Survey of Surveys I: What Postdoc Association Surveys Tell Us About Postdoc Working Conditions

"An important first step is for institutions to take a census of their postdoctoral populations. Many institutions, especially universities, have no accurate count or counting mechanism."

So urges the National Academies? Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) in a recommendation to institutions, articulated in its 2000 publication Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers .

The Association of American Universities' (AAU's) Committee on Postdoctoral Education made a similar recommendation in its 1998 report, suggesting that periodic surveys be conducted by each institution "in order to assure that the legitimate educational needs and career interests of [its] postdocs are being fully met."

Network Nugget

Several articles on postdoc surveys have been published in the Postdoc Network section and other parts of Science?s Next Wave. Most surveys have been carried out by postdoctoral associations (PDAs), but institutions, professional societies, and funding agencies have also played a significant role in assessing the postdoctoral experience. Please see the Postdoc Network Resources page for links.

But postdoctoral associations (PDAs)--and not their institutions--have taken on much of the burden of surveying postdocs on their needs and interests. Some PDAs have even conducted a door-to-door census of their institution?s postdocs.

Comprehensive quantitative descriptions of the postdoc experience and relevant campus policies and practices do not exist at most institutions, and certainly not at the national level. Following the suggestions of the participants at the First National Postdoc Network meeting and in an effort to begin formulating a national perspective, the Postdoc Network has now analyzed surveys from 12 different PDAs.

Institutional Demographics

Eight of the 12 PDAs were at universities (five of which were private) and collected data from across academic departments, divisions, and schools. PDAs at two private medical schools, one non-academic research institute, and one non-U.S. science funding agency also completed surveys.

Six of the PDA studies were from the 25 institutions identified by COSEPUP as having the largest total number of postdoctoral appointments. The PDA survey response rates ranged from 18% to 70%. Five of the surveys had returns of between 20% and 30%, and another five reported a rate of 35% to 42%.

Survey Design

Several surveys indicated that their questions were analogous to those asked on other PDAs' surveys. However, Next Wave?s analysis found that the questions were, at best, similar only in intent. Eleven PDAs gathered data on multiple topics, including demographics, training, access to resources, and child care, as well as health, dental, vision, disability, and life insurance. One survey focused solely on affordable basic health care. Results from nine of the 12 surveys examined are publicly available, or will soon be (see sidebar).

There is little evidence to suggest that the COSEPUP or AAU recommendations compelled the surveys. Indeed, several surveys predated these reports. The first survey examined in this analysis was completed in 1997, with a subsequent survey each of the following 2 years. Two surveys were conducted in 2000, five in 2001, and the final two in 2002.

The appearance of PDA surveys suggests an increasing interest in assessing "the legitimate educational needs and career interests of postdocs." Many of the PDAs that conducted these surveys describe the assessment process as complicated, technical, and time- and labor-intensive. Yet, they also note the importance of these efforts, as well as the professional and personal rewards that accrue.

DA Surveys Available Online

Baylor College of Medicine Postdoc Association

Brown University Postdoctoral Association

Case Western Reserve University Postdoctoral Researchers Association

Rockefeller University Postdoctoral Association

Stanford University PostDocs Association

University of California Davis Postdoctoral Scholars Association

University of Chicago Biological Sciences Division Postdoctoral Association

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Postdoctoral Association

University of Washington, Seattle Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center Student/Postdoc Advisory Committee

Professional Development

Almost two-thirds of the PDA surveys asked about career plans. The majority of the respondents (51% to 72%) across the studies indicated that they currently aspire to or began their postdoc appointment with the intent of pursuing an academic career. However, few postdocs (8% to 27%) reported that they had taught during their appointments. Half to three-quarters (50% to 75%) would like teaching assignments in order to meet their career objectives, confirming this incongruity in expectations versus outcomes.

Given the disconnect between expectations and preparation, it is not surprising that the survey findings also suggest that PDAs focus on career-advising services, such as organizing and sponsoring relevant skill-building workshops, career seminars, and Web-based materials and resources. Such a role might compensate for what is perceived, by at least a third to half of the respondents, as inadequate departmental or adviser expertise and mentoring concerning postdocs' career-development needs.

Performance evaluation is another career-development area covered by half of the surveys. Despite frequent meetings with advisers, fewer than a third of the respondents reported receiving at least one, formal, written performance assessment annually.

Salary and Benefits

Salary and benefits surfaced as a postdoc concern in three-quarters of the surveys. Postdocs view their compensation as low in light of their contribution to the research enterprise. Postdocs with dependents believe they receive an insufficient living wage. PDA survey results indicate that almost two-thirds of the postdocs have non-child dependents (including spouses and domestic partners), and between 25% to 50% of the respondents have children.

Up to a third of the reported salaries in the surveys conducted in the 1990s are less than the de facto NIH 1998 minimum standards, based on years of experience. The same ratio is seen in the surveys completed from 2000 to 2002, in which up to a third of the reported salaries are lower than the October 2000 NIH minimums.

The salary data also show uneven distribution. Several of the survey analyses note that the extant salary scenario with its differentials, supported by implicit consent of all the stakeholders, involves a complex set of factors, including employment classification, field, gender, citizenship, duration of appointment, and policies at the departmental, division, and granting-agency levels.

Most of the surveys point out uncertainties and inequities in benefit programs offered to postdocs. In some surveys as many as 50% of respondents indicated they were unaware of their benefits. A majority of married respondents reported that their partner covered or supplemented their benefits. Similar to the compensation scenario, postdoc benefits coverage is not standard policy at many of the universities. Postdoc Network readers know that much of the confusion is tied to diverse postdoc funding sources and employment classifications, which set different benefits coverage (for example, for faculty, students, and temporary staff), including premium payments and dependent coverage.

Although most postdocs may report satisfaction with their medical health care coverage, few postdocs receive dental and vision coverage, and even fewer get retirement, disability, and life insurance. Weaknesses in these benefit options seemed to correlate with increasing numbers of postdocs either paying for these benefits themselves or forgoing medical services. A similar situation existed for child care assistance: Very few postdocs across all the studies received child care subsidies or had access to child care services.

Rating the Postdoc Experience

While dissatisfaction is evident throughout the survey results, most recorded that 70% to 92% of respondents were satisfied with their research experiences in the lab and with the technical exchange they have with their advisers. More specifically, the survey data indicate that most postdocs would recommend their institution to others. The few others would not because of low salary, poor benefits, and a perceived lack of respect for postdocs in the academic enterprise.

The fact that substantive disgruntlement coexists with positive attitudes among the postdocs working in academe may raise questions about survey validity. However, the phenomenon is reminiscent of widely cited studies, for example, of members of the U.S. public who consistently support their own elected officials and the teachers of their children, while simultaneously voicing discontent with the larger contexts and systems in which the elected representatives and faculty are complicit.

Tracking Progress

The survey findings from these different institutions suggest a general lack of consistent standards for and expectations of postdocs. The significance of the postdocs? concerns finds support, in part, in responses to questions about the roles of PDAs. The majority of respondents want their PDA to provide information about postdoc rights and benefits, and to take on stronger postdoc advocacy and greater representation in the institution?s management affairs. Seventy percent of respondents at one institution acutely illustrated their dissatisfaction by indicating they were favorably disposed to organizing a union.

The Postdoc Network urges all the stakeholders--colleagues, institutional postdoc staff, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies--to continue these surveys in order to refine the data and build an accurate profile of the postdoc community nationwide. A shared vision is one of promise that a credible, quantitative database will serve as the foundation supporting necessary reform initiatives and as a baseline from which to track progress.

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