a unified voice. The NIH created an office of postdoctoral affairs for its intramural postdoctoral researchers. The National Science Foundation (NSF) has added a requirement that research proposals that include hiring a postdoctoral researcher include a mentoring plan. Organizations such as Sigma Xi and the American Association of Universities conducted surveys of postdoctoral researchers. The Association of American Medical Colleges created the Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) Group to address questions about postdoctoral training. Several individual researchers have conducted studies. The American Association for the Advancement of Science developed MyIDP, software that enables graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to develop individual development plans that help them to understand their career options more clearly and to make better informed career decisions.
Other aspects of postdoctoral training have seen little change. The quality of data about postdoctoral researchers is still insufficient. Although postdoctoral affairs offices have made efforts to improve mentoring, there is no convincing evidence that most postdoctoral researchers are receiving adequate mentoring. In spite of the fact that a very large percentage—a majority in some fields—of postdoctoral researchers eventually pursue careers other than that of tenure-track
research faculty, there is little evidence that universities and mentors are providing adequate information about and preparation for other types of careers. Salaries, which have always been relatively low, have failed to even keep pace with inflation. Somewhat surprisingly, several surveys have found that although postdoctoral researchers would prefer better pay, they are even more concerned about their lack of recognition, status, and structured programs. The running gag in the comic strip “Postdoc Funnies” is that postdoctoral researchers are invisible. A fear expressed by many of the postdoctoral researchers who testified to the committee is that they will be able to move only into even less visible positions as university staff scientists or adjunct faculty.
Although the postdoctoral researchers themselves might feel invisible, there is broad recognition that something is amiss in the postdoctoral training system. Lack of data makes it difficult for leaders in research institutions and funding agencies to make policies about the role postdoctoral training should play in the research enterprise and for young people interested in science and engineering to make informed decisions on their career paths. Most postdoctoral researchers are employed by principal investigators to work on research grants, which creates an inherent source of stress. The investigator’s primary mission is to complete the research, and any time spent in training the postdoctoral researcher is time not spent on the research. Principal investigators play an essential role in the training of postdoctoral researchers that must be acknowledged and reinforced by the funding agencies and institutions. Postdoctoral researchers are the future of the research enterprise, so it is critical that this period of training attract the most capable people to research.
This report focuses on academic postdoctoral researchers because they are by far the largest component of the population, because less is known about postdoctoral researchers in industry, and because what we do know indicates that postdoctoral researchers in industry and at national laboratories do not face the same problems as academic postdoctoral researchers. Their roles are better defined, salaries are higher, terms are shorter, and the connection to career development is clearer. For this reason the recommendations that follow are intended to address the problems primarily encountered by postdoctoral researchers in the academic setting.
Using a definition of a postdoctoral researcher agreed upon by the NPA, NIH, and NSF as a guide—“An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path”—the committee has developed recommendations for best practices covering five aspects of the postdoctoral experience: period of service, title and role, career development, compensation and benefits, and mentoring. In addition, the committee stresses the importance of data collection through a sixth recommendation. While the recommendations are numbered, this is for ease of reference and should not be taken to imply prioritization; these six items are necessarily interconnected.
1. Period of Service: The committee endorses the recommended practice, put forward by the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, and the National Postdoctoral Association in 2007, that postdoctoral research training is and should be a “temporary and defined period.” Postdoctoral appointments for a given postdoctoral researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances. This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience, though extensions may be granted in extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness).
This recommendation requires direct actions by the host institutions and the funding agencies.
1.1 Host institutions should maintain a record of how long a postdoctoral researcher remains in a position and provide that information to funding agencies as part of grant proposals.
1.2 To facilitate tracking of postdoctoral researchers, funding agencies could assign each postdoctoral researcher an identifier and keep a record of the total length of time any given individual is holding such a position.
2. Title and Role: In many instances, positions currently occupied by postdoctoral researchers are more appropriately filled by permanent staff scientists (e.g., technicians, research assistant professors, staff scientists, laboratory managers). The title of “postdoctoral researcher” should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.
This recommendation requires action primarily by the funding agencies and the host institutions.
2.1 Funding agencies should have a consistent designation for “postdoctoral researchers,” and require evidence that advanced research training is a component of the postdoctoral experience.
2.2 Host institutions should create or identity professional positions for individuals who are conducting research but who are not receiving training, and these individuals should receive appropriate remuneration, benefits, and privileges.
3. Career Development: Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for
Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. Career guidance should include, where feasible, the provision of internships and other practical experiences. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.
This recommendation requires action by all the different members of the research system: the funding agencies, the host institutions, the professional societies, the mentors, the postdoctoral researchers, and even the graduate students before becoming postdoctoral researchers.
3.1 Host institutions, especially those with graduate student populations, should provide multiple engagement activities to help students explore all avenues of career development. Funding agencies should help to support these efforts.
3.3 Professional societies should gather and disseminate information about the full range of career paths within their discipline. Useful activities could include collecting statistics about job openings and salaries, identifying individuals in various sectors who can provide career advice, and organizing career fairs at professional meetings.
3.3 Mentors, in addition to providing guidance based on their own experience, should become familiar with and disseminate information about all forms of career development opportunities available either at the host institution or through their professional society.
3.4 Postdoctoral researchers and graduate students have a responsibility to participate in the career development opportunities provided by their institutions, to explore other sources of information such as professional societies, and to use available career-development tools.
4. Compensation and Benefits of Employment: Current postdoctoral salaries are low. Salaries should be increased to (1) reflect the qualifications of postdoctoral scholars, (2) address the slow progress the community has made toward implementing salary increases as recommended in several National Research Council reports, and (3) adjust the relative wage of postdoctoral researchers to appropriately reflect their value and contribution to research. The committee considered five different approaches for determining an appropriate minimum salary: (1) indexing to contemporary college graduates, (2) indexing to graduate stipends, (3) indexing to newly hired assistant professors, (4) inflation of previous recommendations, and (5) Research Grade Evaluation Guide. All of these approaches, which are discussed in detail in Appendix B, suggest an amount of $50,000 or
more. In addition, despite considerable variation in salaries by field, geographic area, and sector, data on starting postdoctoral salaries reveal that the starting salary prescribed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for the Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award (NRSA) postdoctoral award (currently set at $42,000 for 2014) has become the de facto standard for many disciplines and on many academic campuses. The NIH should raise the NRSA postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars), and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries.1
In addition, host institutions should provide benefits to postdoctoral researchers that are appropriate to their level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees. Comprehensive benefits should include health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.
This recommendation requires action primarily by the funding agencies, with additional actions by the host institutions and the professional societies.
4.1 Federal agencies should require host institutions to provide documentation of the salary a postdoctoral researcher will receive with all grant proposals.
4.2 Professional societies should collect data on salaries for all positions and make these publicly available.
5. Mentoring: Mentoring is an essential component of the postdoctoral experience and entails more than simply supervision. Mentoring should not be solely a responsibility of the principal investigator, although he or she should be actively engaged in mentoring. Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple
1 Two of the committee members do not support the recommendation for a prescriptive “salary standard” based upon one particular field and funding agency (here, the National Institutes of Health [NIH] and life sciences) for two reasons: first, salaries—not just postdoctoral salaries—differ so much by discipline, region, funding agency, and type of institution (for example, the 2012 National Postdoctoral Association report indicates that about half of the institutions have minimum salaries that are lower than the 2013 NIH minimum of $39K; NPA 2012), and second, this “salary standard,” meant to reflect a reasonable salary, will likely be used as a minimum salary. While they believe that institutions need flexibility to accommodate particular circumstances, they also firmly believe that a postdoctoral researcher’s salary should be fair and fit rationally within the spectrum of salaries for researchers in that discipline, at that institution: for example, well above that of a graduate student and significantly less than that of an entry-level, career-track researcher, that is, permanent staff scientist, research track assistant professor, or tenure-track assistant professor.
advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.
This recommendation requires action by the funding agencies and the host institutions, with supporting actions by the professional societies, the mentors, and the postdoctoral researchers themselves.
5.1 In addition to providing mentorship training and guidance to the immediate supervisors of the postdoctoral researchers, host institutions should establish mechanisms that make it easy for postdoctoral researchers to seek guidance from additional faculty or senior professionals who can enrich the postdoctoral training experience.
5.2 Funding agencies should identify better ways of evaluating or rewarding mentoring as an essential component of research. This could include mandatory self-reporting by mentors as well as blinded assessments by the postdoctoral researchers.
5.3 Professional societies are in an ideal position to provide additional mentors to supplement those at a postdoctoral researcher’s host institution. This would be of particular value to postdoctoral researchers considering major career shifts such as a move from academia to industry.
5.4 Postdoctoral researchers need to recognize that a great research investigator is not necessarily equivalent to a great mentor and that many if not most principal investigators or senior research faculty have not received any formal training in mentoring. Therefore, postdoctoral researchers should seek guidance from a variety of people, and should be encouraged to do so.
6. Data Collection: Current data on the postdoctoral population, in terms of demographics, career aspirations, and career outcomes are neither adequate nor timely. Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers. Host institutions and federal agencies should cooperate with NSF on the data collection and maintenance process. Federal agencies and research institutions that report these data to the NSF should take advantage of various
technologies that have become available in recent years to assist in timely and thorough collection.
Recognizing that this recommendation on data collection has been made many times before with little effect, the committee stresses that research institutions and professional societies should explore what they can do to enrich what is known about postdoctoral researchers and that all institutions make better use of new technologies and social and professional networks to collect relevant and timely data.
This recommendation requires action primarily by the funding agencies, with additional actions by the host institutions and the professional societies.
6.1 Funding agencies must improve their data collection on the postdoctoral segment of the workforce. This is especially true for the NSF, given its congressional mandate to “collect, acquire, analyze, report, and disseminate statistical data related to the science and engineering enterprise in the United States and other nations that is relevant and useful to practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and the public, including statistical data on research and development trends, [and] the science and engineering workforce…” (Section 505 of the America COMPETES Reauthorization Act of 2010). The NSF should work with other research agencies, particularly the NIH, to develop more reliable means of collecting data on postdoctoral researchers during and after their appointments. The use of a common identifier system for each postdoctoral researcher is a possible approach.
6.2 Host institutions should assist in the data collection efforts by remaining consistent with their labeling of postdoctoral researcher, keeping track of new hires and departures, and conducting exit interviews to determine career outcomes of their postdoctoral population. This information should be made publically available, particularly to prospective postdoctoral researchers.
6.3 Funding agencies should look favorably on grant proposals that include outcome data for an institution’s postdoctoral researchers.
6.4 Professional societies should utilize their networks to collect information about career paths of their members and make this data easily available.
All of the reforms recommended here should be coordinated through a strong and separate or stand-alone postdoctoral office (PDO) at each host institution. These offices have become much more common since the publication of the 2000 Postdoctoral Report, and many have become
members of the National Postdoctoral Association. However, more work is needed to truly enrich the postdoctoral experience. PDOs need to continue sharing experiences to help one another fulfill their potential to train mentors, organize career development activities, be a one-stop source of information for domestic and international postdoctoral researchers, manage postdoctoral researcher grievances, oversee data-gathering efforts, monitor institutional compliance with salary and benefits policy, and track the career progress of former postdoctoral researchers. Although currently these offices are often embedded within a larger graduate student affairs operation, they are essential for improving the visibility and recognition of postdoctoral researchers in their host institutions and deserve specialized recognition.
A larger goal of this study was not only to propose ways to make the postdoctoral system better for the postdoctoral researchers themselves but also to better understand the role that postdoctoral training plays in the research enterprise. The committee asked whether there are alternative ways to satisfy some of the research and career development needs of postdoctoral researchers that are now being met with several years of advanced training. The committee hopes that this report stimulates action toward clarifying the role of postdoctoral researchers in the research enterprise, and improving their status and experience.