Postdoctoral researchers are a significant, but often overlooked, segment of the science and engineering research workforce. Many different types of positions come under the postdoctoral researcher designation, but an appropriate umbrella term that describes these individuals is the current definition agreed upon by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA): “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.” Although the individual postdoctoral experience varies significantly depending upon a number of factors such as location, field, or funding source, as examples, there is little debate about the potential value that the general postdoctoral experience provides to either the postdoctoral researcher or to his or her host institution.
Over the past 20 years, the percentage of new Ph.D.’s with definite commitments taking postdoctoral positions has increased in all fields, reaching a recent peak in 2010 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided a temporary boost in research funding. Among research disciplines, this growth has been most rapid in engineering and the social sciences—fields in which postdoctoral training was relatively uncommon a decade ago. Comparing the various sources of funding, research positions funded by a principal investigator’s grant are the most common and have also seen the largest increases in the past decade. The demographics of the postdoctoral population have also been changing: there are more women and more temporary residents, and their median age has increased, as scientists are spending more time in postdoctoral positions.
Although the broad trends are known, exact statistics about the changing nature of postdoctoral positions and researchers have significant uncertainties. Information on the actual number of postdoctoral researchers and how they are supported is difficult to obtain and those data that do exist are often incomplete, covering only certain subsets of the postdoctoral population. In addition, most funding agencies and research institutions do not track the career outcomes of postdoctoral researchers.
The problem of incomplete data is linked to the problems with the postdoctoral experience itself. The paucity of data concerning the number and characteristics of postdoctoral researchers in the United States is due in part to their poorly defined status at many institutions, the wide variety of titles applied to postdoctoral researchers, and the number of postdoctoral researchers who come to the United States subsequent to receiving their doctoral training abroad. Unlike undergraduates, graduate students, staff, and faculty, which are well-organized groups, postdoctoral researchers are not a well-defined population at many institutions and therefore can be invisible to administrators.
Research practices and expectations of postdoctoral researchers are quite different across disciplines and institutional settings, and these variations are translated into differences in postdoctoral experiences. In general, the practice of employing postdoctoral researchers as long-term researchers, with little mentoring and little hope of moving into a career that requires advanced research training, is becoming more common. The mentored training aspect of a postdoctoral researcher’s experience can be inconsistent and often inadequate. The mismatch between the expectations and outcomes of the postdoctoral experience causes disappointment and disillusionment for some postdoctoral researchers, and may discourage undergraduate students and graduate students from continuing to pursue careers in research, thereby reducing the pool of talent on which the research enterprise depends.
Although there have been a number of improvements since the release in 2000 of the National Academies’ report Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, postdoctoral researchers at many institutions continue to lack adequate mentoring, recognition, status, and benefits. Many institutions do not have a coherent set of policies, practices, and procedures for postdoctoral researchers that are equivalent to those available for students, faculty, or staff, and many postdoctoral researchers do not know about those policies that do exist. This lack of support structure and official status is often cited as a bigger concern than salary issues in studies of current postdoctoral researchers.
In addition, there is a lack of data on the career aspirations, preferences, and reasons that influence graduate students and postdoctoral researchers to pursue research careers. It appears that many Ph.D. recipients have been conditioned to see a postdoctoral position as the logical next step in their career progression, without careful consideration as to whether advanced research training is required to further their career goals. Although it is ultimately the individual doctorate holder’s decision, it is unclear whether they or their faculty mentors have sufficient resources to make a fully informed choice.
There is a continuous need for researchers with advanced training in the U.S. research enterprise. Postdoctoral researchers are playing a crucial, but often unrecognized, role in research. They are contributing significantly to academic research and they fill important roles in research groups at national laboratories, in government, and in industry. However, some principal investigators hire
postdoctoral researchers to fill the need for advanced researchers in lieu of permanent research staff, instead of as a symbiotic practice that provides advanced training. Unfortunately, there is some evidence that this practice is increasing.
Given the current levels of total research spending in the United States, the practice of hiring postdoctoral researchers to staff laboratories has created a situation where the number of postdoctoral researchers is out of equilibrium with the number of available positions that require advanced training, and there is no reasonable correlation between the change in the total number of postdoctoral researchers and positions that require postdoctoral training. Significantly fewer than half of all postdoctoral researchers continue into academic tenure-track positions and an increasing fraction end up in nonacademic or non-research careers that do not require the years of advanced research training provided by the postdoctoral position.
Because of this mismatch, postdoctoral training does not always contribute to the career advancement of postdoctoral researchers. There is a need to reexamine the human capital needs (i.e., job structure, salary practices, and career pathways) of the research enterprise. Some of the work now being done by postdoctoral researchers might more appropriately be done by permanent research staff, who receive the salary, benefits, and job security commensurate with full-time employment. Such research staff positions are common in government, industrial laboratories, and outside the United States. The postdoctoral experience itself should be refocused, with training and mentoring at its center.
Graduate students should be made aware of the wide variety of career paths are open to them. For some careers, particularly for faculty positions in the physical and biomedical sciences at research universities, the postdoctoral experience can be very helpful. However, for many careers, a new Ph.D. can benefit more from other types of work experience—a postdoctoral position is not the only way to enhance one’s skills and advance one’s career.
The primary focus of this report is on the largest segment of the postdoctoral population: postdoctoral researchers working at universities and being paid as part of a principal investigator’s research grant. Other postdoctoral researchers may have a very different experience. For example, the relatively small percentage of postdoctoral researchers working in national laboratories (including the NIH and other publically-funded research institutions) and in industry tend to earn more, have shorter appointment periods, and receive training and guidance with direct relevance to their career aspirations. Although, undoubtedly, there are many postdoctoral researchers at universities who gain valuable research experiences and receive useful mentoring to fulfill their career aspirations, this is not the case for a large number of postdocs, and the committee finds a need for significant reform. 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.39
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.
39 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.
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 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.
The recommendations put forward by the committee define five aspects of the postdoctoral experience. Although postdoctoral researchers play a key role in the science and engineering enterprise, they are only one part of an increasingly complex system. All participants in this system can take directed and concrete steps towards the implementation of this vision for a better postdoctoral experience. This section outlines some potential outcomes, inspired by many of the best practices already implemented throughout the United States and around the world.
Given its complexity, it is important to approach the system holistically, as no single segment of the science and engineering enterprise can induce change on its own. Therefore, while the following potential outcomes and best practices are arranged by principal actor, many overlap in who would be involved.
Ideally, doctoral students would give careful consideration to whether advanced research training in a postdoctoral position is required to further their career goals. They would seek information about the variety of career options
early and often in their doctoral training. In addition to utilizing regular mentoring, graduate students would take full advantage of institutional and local resources that provide career development services.
Similarly to graduate students, postdoctoral researchers would ideally make repeated, realistic, and critical self-evaluations before, during, and after their postdoctoral experience concerning their career choices. They would take advantage of every opportunity for career planning, including, for example, the creation of an individual development plan. Postdoctoral researchers would not limit their focus solely to academic careers. To that end, they would seek advice and information from a variety of different sources, including their mentors and institutions, professional societies, and peers.
Mentors and postdoctoral supervisors serve a particularly critical role in the science and engineering enterprise. With respect to postdoctoral researchers, mentors would recognize that the postdoctoral period should be viewed as a training period, and consequently that their role is to help individuals develop the necessary writing, laboratory management and leadership, communications, and other essential career-related skills. In most instances this will be best accomplished by a formal training program. However, it must be recognized that not all skills can be learned within the laboratory environment, especially those relating to non-research careers. Therefore, mentors, with the assistance of their institutions, would also provide postdoctoral researchers with substantial protected time to pursue career development activities.
In addition, because of the ever-increasing globalization of the science and engineering enterprise, mentors would be attuned to the special needs of temporary visa holders pursuing postdoctoral research, and consult with or provide referrals to experts within their institutions, including international offices.
Every postdoctoral researcher would have an individual development plan that is created with a mentor and reviewed yearly by someone in addition to the postdoctoral researcher’s mentor (i.e., the head of the school or department or research division, or by the postdoctoral researcher’s advisory committee, or by a specially appointed director of postdoctoral affairs). Similarly, institutions would encourage the establishment of advisory mechanisms to enable postdoctoral researchers to gain mentoring from a number of sources to complement the work of the primary mentor.
Every institution would have at least one office or unit designated as responsible for the postdoctoral experience, policies, and activities, beyond that provided by the mentors. Ideally, there would be an independent office of postdoctoral affairs. Every effort would be made to provide postdoctoral
researchers with the same type of recognition given to undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and staff. The designated office would be responsible for collecting and maintaining statistics on the postdoctoral community within the institution, including long-term career outcomes. Institutions would make this information publicly available.
Like graduate and undergraduate students, postdoctoral researchers would receive an orientation upon arrival at their institution. This would include topics relating to safety, ethics, human resources, and other essential training as needed for the research discipline. In addition, postdoctoral researchers would receive an appointment letter that provides clear information and expectations about salary, benefits, duration of service, process for termination or resignation, protected time for career development, and intellectual property rights. Institutions would create formal and neutral grievance procedures to address conflicts between postdoctoral researchers and their direct supervisors. This procedure would also be identified in the appointment letter.
Institutions would invest resources to provide postdoctoral researchers and graduate students with information concerning the wide range of career opportunities. Where feasible, opportunities for practical experiences in other settings, such as teaching and both research- and non-research-based nonacademic employment, would be made available. Wherever possible, these career development activities would include internships for postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.
Above all, institutions would track, provide services, and have similar policies and procedures for postdoctoral researchers regardless of their source of funding.
All funding agencies would report annually to the National Science Foundation the number of postdoctoral researchers they have supported by discipline, visa status, degree-granting institution, and types of support. The NSF, through its National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics, would thereby track the number of postdoctoral researchers (according to the current agreed-upon definition) and follow their career outcomes in the same way as is currently done for Ph.D. recipients.
In addition, and because of the critical role of mentoring in the science and engineering enterprise, all funding agencies would place an emphasis on mentoring as a key criterion in evaluating grant proposals and the performance of principal investigators.
Professional societies would recognize postdoctoral researchers as a distinct class of membership within their organizations and help postdoctoral researchers create a sense of community by facilitating postdoctoral researcher activities and networking at their meetings. They would involve postdoctoral researchers in the activities of their societies by promoting postdoctoral researcher service on
committees, inviting postdoctoral researchers as speakers, and having postdoctoral researchers help to organize meetings.
Professional societies would provide postdoctoral researchers with career information and counseling similar to what they provide for graduate students. To this end, professional societies would help make broadly available information about job markets, career trajectories, and salaries for postdoctoral researchers and graduate students in their disciplines (e.g., through bulletins, or special sessions about career opportunities at meetings). Where possible, professional societies would collect, analyze, and publicize related information such as statistics about the numbers and kinds of job postings.