The subtitle of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) 2000 report is A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies, which reflects the 2000 Postdoctoral Report’s intention to raise the visibility and official recognition of postdoctoral researchers among all stakeholders responsible for the quality and effectiveness of postdoctoral training.
There have been many changes in the past 14 years. Postdoctoral researchers themselves created the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), as well as local postdoctoral organizations at numerous institutions. Many universities established offices to provide services, institute and communicate policies, and improve benefits. The National Science Foundation (NSF) assigned responsibility for overseeing postdoctoral training to the Division of Graduate Education (DGE) in their Education and Human Resources (EHR) directorate. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) launched a multifaceted program to meet the needs of its intramural postdoctoral researchers. Foundations supported efforts to survey postdoctoral researchers about their view of the system and to provide career guidance. Many professional and disciplinary societies also introduced programs aimed at helping postdoctoral researchers.
Many of the actions to enhance the postdoctoral experience were consistent with the recommendations in COSEPUP’s 2000 Postdoctoral Report, which called for improvements in data collection, policies and standards, and professional development (see Box 3-1 for details). A review of developments since 2000 reveals progress, but there remains a continuing need for further action in all these areas.
In 2002, the NSF Division of Science Resource Statistics (now called the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, NCSES) and the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) held a workshop titled “Postdocs: What We Know and What We Would Like to
Summary of Recommendations from
Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (2000)
• Data Collection
o Collect comprehensive data on demographics, working conditions, career prospects
• Policies and Standards
o Establish consistent policies across institutions and fields
o Set a maximum total time limit for position
o Include postdocs in policy planning
• Professional Development
o Set standard/minimum salary scale, institutional status
o Set standard/minimum benefits and access to institutional services
o Conduct formal performance evaluations annually
o Develop mechanisms for communications
o Provide career guidance and skills training
o Facilitate transition to career positions
SOURCES: National Research Council. “Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies,” Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 2000.
Know” (CPST 2002). Workshop participants included representatives from several leading professional societies (chemistry, math, biology, physics, and sociology), as well as NIH, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) through COSEPUP, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Sigma Xi, and the NPA. The list of items that emerged in response to discussions included information about how postdoctoral positions fit into the career paths of researchers, what resources are available to postdoctoral researchers at individual institutions and at the national level, and the need to combine NSF data with that from professional societies. NSF promised to expand its data collection efforts, and in addition to some fairly major counting reforms to the GSS survey between 2007 and 2010 (Einaudi 2013), it did complete some additional surveying that was reported in the 2008 indicators. However, the fundamental limitations of the major surveys still exist.
When the NIH Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group (BMW Working Group) tried in 2012 to collect data on the number of postdoctoral researchers in the United States, “it quickly became clear that there are very little reliable data on the number of postdoctoral researchers…. This is due to a dearth of information about the numbers of foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers, as well as changes in the titles of postdoctoral researchers as they proceed through their training.” The BMW Working Group made the following specific recommendations for data collection:
- The Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED) and Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) should be modified to collect information about the career aspirations of doctorates and postdoctoral researchers.
- NIH should work closely with the NSF to shorten the lag between the collection and release of data.
- The NIH should work closely with NSF to ensure that the SDR includes those with foreign doctorates.
Two new surveys focusing on postdoctoral researchers are being developed at the NSF’s NCSES: Survey of Postdocs at Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and Early Career Doctorates Project. The first of these has already produced one round of data, released April 24, 2013, with general information about the demographics, research fields, and support of the postdoctoral researchers working at federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) in the fall of 2010.18 The second survey is a more ambitious project aimed to gain information about doctoral recipients of the past 10 years. Importantly, this survey will not be limited to either academic institutions, like the Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), or U.S.-degreed individuals, like the SED and SDR. A methodological survey was completed in early 2013, and plans appear to be underway to launch the full-scale project in 2014.19
Although the federal government has been the primary source of comprehensive data on the entire postdoctoral population, several other groups have used surveys to try to attain a clearer picture of postdoctoral working conditions, attitudes, aspirations, and priorities. With funding from the Sloan Foundation, Sigma Xi surveyed more than 7,600 postdoctoral researchers at 46 institutions (including intramural postdoctoral researchers on the NIH campus),20 and collected a wide array of demographic data, information about family status, salary and benefits, training and education, and other administrative factors in postdoctoral researcher success (Davis 2005, Sigma Xi 2006). The Sigma Xi researchers found strong correlations between what they termed “administrative oversight and structure” and several measures of postdoctoral researcher success, including self-reported job satisfaction, ratings of advisers, low levels of conflict, and higher productivity as measured by
20 From the Summary of Survey Methods: “At each institution, Sigma Xi asked their contacts to assist in recruiting postdoctoral researchers who met the postdoc criteria set forth jointly by Sigma Xi and the institution in question. The researchers were either part of an institutional list, provided by local organizers, or were asked by the local organizer to register on a website so that Sigma Xi could eventually contact each one to ask the person to participate in the survey.” More information is available at http://postdoc.sigmaxi.org/results/methods/. Last accessed on July 30, 2014.
number of publications. Interestingly, salary and benefits had a lower correlation with success than did other aspects of postdoctoral training. These findings are in line with other studies of knowledge workers in corporate environments, where nonmonetary factors, such as professional recognition and independence, often outweigh higher salaries in terms of job satisfaction (e.g., Herzberg 2003, Jayasingam 2013), although there are exceptions such as the IT industry (Thatcher et al. 2006).
More recently, the NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education (OITE) conducted a survey of its intramural postdoctoral researchers, with 43 percent of the more than 4,200 eligible postdoctoral researchers responding (NIH 2011). This survey focused on the mentoring of postdoctoral researchers with questions relating to setting research goals and expectations, opportunities for presenting and publishing research, and career guidance provided by mentors. The results of the 2010 study were also compared with a similar NIH study from 2001 and found small improvements in mentor availability, discussion of goals, and frequency of evaluations over the past decade.
Policies and Standards
NSF and NIH have taken steps to raise the profile of postdoctoral researchers and to explore ways to make postdoctoral training more effective. The NSF’s DGE provides information on postdoctoral researcher-specific funding opportunities. The NIH Office of Postdoctoral Services, which is part of the NIH OITE, serves as a clearinghouse for information and policies affecting intramural postdoctoral researchers at the NIH and its affiliated institutes and centers. In 2009, they published the NIH Postdoc Handbook, which provides a comprehensive guide to policies and procedures of the complex NIH system.
In 2004, the Association of American Universities (AAU) surveyed university administrators representing 39 of its 62 member institutions. In addition to collecting basic demographic information about their postdoctoral researchers, the AAU survey included questions about salaries and benefits, administrative structures and policies, level of satisfaction about the postdoctoral experience, and suggestions for improvement (AAU 2005).
A large majority of the responding institutions reported that they stipulated minimum salaries (67 percent); provided employee benefits such as health insurance, vacation, and sick leave (87 percent); and maintained an office or administrative position to manage postdoctoral affairs (56 percent). What was most telling, however, is that only 10 percent conducted a postdoctoral researcher satisfaction exit survey, and a mere 8 percent collected data on postdoctoral researcher placement or career outcomes. Yet, 69 percent responded that postdoctoral training was working well at their institution.
In the late fall of 2011, the NPA conducted an informal survey of 175 institutions, 74 of which responded in full (an additional 18 institutions provided incomplete responses) (NPA 2012). Nearly all (94 percent) were institutional members of the NPA, and therefore had “already demonstrated a propensity to support postdocs and to improve their experience.” Whereas appointment letters
and annual reviews were standard at 89 percent and 54 percent, respectively, of the responding institutions, exit interviews were required in only 32 percent. Orientations were held for newly hired postdoctoral researchers at 85 percent of 74 responding institutions and more than 88 percent of 84 responding institutions had a required or recommended minimum salary.
In addition to these studies, individual universities have conducted internal surveys of their own postdoctoral researchers. The 2006 Sigma Xi study cited surveys at more than a dozen universities, medical schools, and research institutions. Because these surveys are intended for use by the institutions themselves, difficulties arise when trying to combine the data into a single comprehensive view.
One of the 10 action points identified in the 2000 Postdoctoral Report was to provide career guidance for postdoctoral trainees, and several institutions have moved in this direction. For example, the Burroughs Wellcome Fund has created a series of development guides for scientists at all stages of their careers. Although initially intended for biomedical researchers, much of the advice can be applied to other fields. The topics in this series include managing career transitions, obtaining tenure, giving research talks, and managing laboratory personnel (e.g., BWF 2006). The Burroughs Wellcome Fund also held workshops in 2002 and 2005 in conjunction with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) to offer career advice specifically to postdoctoral researchers and new faculty.
Allocation of personal professional development time has been recommended, most notably in the influential 2002 “SET for Success” report about science training in the United Kingdom by the Welsh physicist and advisor to the U.K. government Sir Gareth Roberts (commonly called the “Robert’s report”). The report stated, “The Review believes that enabling the individual to establish a clear career path and a development plan to take them along it are critical to improving the attractiveness of postdoctoral research. The Review therefore recommends that [Higher Education Institutions] take responsibility for ensuring that all their contract researchers have a clear career development plan and have access to appropriate training opportunities—for example, of at least two weeks per year.” It went on to recommend that funding agencies should make receiving research grants contingent on implementing such a standard (Roberts 2002).
Online tools for self-evaluation and career development, such as individual development plans (IDPs), enable postdoctoral researchers to organize their own career planning, set goals, identify needs, and keep track of progress (see Box 3-2). According to the NPA survey from 2011, around two-thirds of the responding institutions encouraged or required individual development plans, depending on the situation.
There are several online job search sites targeted specifically at postdoctoral researchers and many more that include postdoctoral positions in their listings.
MyIDP: An Online Career Development Tool
Individual development plans (IDPs) are often used to determine the best path for an employee by examining strengths, weaknesses, and goals, and how they fit with those of the employer. Although common in industry, this type of annual evaluation is not standard practice for many early-career scientists. However, publicly accessible resources are beginning to become available regardless of career development information provided by academic and research institutions.
An example is an online tool called myIDP: a web-based, personalized IDP designed for, but not exclusive to, postdoctoral scientists (students entering graduate school or transitioning to the workforce at a master’s level would also benefit). Based on a program that was conceptualized by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) in 2003, the current iteration of myIDP was developed by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and authored by individuals from FASEB, the University of California, San Francisco, the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the Medical College of Wisconsin. It is a four-step program that involves self-evaluation and assessment, career choice exploration, goal setting strategies and tools, and offline networking with mentors.
The site helps align (subjective, self-evaluated) skills, interests, and values of early-career scientists with potential careers within and outside of academe, and provides ample articles and resources to explore. In many cases, the information in these resources is not knowledge commonly held by their academic mentors and peers. It then allows the individual to set personal goals and time lines; it will also set up e-mail reminders to assist with keeping pace. The program encourages active mentor participation, although it acknowledges that academic mentors may not be suitable for some of the career-based goals outside of academe.
SOURCES: More information about myIDP is available at http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/. Accessed April 30, 2014.
Some of these sites have additional career information gauged for postdoctoral researchers, although the offerings can vary. One of the first career websites devoted to postdoctoral researchers was the Postdoc Network, launched in 2000 by the AAAS. The Postdoc Network provided an online forum for postdoctoral researchers (via a listserv), as well as job search capabilities and articles relating to career issues. This service has now been folded into the general career information provided by AAAS’s Science Careers publication and website. Nature magazine provides similar listings and career advice on naturejobs.com and provides several online forums for postdoctoral researchers on its NatureNetwork site. These and other career resources for postdoctoral researchers can be found in Box 3-3.
Selection of Career Resources for Postdoctoral Researchers
Professional societies have traditionally played an important role in career development. With a cross-cutting view of a particular field of study, professional societies can engage and unite many different individuals, from undergraduates to emeriti professors (see Box 3-4).
In addition to changes that directly correlate with the recommendations of the 2000 Postdoctoral Report, there have been a number of cultural and institutional changes in the postdoctoral enterprise.
Professional Society Job Sites
In deciding which next step to take in a career, professional societies play a key role. The electronic resources assembled and distributed by two particular societies—American Geophysical Union (AGU) Career Center and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Job Site—are great examples.
The AGU’s career website has not only the job listings and online resume hosting and search functions one would expect but also many other resources for early-career scientists. Articles, videos, workshops, and webinars provide a variety of opportunities for young scientists to explore options for their career beyond searching for their next postdoctoral position.
The IEEE Job Site provides the standard job search and resume posting as well as other useful tools for job seekers. IEEE ResumeLab assists members in creating a resume, CV, or cover letter; has a skill-assessment tool to help job applicants know what experiences to highlight; and even allows for mock interviews with a portfolio of potential questions. IEEE MentorCentre is an online service that helps young people connect with experienced professionals who can provide individual guidance and information. IEEE-USA Salary Service provides job seekers with information about benefits and salary based on data collected from more than 17,000 of IEEE’s U.S. members. There is also a specific section for those seeking internships and entry-level jobs.
Professional Organizations for Postdoctoral Researcher
One common fact of life for postdoctoral researchers is relative isolation from their peers, especially in comparison with the more communal environment that they experienced in graduate school. A notable response to this situation during the past decade has been the creation by postdoctoral researchers of postdoctoral associations (PDAs), both at the national and institutional levels. Additionally, most research institutions have created postdoctoral offices (PDOs) at the administrative level or at least have appointed specific staff members to address the needs and concerns of postdoctoral researchers (e.g., see Box 3-5). A number of university PDOs organize career development activities, and campus PDAs often organize information sessions for their members. The NIH has an ambitious program of career-related activities for its intramural postdoctoral researchers (see Box 3-6).
The most significant initiative from the postdoctoral researchers themselves was the establishment of the NPA. In 2002, a group of postdoctoral researchers who were attending a meeting of Science’s Nextwave Postdoc Network formed the beginnings of the NPA with funding from the Sloan Foundation. The organization has grown to include more than 2,500 individual members plus 190 institutional members (as of December 2013). The NPA holds annual meetings
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill: Fostering Diversity
Many underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities face overwhelming obstacles throughout their careers: isolation, stereotype threat, unconscious bias, little academic or social support, and few, if any, faculty mentors and role models who look like them.
The University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill, in tandem with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs (OPA), has spearheaded a national movement to develop peer-led minority postdoctoral organizations aimed at providing support, professional development, networking, and mentoring opportunities to strengthen the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics diversity pipeline. The goal is to bring together underrepresented African American, Hispanic, and American Indian postdoctoral scholars across disciplines to build valuable professional networks, and promote and support diversity and inclusion.
Similarly, the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity is one of the oldest diversity fellowship programs in the nation and has been highly successful. More than 30 years old, the program has supported more than 150 scholars since inception; 131 scholars teaching or working in higher education and 46 UNC faculty hires through the program. Support and mentoring are provided to postdoctoral researchers by senior-level administrators, department chairs, former fellows, and the OPA staff.
SOURCES: Thompkins, Sibby Anderson, Vanessa González-Pérez, and Jennifer Cohen. “Changing the Culture of Science: Minority Postdoctoral Organizations Help lead the Way.” The POSTDOCket vol. 11, iss. 3, Summer 2013.; More information about the Carolina Postdoctoral Program for Faculty Diversity is available at http://research.unc.edu/offices/vicechancellor/programs-projects-services/data_res_vcred_postdoc/. Accessed May 8, 2014.
NIH Office of Intramural Training and Education
Home to about 4,000 postdoctoral researchers, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) plays a significant role in setting standards for the postdoctoral experience in the biomedical sciences. As mentioned elsewhere in the report, the NIH postdoctoral researcher salary levels are often used as standards by other institutions when establishing guidelines. Other practices they put in place for their postdoctoral researchers are less universally adopted, but are deserving of attention.
Upon arriving at NIH, postdoctoral researchers are given a comprehensive orientation and a Postdoc Handbook. The handbook covers relevant information, including workplace standards, guides to professional development, career guidance opportunities both inside and outside of NIH, and even financial- and immigration-related matters. This information is all curated by the Office of Intramural Training and Education, which also has a website that thoroughly covers these topics. Having a well-staffed (29 employees) central office to manage postdoctoral researcher affairs and providing common experience (e.g., orientation, career development workshops aimed at postdoctoral researchers) helps the postdoctoral researchers feel valued and part of a broader research community.
SOURCES: National Institutes of Health. “NIH Postdoc Handbook.” Bethesda, MD: Office of Intramural Training and Education, 2012
to discuss issues affecting postdoctoral researchers, surveys its members to collect information about their experiences and opinions, educates policy makers at the national level, and provides training materials and other support to facilitate the creation and strengthening of both PDAs and PDOs at individual research institutions (see Box 3-7).
Mentors and advisors play a critical role in the postdoctoral experience due to the level of control they have over the postdoctoral researcher’s career. Programs to train, evaluate, and recognize better mentors have started becoming more common. According to NIH, mentoring postdoctoral researchers can be counted toward effort reported on a research grant. “Postdoctoral researcher mentoring plans” have been required for all NSF grants supporting postdoctoral researchers since 2009,21 as stipulated by the 2007 America COMPETES Act.22 However, NSF does not subsequently evaluate how effectively the mentoring plan was implemented. Professional organizations, with input from postdoctoral members, have developed frameworks and guidelines to be used for this purpose, and compacts between postdoctoral researchers and their mentors, like
21 More information can be found at http://www.nsf.gov/pubs/policydocs/pappguide/sf13001/gpg_2.njsp#IIC2j, last accessed June 19, 2014.
22 NSF: SEC. 7008 (ACA 2007).
National Postdoctoral Association: Offering Career Guidance
The National Postdoctoral Association’s (NPA’s) “Six Core Competencies” is a good demonstration of making postdoctoral researchers aware of what they should expect from their postdoctoral experience that will contribute to a successful career. These six key skills “are meant to serve primarily as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors.” Along with the list, the NPA also gives details, examples, and additional resources for postdoctoral researchers to learn more about each of the competencies.
The Six Core Competencies are as follows:
- Discipline-specific conceptual knowledge
- Research skill development
- Communication skills
- Leadership and management skills
- Responsible conduct of research
According to the NPA, “The goal of a postdoctoral fellowship is to provide the training necessary for the postdoctoral scholar to achieve intellectual and professional independence and success. This toolkit was developed to provide definition for the scholar and his/her support community as to the competencies essential to achieving this independence. Some of these competencies will have been acquired during graduate training. Thus, some aspects of the competencies will describe refinements of skills already achieved, and some will represent new or advanced skills.”
SOURCES: More information about the NPA’s Core Competencies is available at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/competencies. Accessed May 8, 2014.
As discussed in Chapter 2, the most common postdoctoral position involves a postdoctoral researcher working for a principal investigator on a research grant. Although the principal investigator’s primary responsibility is the production of good research, the postdoctoral researcher is supposed to be receiving training, and the principal investigator is therefore the primary mentor. All principal investigators should take this responsibility seriously and do as much as they can to provide guidance to the postdoctoral researcher. However,
23 According to the NPA survey, 36.5 percent encourage or require postdoctoral researcher supervisors to use a compact between postdocs and their mentors. These sometimes take the form of Individual Development Plans; see Box 3-2.
GREAT Group Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees
The Association of American Medical Colleges Graduate Research, Education, and Training (GREAT) group provides a forum for the 135 U.S. and 17 Canadian medical schools to develop policies for Ph.D. and M.D.-Ph.D. programs. Beginning in 2002, the GREAT group established a Postdoctorate Committee, which became the Postdoctorate Leaders Section in 2008, to enhance the quality of postdoctoral programs, provide professional development for postdoctoral researchers, and create consistent policies for postdoctoral researchers across member institutions.
The GREAT group published its Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors in 2006. The purpose was to provide a “model document” for institutions or individuals who want to set professional standards for a postdoctoral research position. The compact “is intended to initiate discussions at the local and national levels about the postdoctoral appointee-mentor relationship and the commitments necessary for a high quality postdoctoral training experience.” Among the suggested uses (or benefits) of the compact is as “a recruitment tool to signify programmatic commitment to postdoctoral appointees.”
SOURCES: Association of American Medical Colleges. “Compact Between Postdoctoral Appointees and Their Mentors.” Washington, DC, 2006.
even if a principal investigator is committed to ensuring that the postdoctoral researcher is well prepared for her or his next career step, the investigator might not have the range of experience necessary to provide useful guidance. For example, a principal investigator who has worked only in a U.S. research-intensive university might not be able to help a postdoctoral researcher understand what is involved in a career in teaching-intensive liberal arts colleges, industry, government, or other countries. In addition, the crucial interpersonal rapport might not be right. Institutions where postdoctoral researchers work therefore have a responsibility to offer postdoctoral researchers a number of options for acquiring effective mentoring and to communicate to the postdoctoral researchers that they need to take some initiative in seeking out the guidance they want. Examples of sources of mentors can be found in Box 3-9.
Postdoctoral researcher-specific funding
The type of funding that postdoctoral researchers receive can have a dramatic influence on the quality of their experience. The NIH instituted a new funding mechanism in 2006, called the Pathway to Independence Award Program (K99/R00), which supports the transition of postdoctoral researchers to independent principal investigators. The journal Cell has published a list of other such “superpostdoc” funding programs in the United States and Europe (seeTable 3-1, von Bubnoff 2007). Additionally, there are several career development tracks for postdoctoral researchers outside of laboratory research, including the National Academies’ Christine Mirzayan Science and Technology
Mentor Evaluation and Excellence Awards
The success of the postdoctoral experience often depends on various key mentoring relationships. Programs like the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring Program (PAESMEM) and MentorNet are examples of attempts to recognize this important part of scientific research and seek to identify and honor outstanding mentors in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM).
The PAESMEM award, established by the White House in 1996, recognizes individuals, programs, or institutions that display “outstanding mentoring efforts that enhance the participation and retention of individuals (including persons with disabilities, women, and minorities) who might not otherwise have considered or had access to STEM.” These are predominantly in higher education, though some K–12 programs have also received awards. After receipt, PAESMEM awardees can connect on the PAESMEM.net website, a forum for discussion and the exchange of mentoring ideas and best practices. The award and the website are administered by the National Science Foundation (NSF).
A PAESMEM award recipient in 2001, MentorNet is an online platform designed to “provide all STEM students with access to high quality mentoring relationships, helping mentors and protégés connect across generational, gender, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic boundaries, and to create a vibrant and sustainable mentoring community that facilitates continuous engagement of protégés and mentors in mentorships throughout their educations and careers.” The NSF noted, when conferring the award, “During the 2000-2001 program year, two thousand students were matched with one thousand nine hundred and thirteen mentors representing six hundred and ninety companies; seventy affiliated colleges and universities participated.” Importantly, mentors come from diverse backgrounds, including industry, government labs, and academe. This has proven especially beneficial to women and others underrepresented in STEM fields.
Policy Fellowships and the AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. There are other programs designed to assist career transitions into media, teaching, and other professions.
Postdoctoral researchers commonly fall between employee categories, and with this lack of solid definition comes incomplete or inconsistent benefits. Although postdoctoral researchers are often supplied with some form of official letter of appointment or contract, results from the 2005 Sigma Xi survey indicated that they are unaware of potential services available at their institutions or if those services are even offered (seeTable 3-2).
TABLE 3-1 “Superpostdoc” Fellowship Programs in the United States and Europe
|Germany||The Max Planck Society - Otto Hahn Prize|
|Austria||IMP Fellows Programme|
|United Kingdom||Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellowships|
|United Kingdom||Cambridge St. John’s College Research Fellowships|
|United States||Harvard Junior Fellowship|
|United States||Carnegie Institution Staff Associate Program|
|United States||Whitehead Fellows Program|
|United States||Bauer Fellows Program at Harvard|
|United States||Rowland Junior Fellows Program at Harvard|
|United States||Lewis-Sigler Fellows at Princeton|
|United States||UCSF Sandler Fellows Program|
|United States||Sara and Frank McKnight Fellowships in Biomedical Research at UT Southwestern Medical Center|
|United States||CalTech Broad Fellows Program in Brain Circuitry|
|United States||Janelia Farm Junior Fellows|
SOURCE: Updated from von Bubnoff 2007.
TABLE 3-2 Survey results from Sigma Xi survey (percent)
When you began this postdoc, did you receive an official letter of appointment or contract? a
Are you aware of formal written policies in your department or institution that address any of the following issues?
• Determining paper authorship and author precedence b
• Defining misconduct c
• Resolving grievances d
• Determining ownership of intellectual property e
Are job placement services available to you at your institution? f
Is career counseling available to you at your organization? g
a 4,377 respondents; b 7,177 respondents; c 7,144 respondents; d 7,126 respondents; e 7,135 respondents; f 3,940 respondents; g 3,938 respondents.
SOURCE: Davis 2005
For the past 10 years, The Scientist has published an annual survey on the “Best Places to Work for Postdocs,” which can provide insight into how a self-selected population of postdoctoral researchers views research institutions around the world (Scientist 2013). The magazine’s survey is based on volunteered responses from life-sciences postdoctoral researchers, predominantly at U.S. institutions. Because the survey is not scientific, quantitative conclusions cannot be given much weight, but certain trends are clear; for example, which institutions have the highest proportion of postdoctoral researchers satisfied with certain aspects of their experience. Some institutions, such as the J. David Gladstone Institutes, consistently receive high marks by the postdoctoral researchers working there. Examples of some of the practices used at the J. David Gladstone Institutes are highlighted in Box 3-10.
Supportive Practices for Postdoctoral Researchers
J. David Gladstone Institutes demonstrates that providing formal recognition and support structures can improve the postdoctoral experience.
J. David Gladstone Institutes is a medical research institution affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco. It includes graduate training for Ph.D. and M.D.Ph.D. students, and many opportunities for postdoctoral researchers. It has been consistently ranked highly by The Scientist in its “Best Places to Work” list, both generally as an academic institution and specifically for postdoctoral researchers. Its treatment of postdoctoral researchers can serve as one example of good practices.
One area where J. David Gladstone Institutes excel is in open, easy-to-access information. Alongside the website for graduate students is a site of postdoctoral researcher-relevant material. This gives postdoctoral researchers an obvious place to find information and makes them feel like an integral part of the institution. The website also makes explicit many aspects of the postdoctoral experience that are often ill-defined. For example, the institute publishes standard salaries and benefits so that prospective postdoctoral researchers know what to expect and what is typical for all postdoctoral positions.
Another exemplary practice at J. David Gladstone Institutes is that they structure their postdoctoral positions so that the postdoctoral researchers can achieve some advancement in their careers (e.g., yearly raises and possible promotion to research scientist) over the course of their position, over and above additional research experience. The mentoring aspect of the position is taken seriously, with standardized expectations set by the institution. There is an Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, so that postdoctoral researchers have access to guidance and assistance in addition to what they receive from their principal investigator. Finally, postdoctoral positions at J. David Gladstone Institutes begin with salaries significantly above the standard set by the National Institutes of Health, and postdoctoral researchers receive raises of about 5 percent per year of seniority.
SOURCES: More information about the postdoc programs at the J. David Gladstone Institutes is available at http://gladstoneinstitutes.org/connect/postdocs. Accessed May 8, 2014.
Standard pay and benefits for postdoctoral researchers does vary among different institutions, and doctorate holders’ hopes and expectations also vary. In the Sigma Xi survey of postdoctoral researchers, the benefits that were most desired were retirement savings benefits, dental insurance, and child care. Health insurance coverage is very important and expected. Sigma Xi found that expectation largely met, with 97 percent of postdoctoral researchers reporting health insurance offered to them with their job, although the survey did not indicate what portion of the cost the postdoctoral researchers covered and what portion of the cost was covered by the employing institutions. With this finding, and the NIH recently increasing the institutional allowance for health benefits associated with its National Research Service Awards, it appears that access to health insurance is among the areas where the actual postdoctoral experience is largely meeting expectations. The more recent NPA survey found that more than 78 percent of postdoctoral researchers who receive health benefits pay less than 25 percent of the premium. In addition, approximately 39.5 percent of 76 responding institutions provide paid maternity leave as a benefit to postdoctoral researchers and approximately 30.8 percent of 78 responding institutions provide “[c]ontributions to a retirement plan (postdocs allowed to contribute)” as a benefit to postdoctoral researchers (this number increases to 47.4 percent if the postdoctoral researchers are classified as employees).
In the survey of life-science postdoctoral researchers conducted by The Scientist, pay and benefits actually rank very low among the concerns covered by the survey. Much more common concerns, even at the institutions that were ranked highly, were about equitable treatment of postdoctoral researchers and allowances for family and personal life. Based on these and other findings, having an established set of guidelines and procedures is an important component to a satisfying postdoctoral experience (see Box 3-11). The NPA survey found that the majority of responding institutions (61 percent of 84) have established and disseminate a process for postdoctoral researchers to address their grievances (an additional 20 percent have a process established).
A major change in the postdoctoral enterprise is internationalization. Along with the increase in international postdoctoral researchers in the U.S. research system, the globalization of the science and engineering enterprise as a whole has dramatically altered the landscape.
Although it might seem reasonable to assume that the United States will continue to be able to attract large numbers of high-quality postdoctoral researchers from across the globe, it is necessary to remember that a policy change in China or India, better opportunities for postdoctoral research in other countries, or shifts in the labor market for those with postdoctoral training could also have significant, if less immediate, effects. The future well-being of the U.S. research system depends on understanding the changing dynamics of the
Establishing a Formal Grievance Procedure
Many postdoctoral researchers do not have—or feel that they do not have—a way to deal with problems in the workplace outside of approaching their principal investigator. While the committee is not recommending any specific unionization or grievance procedure, it does see a need for some type of institutional mechanism for addressing problems that might arise for postdoctoral researchers.
Postdoctoral researchers in the University of California (UC) system unionized in 2008, selecting the United Automobile Workers Local 5810 as their exclusive representative, and negotiated their first contract with the UC system in 2010. The union represents more than 6,000 postdoctoral researchers across the UC campuses, and negotiates minimum standards for salary and benefits.
The collective bargaining agreement also contains a formal system for addressing postdoctoral researcher grievances. Under the union contract, if a postdoctoral researcher has a grievance, then she or he has a way of registering the complaint outside of her or his supervisor or department. The union also has established that the “grievance procedure allows us the option of taking a dispute to a neutral third party arbitrator for resolution, rather than to the University.” The union contract set certain standards for working conditions and workplace protections, as well as salary and benefits, and violations of the contract can be cause for grievances.
SOURCES: More information about the UAW Local 5810 is available at http://uaw5810.org/aboutyour-union/history/. Accessed May 8, 2014.
global movement of scientists and engineers. Some research indicates that the relative attractiveness of study in the United States is declining. Although the U.S. reputation for quality research and faculty remains high, postdoctoral researchers have a less favorable impression of the U.S. lifestyle, and the employee benefits for U.S. postdoctoral researchers are considered inferior to those available in many other countries. (Stephan, Franzoni, and Scellato 2012)
Researchers found that international competition to attract highly qualified postdoctoral researchers is increasing. For example, a U.K. official said that “international recruitment is absolutely critical for the stability of the [English university] system at present time” (Cantwell and Lee 2010). Developed countries, such as Germany and Japan, have traditionally made efforts to encourage their citizens to return home after receiving postsecondary training in the United States. A recent trend indicates that many developing countries—including China and India, which together constitute the largest source of international graduate students in the United States (CRS 2012)—are actively recruiting their citizens who have conducted postdoctoral research abroad to return home for permanent positions. Similarly to the United States, postdoctoral organizations have formed around the globe, and the resources available to postdoctoral researchers interested in exploring international opportunities are numerous (see Box 3-12).
Activities of Postdoctoral Organizations Outside the United States
Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Students published an extensive survey of the Canadian postdoctoral researcher population in 2013.a
National Institute of Science and Technology Policy in Tokyo surveyed postdoctoral researchers from seven universities and one national lab in 2005.b
The Vitae organization provides career support for doctoral researchers and also collects data through its Careers-in-Research Online Survey; the U.K. Research Staff Association, which is part of Vitae, serves as a professional organization for doctoral researchers.c
Eurodoc serves doctoral candidates, postdoctoral researchers, and junior researchers.d
The World Association of Young Scientists provides a global forum for issues concerning postdoctoral researchers and other young researchers.e
a Mitchell, Jeremy, and Valerie Walker. “The 2013 Canadian Postdoc Survey: Painting a Picture of Canadian Postdoctoral Scholars.” The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars/L’Association Canadienne de Stagiaires Post-doctoraux (CAPS-ACSP) and Mitacs, 2013.
b Misu, Toshiyuki, Tomoko Shimomura, Yukiko Miura, Akira Horoiwa, and Kan Imai. “Survey on Postdoctoral Fellows and Research Assistants (FY2005).” 1st Policy-Oriented Research Group National Institute of Science and Technology Policy (NISTEP) in cooperation with Knowledge Infrastructure Policy Division Science and Technology Policy Bureau Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT). Japan. August 2006. Available at http://www.nistep.go.jp/achiev/ftx/eng/mat128e/idx128e.html. Accessed on May 8, 2014.
c Centre, Careers Research and Advisory. “Vitae Researcher Development Framework.” Cambridge, UK, 2011.
The National Academies are not alone in acknowledging a need to reconfigure the state of postdoctoral training in the United States. Although research institutions are clearly paying much more attention to the needs of postdoctoral researchers than they were in 2000, a flurry of recent reports suggests that many of the problems that existed in 2000 have yet to be resolved.
The volume of reports, articles, and discussions about postdoctoral training has grown enormously in the past 10 years.24 One can interpret this as an either encouraging sign that the research establishment is finally focusing its attention on improving the lot of postdoctoral researchers or a dismaying alarm that the stresses within the postdoctoral system have become so pronounced that they can no longer be ignored.
Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report
Francis Collins, the director of the NIH, created the BMW Working Group in 2011 to evaluate the state of U.S. postdoctoral training. Published in 2012, the results of the Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report (BMW Report) correlate with much of what is presented in this report.
The BMW Report recommended funding a higher percentage of postdoctoral researchers through training grants and fellowships; experimenting with new ways to diversify postdoctoral training, raising salaries, ensuring adequate benefits, and increasing funding for “skip-the-postdoc” options, which encourage direct hiring into research career paths after a Ph.D.; and requiring that all postdoctoral researchers have individual development plans.
The President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) also released a report, titled Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise, which ends with a call to restructure postdoctoral training.
PCAST warned of a serious mismatch in the biomedical research labor market: “It thus seems that a significant fraction of today’s postdoctoral fellows in biomedical research are essentially in training for jobs that do not exist in academia or for jobs in industry or other sectors into which they could move sooner. They are, de facto, low-paid university research staff.” PCAST added that, “for the physical sciences, the problem is smaller, but similar in kind” (PCAST 2012b).
Professional Societies’ Reports
A survey by the Computing Research Association found that the number of Ph.D. computer scientists entering postdoctoral positions doubled between 2008 and 2011, at a time when the number of openings for tenure-track faculty positions was falling steeply (CRA 2011).
An American Chemical Society commission recommended that “a) institutions, departments, and faculty mentors take greater responsibility for ensuring that postdoctoral associates develop professionally, b) all funding
24 A Scopus search indicates that nearly 60 percent of all the articles published since 1953 with the topical keywords of postdoc, postdoctoral, or postdoctorate have been published since 2005; more than 30 percent since 2010.
agencies require general mentoring plans of applicants seeking support for postdoctoral associates, c) funding agencies become more receptive to requests for support of more senior research associates who are regular employees of research institutions” (ACS 2013).
A number of other organizations, professional societies, and media outlets have also written about the problems of postdoctoral training. There seems little doubt that this corner of the research enterprise deserves increased attention.
The path forward needs to begin with recognition of the appropriate roles that postdoctoral researchers perform in the United States as well as the global science and engineering enterprise. Essential to functional and productive research activities, postdoctoral researchers can no longer simply be stop-gaps in individuals’ career paths or serve as a source of highly trained, cheap labor. The policies of institutions and funding agencies must reflect and respect the needs of an increasingly diverse and international workforce and provide postdoctoral researchers with commensurate support and benefits. Likewise, postdoctoral researchers must approach and understand the commitments and expectations of postdoctoral positions in today’s market. It is crucial and beneficial to everyone that guided self-examination about careers and career choice are made by graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
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