Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience

Perspectives

MAXINE SINGER

Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience

The growing population of postdoctoral scholars needs better working conditions, compensation, and benefits.

In recent years, this nation’s science and engineering research has come to depend increasingly on the work of postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs: junior researchers who have a Ph.D. and are pursuing further training in research. It is largely these postdocs who carry out the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tedious, day-to-day work of research. Many of them will go on to uncover fundamental new knowledge, chair prestigious academic departments, and form the fast-growing technology companies that power our economy. It is largely they who account for the extraordinary productivity of science and engineering research in the United States.

And yet the postdoctoral experience is not all it should be. The National Academies of Science and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), which I chair, has recently studied the subject, and in September 2000 we issued a guide entitled Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers (National Academy Press, 2000). During its study, the committee heard from many postdocs who have had stimulating, well-supervised, and productive research experiences. But it also heard from postdocs who have been neglected, underpaid, and even exploited; who have been poorly matched with their research settings; and who have found little opportunity to grow toward independence or to benefit from the guidance of a mentor.

At some institutions, notably universities, the definition of postdoc is vague and can vary considerably. Most postdocs and their appointments, however, have the following qualities: The appointee has received a Ph.D. or doctorate equivalent; the appointment is viewed as occupying a training or transitional period preparatory to a long-term academic, industrial, government, or other full-time research career; the appointment involves full-time research or scholarship; and the appointment is temporary.

The population of postdocs has roughly doubled in the past 20 years to an estimated 52,000. About three-fourths of them work in the life sciences, where postdoctoral experience is virtually required for most advanced positions, whether in industry, government, or universities.

Most postdoctoral appointments are in university settings, where postdocs’ status is most likely to be uncertain. Although postdocs in industry and government laboratories tend to fit smoothly into preexisting categories, those in universities are often neither faculty, staff, nor students. Consequently, there is often no clearly defined administrative responsibility for ensuring their fair compensation, benefits, or job security. Postdocs often receive no explicit statement of the terms or duration of their appointments and have no place to go to determine appropriate expectations or to redress grievances. Commonly, the sole person to whom they can turn is the researcher who hired them and on whom they depend in their current positions and for assistance and support in moving on to independent careers.

The committee learned of other unfortunate outcomes of the rapid growth of the postdoc population under these irregular conditions. The annual compensation for first-year postdocs can vary by tens of thousands of dollars, depending on field and type of institution, even when the levels of talent, responsibility, and output are virtually the same. At the lower end of the range, which is typical of the life sciences and some of the physical sciences in academe, pay is embarrassingly inadequate, especially for those with families, and is not comparable with that received by other professionals at analogous career stages. There is no standard health benefit package for postdocs; in fact, many receive no health benefits for their families, and some have no health coverage for themselves.

The information gap

In our investigation we found surprisingly few data on the postdoctoral experience; to those we found we added information of our own, gathered through workshops, a nationwide survey, and some three dozen focus groups. Here are some common questions about the postdoctoral experience, and the answers we found:

How long does a postdoctoral appointment last? The median term for all postdocs is about 2.5 years, but terms vary widely by field. In engineering, a year is usually enough; in the life sciences, the median stay for postdocs is 3.5 years, but many stay for 5 years or more. Terms for physical scientists are usually 2 years (chemistry) or 3 years (physics), but some physical scientists remain postdocs for 6 years, and a few remain indefinitely in an undefined postdoctoral category.

Today’s postdoctoral experience has many marvelous aspects, and these must continue. But it also has elements that are not working well, and these should be improved. COSEPUP hopes that this new guide will help to maintain the vigor, excitement, and leadership of the U.S. research community while ensuring maximum opportunity for all.


Maxine Singer, the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, is chair of COSEPUP.