Perspectives From NSF on the Postdoctoral Experience


I appreciate the opportunity to write an article for this "policy debate" sponsored by Science?s Next Wave, and I commend Next Wave for its ongoing work on an important national resource: postdocs.

My contributions to the postdoc production debate are framed by the NSF?s vision statement, which reads: "Enabling the nation's future through discovery, learning, and innovation." NSF pursues this vision through three ends: people, ideas, and tools.

People --

?Developing a diverse, internationally competitive and globally engaged workforce of scientists, engineers, and well-prepared citizens?

Ideas --

?Enabling discovery across the frontiers of science and engineering, connected to learning, innovation, and service to society?

Tools --

?Providing broadly accessible, state-of-the-art and shared research and education tools?

These goals are the stock in which NSF invests, and they all relate directly to NSF?s role in supporting scientists and engineers at the postdoctoral stage of their careers. However, I will focus on postdocs within the context of the ?people? goal.

NSF currently supports more than 5500 postdocs. The great majority (more than 95%) of these postdocs are supported through research, center, and facility grants. Their compensation and the conditions of their training are established by the proposing institution.

The remaining 250 or so postdocs are supported through specific NSF programs for postdocs. These programs are strategically designed to promote postdoctoral experiences in critical areas of research and education, including, for example, emerging research areas, preparation for careers in academe and industry, and broader participation in science and engineering fields. Salaries in these programs range from $33,000 to $45,000. One of my goals is to increase these levels. Setting the bar at a minimum of $45,000 seems eminently reasonable as part of an overall compensation package for postdoctoral scientists.

But there is much more to this issue than just salary and benefits. The postdoctoral experience should provide the postdocs the skills necessary to pursue their career goals as scientists, mathematicians, or engineers. Many postdocs will enter traditional academic research and teaching careers, but many more will embark on other careers. Large fractions will enter industry and government. Others will remain in academe, but not in the traditional research setting that was the model for postdocs a generation ago. The postdoc experience should provide individuals the guidance and preparation they need for the career path they choose.

In fact, this should be the guiding principle to judge the quality of a postdoc?s training: is it providing the scientific and professional skills that will advance their professional career? If a postdoc?s experience is not founded on this principle, NSF should not support it.

Another important need that impinges on this debate is increasing the participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities in our science and engineering talent pool. This lack of broad participation threatens the future of our nation. Although we often speak of this issue separately, this broadening of participation in fact must be at the core of what we do. Broadening participation should not be an add-on, but rather a mechanism through which we strengthen all that we do.

The Administration and the Congress have embraced the goal of developing the nation?s future scientists and engineers. A clear indication of their leadership is the recently adopted increase in stipend levels for graduate students. Now is the time to give postdocs that same degree of leadership and commitment.

The NSF sets its priorities in light of continual consultation with the research and education communities. New programs are added or old programs enhanced only after NSF has sought the collective wisdom, expertise, and insight of these communities. Thanks to Next Wave, as well as other forums and reports, we are obtaining important and useful information. It is in this context that I highlight these areas for discussion:

  • Compensation packages for postdoctoral scientists, including funds for professional development and health benefits

  • The role of federal agencies in leveraging their research support to improve the postdoctoral experience

  • Effective practices to build national models for the postdoctoral experience

  • Development of a ?postdoc package,? including compensation and quality of training, against which individual institutions can measure the postdoctoral experience they provide.

In closing, I thank AAAS and Science magazine for creating the Next Wave forum. This has helped to bring vital issues and questions to the fore. It has given us a mechanism for exchanging extremely valuable ideas and information. I very much look forward to continuing our work together.

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