Concern about postdoctoral training is not new. In 1969, Richard B. Curtis wrote the following in the preface to the National Research Council’s (NRC) Invisible University: Postdoctoral Education in the United States:
[T]he postdoctoral phenomenon needs study just because it has been so successful. Increasing numbers of postdoctoral students have caused them to become visible beyond the laboratory and the library. But it would be more accurate to say that the larger community has become aware of them without really seeing them. (NRC 1969)
Although that report was, on the whole, a positive review of the use of postdoctoral researchers, in 1981 the National Research Council report Postdoctoral Appointments and Disappointments (NRC 1981) identified serious concerns about the postdoctoral enterprise (Box 1-1) and concluded by calling for a broader reevaluation of the enterprise.
Two decades later, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) oversaw another report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (the 2000 Postdoctoral Report). It stressed that a rapid expansion of postdoctoral training had taken place without adequate oversight, resulting in fundamental changes in the nature of the experience for many postdoctoral researchers. To improve the postdoctoral system, it offered specific directions for a range of stakeholders: federal agencies, universities, foundations, professional organizations, and postdoctoral researchers themselves.
Postdoctoral Appointments and Disappointments (1981) Key Issues
- The lack of prestige and research independence in postdoctoral appointments for the most talented young people;
- The mismatch between the important role that postdoctorals play in the nation’s research enterprise and the lack of opportunities that they find for subsequent careers in research; and
- The lack of recognized status of postdoctoral appointments in the academic community.
SOURCES: NRC 1981
The 2000 Postdoctoral Report identified 3 principles to guide postdoctoral training, and 10 actions that should be taken by advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies to improve the postdoctoral training system (Box 1-2).
Aware of the continuing concerns regarding employment compensation, benefits, and length of time to transition from postdoctoral researchers into permanent positions, in 2011 the National Academies formed an ad hoc committee under the auspices of COSEPUP to review the state of the postdoctoral experience. As part of its task (Box 1-3), the committee was to determine whether the recommendations made in the 2000 Postdoctoral Report
The 2000 Postdoctoral Report
- The postdoctoral experience is first and foremost a period of apprenticeship for the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and professional skills that advance the professional career.
- Postdocs should receive appropriate recognition (including lead author credit) and compensation (including health insurance and other fringe benefits) for the contributions they make to the research enterprise.
- To ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, all parties to the appointments—the postdoc, the postdoc adviser, the host institution, and funding organizations—should have a clear and mutually-agreed-upon understanding with regard to the nature and purpose of the appointment.
- Award institutional recognition, status, and compensation commensurate with the contributions of postdocs to the research enterprise.
- Develop distinct policies and standards for postdocs, modeled on those available for graduate students and faculty.
- Develop mechanisms for frequent and regular communication between postdocs and their advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies.
- Monitor and provide formal evaluations (at least annually) of the performance of postdocs.
- Ensure that all postdocs have access to health insurance, regardless of funding source, and to institutional services.
- Set limits for total time of a postdoc appointment (of approximately five years, summing time at all institutions), with clearly described exceptions as appropriate.
- Invite the participation of postdocs when creating standards, definitions, and conditions for appointments.
- Provide substantive career guidance to improve postdocs’ ability to prepare for regular employment.
- Improve the quality of data both for postdoctoral working conditions and for the population of postdocs in relation to employment prospects in research.
- Take steps to improve the transition of postdocs to regular career positions.
SOURCES: The 2000 Postdoctoral Report
Statement of Task
Building on the 2000 COSEPUP report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, an ad hoc committee will describe the state of postdoctoral programs in the United States, examine how postdoctoral fellows (postdocs) are being guided and managed, review institutional practices with respect to postdocs, try to determine what happens to postdocs after they complete their programs, explore important changes that have occurred in the postdoc practices and in the research ecosystem, and assess how well current practices meet the needs of these fledgling scientists and engineers and of the research enterprise.
Based on a review of existing data about postdocs and institutional practices, the committee will, to the extent possible, attempt to answer key questions in the following areas:
- General characteristics of postdoctoral fellows and positions in the United States: How many postdoctoral fellows are there in the United States? Where are they working, in what fields, and for how many years?
- Current conditions for postdocs: Are expectations of principal investigators made clear? Do postdocs receive adequate professional status and privileges as well as salary and benefits? Are the rules clear about credit they receive for their discoveries in the lab, and are they receiving adequate career guidance and development?
- Institutional provisions: Do postdocs serve as investigators on grants? Are questions of intellectual property identified and provided for? At universities, is teaching required; if not, is it encouraged or discouraged?
- Career paths: Where do postdocs come from? What do we know and what can we learn about what postdocs do after they complete their programs. How well are the postdoc programs matched with the career opportunities that are open to them?
- Recent trends and changes: Have previous recommendations been implemented and to what effect? Are there other developments in the research enterprise that have had a significant effect on postdocs?
- Participation in the research enterprise: Are postdocs being invited to review journal articles and to write grant proposals, either formally by journals and agencies or informally by principal investigators, and is this experience useful? What are the impressions of postdocs about peer review today? Are postdocs being used effectively in research? Are postdocs acquiring the skills they need to become productive independent researchers in the future?
had been implemented, whether the conditions of postdoctoral training had changed, and whether there was a need to consider further actions to improve the postdoctoral experience in light of a dynamic and continuously changing research enterprise. The committee reviewed the available data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other sources; heard testimony from numerous postdoctoral researchers; met with senior officials of NSF, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and international research programs; and spoke with leaders of a variety of research institutions. The committee examined
the status of postdoctoral training as well as questions of how postdoctoral researchers fit into the larger structure of the research enterprise, with the goal of not merely making the best of the existing system, but trying to consider how well the system meets the needs of aspiring researchers and the entire research establishment, and how it might be modified if it was not optimal.
Some of the major findings from this examination have become more common topics of discussion and concern. The number of postdoctoral researchers in science, engineering, and health has increased dramatically, up nearly 150 percent between 2000 and 2012. That far surpasses both the percentage increases in graduate students and in tenure and tenure track faculty positions over the same time period. The demographics of postdoctoral researcher are changing as more women and noncitizens are entering this segment of the research workforce. In response to all this growth, a number of institutional structures, at many levels, have developed over the past decade and a half, but the actions taken have not been adequate.
A significant frustration for anyone trying to understand the postdoctoral system is the paucity of comprehensive data. One of the key findings of the 2000 Postdoctoral Report was that the data did not exist to construct a complete picture of postdoctoral training. Unfortunately, in the nearly 15 years since that observation, the picture has still not been completed. The most consistent sources of data on postdoctoral researchers are the several surveys of graduate training conducted by the NSF, some of which are run in conjunction with the NIH. Three current surveys in particular target postdoctoral researchers: Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR), and the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED).
Each source of data has clear weaknesses regarding postdoctoral researchers. The 2008 edition of NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators included a long discussion of postdoctoral training that acknowledged the limitations of its data collection (NSB 2008). Of significance to this current report was the following finding:
No single data source measures the entire population of postdocs, and some parts of the population are not systematically measured at all. Two NSF surveys, the Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) and the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), include data bearing on the number of postdocs in the United States.
SDR covers U.S. residents who have earned [science and engineering] and health doctorates from U.S. schools (MDs and other types of degrees with “doctor” in the name are not included). Thus, postdocs who received doctorate degrees from foreign institutions are not included in SDR. In 2006, SDR collected data on the dates of current and past postdoc positions, allowing an
estimate to be made of the number of postdocs in fall 2005, the same period as the most recent GSS data. Unlike SDR, which collects data from individuals, GSS surveys academic departments. GSS asks departments that offer graduate programs in [science and engineering] and specific health-related fields for counts of all of their postdocs, regardless of whether their degrees were earned in the United States or abroad. However, unlike SDR, it does not gather data on people in nonacademic positions or academic units that lack graduate programs, including many academic research organizations and affiliated nonprofit research centers.
The SDR, which tracks where people go after completing doctoral training, does not include postdoctoral researchers who earned their degrees in other countries, even though more than half of all postdoctoral researchers currently working in the United States fall into this category. The GSS surveys institutions, not individuals, and these institutions often find it difficult to identify everyone who should be counted, although recent methodological improvements are working toward rectifying some of the suspected undercounting (Einaudi 2013).2 Although the GSS does include those who earned Ph.D.’s in other countries, it primarily surveys only those departments that offer graduate programs. Many postdoctoral researchers work in research institutes, national laboratories, and companies that do not offer graduate training, and institutions can differ in whom they define as a postdoctoral researcher.
The third survey, the SED, is used to determine what percentage of Ph.D.’s plan to pursue postdoctoral training, and shares the same sampling frame as the SDR. It asks people receiving Ph.D.’s from U.S. institutions what they expect to be doing after graduation, but definite commitments are only reported for approximately two-thirds of the surveyed population. Of these, there is additional, albeit perhaps small, uncertainty that this is what they will actually pursue as their stated postgraduation positions. Therefore, the SED data on U.S.degreed Ph.D. recipients with definite commitments for postdoctoral researchers offers only a very limited snapshot of the incoming cohort of postdoctoral researchers in a given year.
Finally, lack of timeliness continues to be a major drawback of NSF data. Results from some of the 2009 surveys did not appear until late 2013. When one considers the enormous economic upheaval the nation has experienced since 2008, it is obvious these data have limited value in understanding what was happening during this tumultuous period.
2 Note from the GSS: “In 2010, the postdoc section of the survey was expanded, and significant effort was made to ensure that appropriate personnel were providing postdoc data…. Thus, for increases in 2010 or 2011 over 2009 and prior-year data, it is unclear how much is from growth in postdoctoral appointment and how much is from improved data collection.” Details about the methodical changes and resulting implications are covered in Einaudi 2013.
With all the limitations described above, the committee had to adopt a policy regarding the use of the available data. It has little confidence in the accuracy of the absolute number of postdoctoral researchers, and it is particularly dubious about the quality of the information about postdoctoral researchers who are temporary residents and earned their Ph.D.’s in other countries. Nevertheless, the committee considers the available data to be a reliable indicator of trends over time. The gaps and flaws that exist are the same gaps and flaws that have existed for decades, so at least it may be supposed that the data possess some internal consistency.
At critical points in the report the committee reminds the reader that some data need to be understood in context and hopes that throughout the report the data presented are the best available, but clearly all data must be interpreted with the caveats discussed above.
The committee also needs to comment on its decision not to address the final item in its statement of task (see Box 1-3): participation in the research enterprise. Although the committee recognizes that it is important to know the extent to which postdoctoral researchers are gaining experience in reviewing journal submissions and writing grants, there is simply no way to accurately acquire that information. These are questions that ideally would be asked in surveys of postdoctoral researchers. Similarly, it is of critical importance to know whether postdoctoral researchers are being used effectively in research and acquiring the skills they need to advance their careers; however, no one is collecting that information or evaluating such practices at research institutions. The committee concluded that it could not provide an informed answer to these questions.