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8 Principles, Action Points, and Recommendations for Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience I n developing this guide, COSEPUP analyzed the gradually growing body of available data and information on postdocs, surveyed institutions that host postdoctoral scholars, met with 39 focus groups across the United States, and hosted a day-long workshop at the National Academies for all parties involved in the postdoctoral experience. After reflecting on this information, the committee has concluded that most postdocs are gaining valuable research experiences and acquiring important lab- oratory and other research skills. However, the overall postdoctoral experience must encompass more than research experience if it is to fulfill its potential. Postdocs need better mentoring, better compensation, more information on employ- ment opportunities, more assistance in planning their careers, and opportunities to learn a number of career skills (writing grant proposals, writing research papers, critiquing the papers or proposals of others, managing a small program or lab, mentoring or teaching students, and communicating to nonspecialists). The postdocâs need for career skills and educational experiences must be more widely recognized and reflected in all decisions made by postdoc advisers, host institutions, and the organizations that provide funding for postdocs. The postdoc has a quid pro quo relationship with the research community. Postdocs have the obligation to carry out to the best of their ability the research program they have agreed to; the research community, in turn, has the obligation to provide the education, training, guidance, and experiences that lead to a suc- cessful and rewarding career. COSEPUP concluded that there are significant opportunities to enhance the postdoctoral experience for the benefit of both the postdoctoral population and 97
98 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS the research enterprise. This guide describes these opportunities in separate sets of recommendations for postdocs, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies. The three principles listed below provide the basis for these recommendations. PRINCIPLES 1. The postdoctoral experience is first and foremost a period of appren- ticeship for the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and other pro- fessional skills that advance the professional career. Postdocs should not be viewed as just an inexpensive âpair of handsâ in the laboratory. They should receive assistance in the development both of their scientific and technical skills and of other skills needed for a professional career. In this spirit, the term of a postdoc should not be greater than that needed to meet these education, training, and career development objectives. 2. Postdocs should receive appropriate recognition (including lead author credit) and compensation (including health insurance and other fringe benefits) for the contribution they make to the research enterprise. Post- doctoral research is a vital part of both the junior researchers career path and the research enterprise. Postdoctoral salaries should increase in accor- dance with years of experience so as to properly reflect the postdocâs level of education and skill. When a postdocâs contribution is thus valued and rewarded, a postdoctoral experience can (and should) be one of the most focused, productive, and exciting times in the career of a scientist or engineer. 3. To ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, all parties to the appointmentsâthe postdoc, the postdoc adviser, the host institution, and funding organizationsâshould have a clear and mutually-agreed-upon understanding with regard to the nature and purpose of the appointment. This understanding must include the objec- tives of the adviser and institution as well as the objectives of the post- doc. In addition, funding organizations have responsibilities to set high standards for the postdoctoral experience and the disciplinary societies have responsibilities to gather and disseminate information and promote career advancement. The quality of the postdoctoral experience is the responsibility of all. The remainder of this chapter is devoted to the committeeâs recommenda- tions, and is organized by target audience. Many of the recommendations include a rationale or other explanation. For those readers desiring a synopsis of the recommendations, the following summary of âaction pointsâ is provided.
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 99 ACTION POINTS Advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies should: 1. Award institutional recognition, status, and compensation commensurate with the postdocsâ contributions to the research enterprise. 2. Develop distinct policies and standards for postdocs, modeled on those available for graduate students and faculty. 3. Develop mechanisms for frequent and regular communication between postdocs and their advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disci- plinary societies. 4. Monitor and provide formal evaluations (at least annually) of the perfor- mance of postdocs. 5. Ensure that all postdocs have access to health insurance, regardless of funding source, and to institutional services. 6. Set limits for total time as a postdoc (of approximately five years, summing time at all institutions), with clearly described exceptions as appropriate. 7. Invite the participation of postdocs when creating standards, definitions, and conditions for appointments. 8. Provide substantive career guidance to improve postdocâs ability to pre- pare for regular employment. 9. Improve the quality of data, both for postdoctoral working conditions and for the population of postdocs in relation to employment prospects in research. 10. Take steps to improve the transition of postdocs to regular career positions. COSEPUP considered several other action points, but chose not to recom- mend them. These include measures to limit the postdoctoral population, to estab- lish formal benchmarks for postdoc salaries, and to permit postdocs to obtain their own grant funding during the postdoctoral term. Because of the rapid pace of change in research institutions and the diversity of settings where postdocs work, the committee chose to avoid such fixed limits or measures. In addition, there is recent evidence that the postdoctoral population may be stabilizing in response to better information and opportunities in the nonacademic job market. Instead, COSEPUP urges graduate students, postdocs, advisers, institutions, fund- ing agencies, and disciplinary societies to consider the following recommenda- tions as they develop and apply their own policies.
100 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS RECOMMENDATIONS Postdocs 1. Postdocs should take responsibility for deciding whether to seek a post- doctoral position and to define their objectives in doing so. Once they make this decision, they are responsible for informing themselves about what they can expectâand what is expected of them: the duration of the appointment, the expectations of the adviser, the institutional resources available, potential sources of financial support, institutional policies on authorship and intellectual property (including ownership of data, âtangi- ble research material,â such as antibodies, vaccines, etc.), and where to find information about careers in their particular field. 2. Postdocs should contribute their best efforts to the program in which they work, and consider themselves full members of that program as long as their appointment lasts. 3. Postdocs share with their advisers the responsibility for frequent com- munication in the interests of common understanding, productive research, and effective mentoring. 4. Postdocs bear the primary responsibility for the success of their experi- ence, with the support of their advisers and institutions. Responsibilities include gaining new research skills, contributing to the effort of the lab or department, communicating with the adviser, initiating a network of colleagues, and concluding a research project in as timely a manner as possible. Advisers 1. The advisers of postdocs have the responsibility to provide a postdoctoral experience that is fundamentally educational in nature and advances the postdocâs career. This educational experience should lead toward research independence and include, depending on the postdocâs career goals, occasional course work, teaching, internships, and other experi- ences that promote professional development. 2. At the outset of a postdoctoral appointment, advisers should outline, in writing, the initial expectations about the performance of the postdoc, including the overall research plan and the postdocâs responsibility for ongoing research. These understandings should include laboratory poli- cies on authorship; on ownership of ideas, intellectual property, and data;
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 101 on determining priority of research projects; and, importantly, on taking projects from the laboratory when the postdocâs term has ended. This should be reviewed on an annual basis in case a mid-course correction is needed due to changes either in the adviserâs assessment of the postdocs abilities or changes in the postdocâs career goals (see Recommendation 4). 3. In view of the role of the postdoc as a trainee, the adviser should provide mentoring as needed, including not only detailed advice and assistance in the development of a specific research project, but also education in research issues such as ethics and conflicts of interest. 4. Advisers should discuss goals with the postdoc at the outset so the expectations of both parties are clearly delineated, and provide written evaluations of a postdocâs progress at least once a year, to be included in the postdocâs institutional file. Such meetings provide an assessment and reality check for the postdoc and postdoc adviser. 5. Advisers and departments should provide career counseling and job placement assistance. They should also support the efforts of postdocs to gain experiences, compatible with their research responsibility, that will help prepare them for the job market. 6. Advisers and departments should consider whether postdocs may bene- fit from additional mentoring by several members of an institution. The purpose of such a mentoring committee would be to provide additional guidance and perspective to the postdoc, not to alter the important rela- tion between postdoc and mentor. Institutions 1. An important first step is for institutions to take a census of their post- doctoral populations. Many institutions, especially universities, have no accurate count or counting mechanism. 2. Institutions should classify all postdocs in a distinctive and appropriate category that embraces their unique institutional position (see Recom- mendation 1 in section on Funding Organizations). Classification as faculty or staff is not appropriate, because postdocs are apprentices; classification as students is not appropriate, because postdocs have com- pleted the doctorate. Instead, they need a clear classification category that defines their standing and access to resources.
102 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS 3. If they have not already done so, institutions should establish explicit policies regarding the appointment, training, compensation, benefits, eval- uation, and career guidance of postdoctoral scholars. 4. In particular, institutions should establish a minimum salary/stipend level for all postdocs. Grant proposals should provide for regular increases in salary for postdocs, as they do for staff. All postdocs should also be provided with access to health insurance for themselves and their families. 5. Institutions should adopt guidelines for the duration of postdoctoral terms. Sometimes such terms may be exceeded under special circum- stances (such as illness, birth or adoption of a child, a need for exposure to multiple fields, or a need to finish a project that has reached an advanced stage). The postdoctoral term should include time spent in postdoctoral positions at any previous institutions as well as at the present institution. 6. There should be a general progression, as a postdoctoral term lengthens, toward more senior status, with commensurate pay and benefits (see Recommendation 1 in section on Funding Organizations). 7. The institution should periodically review the balance of interests among postdocs, advisers, departments, and the institution in order to assure that the legitimate educational needs and career interests of postdocs are being met. 8. Institutions should not encourage unlimited growth in the postdoctoral (or graduate student) population in the face of limited employment opportunities. Many postdocs (and graduate students) are funded by fed- eral grant mechanisms at least partly for the purpose of meeting investi- gatorsâ needs for laboratory workers. An alternative is to increase the number of permanent laboratory workers. 9. Institutions should maintain a postdoctoral office or officer to provide guidance, logistical support, information on postdoctoral policies, oppor- tunities for continuing education, and registration information for all post- docs. The institution should also designate an ombudsperson or other representative to provide counsel for postdocs (and advisers) and help arbitrate grievances. 10. Institutions should encourage each of their divisions and programs to examine their roles in the education and training of postdocs and in maintaining high standards of mentoring.
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 103 11. Institutions should require evidence that funding for a postdoc is avail- able before PIs are allowed to hire postdocs on research grants. 12. The institution should receive and keep on file a letter of appointment or contract signed by the postdoc, adviser, and institutional representa- tive. The letter should be accompanied by a statement of goals, policies, and responsibilities applicable to postdoctoral education, including the skills the postdoc should plan to develop to meet career objectives. 13. The institution should ensure that postdocs have guidance in career planning. If a career planning office exists, postdocs should have access to that office, ideally through an identified contact person who can pro- vide specific assistance. Although the adviser plays the primary role in career advising, an institutional office may supplement this function in numerous ways, such as providing the opportunity for postdocs to partic- ipate in interviews with employers; programs in resume writing, inter- viewing, grant writing, and other appropriate subjects; inviting alumni and visiting speakers (including those from nonacademic settings) to dis- cuss their careers; and providing information and materials. 14. Institutions should ask advisers to prepare a written evaluation of their postdocsâ progress/performance at least once a year. This brief evalua- tion could consider such factors as research progress and next steps to be taken toward achieving career goals. In addition, institutions should encour- age and provide opportunities for the postdoc to have multiple mentoring opportunities. Although some might question this activity as being too burdensome, if done properly it need not be extensive or time-consuming to have value. Examples include mentoring committees for each postdoc (analogous to a dissertation committee) and regular, informal presenta- tions of research with feedback from lab members, senior scholars, and visiting researchers. Such evaluations, strongly desired by most postdocs, help avoid confusion about a postdocâs standing, build a more frank and open advising relationship, and provide a meaningful way for the adviser to compensate a postdoc for research performed. 15. The special needs of foreign nationals should be addressed by a contact person in an existing or new office of international services. This person should have expertise in visa and immigration policies. 16. Each institution should encourage and financially support a post- doctoral association that serves the social, informational, and logistical needs of postdocs and provides a mechanism for them to communicate with institutional leaders.
104 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS Funding Organizations 1. All organizations that provide funding for postdocs should work toward a definition of a postdoc that recognizes the temporary nature of the appointment and can be flexibly adapted to fit institutional systems of nomenclature. Such a definition would help avoid problems related to âthe perennial postdoc,â provide a better understanding of the number and nature of postdocs, and improve accountability for the use of funds. COSEPUP recommends that definitions reflect the following common distinction: a. PhDs who are in years 1-5 of their postdoctoral research (primarily a training phase); b. After five years, postdocs who are essential to the labâs productivity should be appointed as staff members in an appropriate staff cate- gory. Such research employees would also be eligible to apply for their own funding. Placement in a given category should generally be based on the total number of years a postdoc has worked at all institutions as postdocs. It should not be based on the number of years after the PhD (or other doctoral-level degree), because this measure would unfairly exclude those applicants who delayed post- docs for various reasons (e.g., starting families, disadvantaged finan- cial background). 2. Each organization that provides funding for postdocs should have terms and conditions that apply to all postdocs supported by that funding. These terms and conditions should include the following: a. Appropriate salaries/stipends: Postdocs should receive stipends or salaries that are adequate and fairly adjusted to reflect their experi- ence. If adequate compensation is not provided by the funding orga- nization, the institution should appoint the postdoc only if supple- mentary funding is made available (see Recommendation 3e). Grant proposals should provide for regular increases in salary for postdocs, as they do for staff. b. Medical benefits: Postdocs should be provided with access to medi- cal benefits for themselves and their families. Every effort should be made to normalize these benefits for all postdocs at an institution regardless of their individual sources of funding. c. Travel: Postdocs should have sufficient travel funding to attend at least one professional meeting each year. d. Leave: Postdocs should be governed by explicit leave policies, includ- ing sick leave, parental leave, and holidays. e. Performance reviews: Postdocs should receive regular performance reviews, both for the benefit of postdocs and so that the funding
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 105 organization can better understand the quality and achievements of the postdocs they fund. f. Career planning: Postdocs should receive career planning guidance at the institution where they work. In addition, funding organizations can themselves form or encourage the formation of postdoctoral and alumni associations where current and former postdocs can network regarding future employment. g. Career skill enhancement: Postdocs, in consultation with their advisers, should be permitted to gain necessary extra-laboratory education and experiences that will enhance their skills development (e.g., teach- ing, class work) relative to the career they are pursuing. Advisers, institutions, and funding organizations must understand that such education and experiences are necessary to career development. h. Reporting and tracking: Funding organizations should track post- docs after they leave individual labs, to help determine whether that lab should continue to receive funding for postdoc training; funders already use the yardstick of post-appointment performance for train- ing grants. Tracking might be done via a web site, and should provide useful information, such as numbers, characteristics, and subsequent employment. When a postdoc experience ends, the organization can use a âvirtual exit interviewâ (or some other mechanism) to deter- mine the quality of a postdoc experience and to identify problems. Such reviews of outcomes may help federal organizations comply with the Government Performance and Results Act. 3. The NIH should establish a: a. Central office for all postdocs: Currently, the management of the postdocs supported by NIH funding is spread throughout the NIH. Most postdocs are funded under research grants, far fewer by the training program, and fewer still by fellowship programs. As a result, no single entity tracks the status and needs of this growing popula- tion or responds directly to their concerns. b. Stipend/salary scale for all postdocs: Regardless of its original pur- pose, many institutions use the NRSA postdoc stipend scale as the minimum for their postdocs. These relatively low stipends were orig- inally designed not as salaries but as cost-sharing stipends for NRSA trainees to offset the cost of living during training. Despite its limited intention, this scale has become the de facto funding standard not only for NRSA trainees (a small fraction of the postdocs supported by the NIH) but also for biomedical postdocs in general, regardless of whether they are funded by a training program or by the NIH at all. A consequence (albeit unintended) is that many postdocs receive inadequate compensation. The NIH, working with the NSF and other
106 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS federal agencies, should develop rational criteria for a pay scale or guideline for postdocs. Such a scale or guideline should be reviewed regularly. Also, any scale must be instituted both prospectively and retrospectively. Currently, NIH increases its stipend levels annually without supplementing existing grants, which leads to inequities. c. Standard postdoc definition: See Recommendation 1, above. This is particularly important for the NIH where the common use of âresearch associateâ does not differentiate postdocs from non-PhD researchers or others who may work in the same laboratories. d. Annual meetings with postdoc representatives: Postdocs, especially those supported on research grants, may have little or no contact with their funding organization. The NIH leadership should meet regularly with representatives of postdoctoral organizations to pro- vide a direct communication link between the funding agencies and postdoctoral associations (and the national network of associations being formed). e. Allow institutions and PIs the ability to combine the funding from the traineeship program and from NIH research grants so the PI may increase the stipend for postdocs without requiring an increase in the number of hours a postdoc must work. Currently, the NIH does not allow supplementation of NRSAs from research grants. In this situation and in others where supplementation is not allowed, a pooled system would introduce new flexibility to setting stipend levels. If PIs were allowed to supplement NRSAs, who are highly desirable contributors to the research process, the law of supply and demand might raise compensation levels in general. Raising salaries could slightly reduce the total number of postdocs, but higher pay could also increase postdocsâ status and focus greater attention on their training, productivity, and evaluation. 4. The NSF should establish a: a. Central office responsible for all postdocs: Like the NIH, no single office at the NSF follows postdocs (although there is an office for graduate students). In most cases, the postdocs are funded under research grants from the directorates, and in only a very small number of cases by fellowship programs. Postdocs need an informed person or office with whom to discuss concerns and, when necessary, grievances. b. Stipend/salary scale for all postdocs: See Recommendation 3b, above. The NSF should create a clear rationale for setting the stipend/ salary for postdocs funded on NSF grantsâeven for those funded by fellowship programsâand review the pay scale regularly. c. Improved definition of a postdoc: See Recommendation 1, above.
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 107 The NSF defines a postdoc on its grant proposals as an âindividual within five years of their PhD.â However, this definition does not apply to all postdocs nor, as noted above, does the use of a fixed number of years allow for valid exceptions due to various personal situations. d. Annual meetings with postdoc representatives: Postdocs funded under NSF research grants have no communication link with the organization that funds them. NSF leaders should meet regularly with representatives of postdoctoral associations (and perhaps the national network of associations being formed) to facilitate commu- nication with postdocs generally. e. A policy for the NSFâs Division of Science Resource Studies to gather data regularly for postdocs, as it does for graduate students. Underrepresented US minorities and women should receive particular attention, given a falloff in their participation in science and engi- neering after graduate school. 5. Private funding organizations, such as foundations, should play a larger role in encouraging best practices and setting appropriate stipend levels. Foundations can make the enhancement of the overall quality of the post- doctoral experience a top priority and encourage other foundations to do the same. In addition, they can be instrumental in convening postdocs for small professional and information meetings. 6. Non-governmental organizations and foreign governments should assume their own responsibilities for postdocs. Those non-governmental organizations or foreign governments that provide postdocs with low or partial funding should recognize that host institutions might not supplement these low stipends/salaries. Such organizations should require supple- mental funding as a condition of awarding such a fellowship and/or reduce the number of postdocs funded in order to raise the stipend/salary to an appropriate level. 7. Funding organizations should require that those seeking to support postdocs under training or research grants demonstrate their qualifica- tions for this responsibility. For example, they could be required (as is now sometimes the case for graduate students) to list their previous post- docs, what those postdocs have published, and where they are currently are employed. 8. COSEPUP supports the following recommendation from the Trends report: âBecause of its concern for optimizing the creativity of young scientists and broadening the variety of scientific problems under study
108 ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS in the life sciences, the committee recommends that public and private funding agencies establish âcareer-transitionâ grants for senior postdoctoral fellows. The intent is to identify the highest-quality scientists while they are still postdoctoral fellows and give them the financial independence to begin new scientific projects of their own design in anticipation of their obtaining fully independent positions.â1 Disciplinary Societies 1. Disciplinary societies should play a larger role in promoting the profes- sional careers of postdocs, especially by enhancing opportunities at pro- fessional society meetings. These opportunities include placing postdocs on the scientific program so they receive public exposure, providing travel grant support to attend meetings, inviting postdocs to serve on standing committees of the organization, sponsoring workshops for potential post- docs at major professional meetings, and inviting representatives from funding agencies to discuss funding mechanisms and issues. 2. Disciplinary societies should support job searches by postdocs, both by maintaining job lists and web sites, and by introducing postdocs to pro- spective employers, especially at annual meetings. They should invite outside groups to present information at their meetings, especially infor- mation about nonacademic and nonresearch careers. 3. Disciplinary societies should develop norms regarding the postdoctoral experience in their field that could be adopted by advisers and institu- tions in their field. 4. Disciplinary societies should collect and analyze data and provide the best available information about career planning and employment pros- pects for postdocs in their field. They should inform prospective postdocs (including beginning graduate students) about market demand and other issues of interest to those entering a research-focused profession. They might supplement or advance the practice by institutions and funding organizations of tracking postdocs through their careers. 5. Disciplinary societies should organize programs or workshops to advance professional skills. Topics might include grant writing, communication, CV preparation, and writing cover letters. Such programs could also offer junior researchers the chance to network with senior colleagues. 1Trends in the Early Career of Life Scientists, p. 85
PRINCIPLES, ACTION POINTS, AND RECOMMENDATIONS 109 6. Each disciplinary society should examine the purpose of the post- doctoral experience for its discipline, and ask the following question: What are the professional standards that our discipline demands at the end of the postdoctoral experience? Each society should be proactive in striving to have those standards met. Such standards could perhaps deter- mine whether a postdoc progresses from associate membership to full membership in the society. LOOKING TOWARD THE FUTURE The theme underlying this guide is that all parties to the postdoctoral experi- enceâpostdocs, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societiesâmust reach a clear, mutual understanding of the purpose of a post- doctoral position. Once such an understanding is gained, all parties can work together to enhance the postdoctoral experience. COSEPUP hopes this guide will help them to do so.