Postdocs, Post 9/11 (Part 2)

M.R.C. Greenwood gave the keynote address at the Third Annual Meeting convened by Next Wave's Postdoc Network. A renowned scientist and chancellor of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Greenwood is also chair of the NRC Office of Science and Engineering Policy Advisory Board, and was an Associate Director for Science at the Office of Science and Technology Policy. This article, along with part 1, which was published on 18 July, is extracted from her address on 16 March 2003.

The production of Ph.D.s in the United States has gone up only modestly in recent years. Yet in 1988, more than half of all postdocs were U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Now, the situation has been reversed: More than half of all postdocs in the U.S. are from abroad. Postdoc job pressures, especially in the research-run universities, are a result of the convergence of a modest increase in graduate production, but a very substantial increase in the postdoctoral pool, something that most of you who are postdocs probably don't need me to tell you.

Some institutions in this nation are growing. The number of faculty positions is increasing. The University of California system is in that enviable position. We are having a budget crisis, but we're still hiring hundreds more faculty members. We are projected to hire almost 7000 new faculty members over the next decade. The University of California, Santa Cruz, which is the smallest of the nine main campuses except for Merced, which doesn't yet have students, will be hiring close to 600 faculty members over the next decade, about 350 for new positions and the rest from expected retirements. This is good news for many young scientists who will eventually fill these positions. But many other young scientists will end up working in other areas.

Contradiction in the Dialog

There has long been a contradiction in the dialog about graduate and postdoctoral education. Most of the discussion about graduate education and the postdoc has been focused on research, when it has always been the case that a majority of students do not go on to research universities. They go into other careers, extremely satisfactory careers.

I said [in part 1] that I needed to move my laboratory from Vassar in order to remain competitive, but that was my own personal experience. Vassar has now attracted a large number of very talented scientists, younger scientists with research careers that are doing just fine there. They are publishing well, getting promoted, going to national meetings, and they're enjoying their careers.

There is also a greater likelihood of spending your career in a research position in a variety of different settings, including, increasingly, in technology-dependent businesses around the country. As a result, the work of the university, with respect to research, has been restructured. We have not yet acknowledged that it has been restructured, but it has been restructured. We need to redefine the work of the university, what types of careers need to be included, and included in a much more explicit and proactive fashion than we currently do.

We have done this in other aspects of the university. I'll pick an example that you'll all think I'm crazy for picking, but it's actually a very clear example. It used to be that the people who were involved in student affairs in the university were just nice folks that had worked in the area. This is no longer true. People who work in student affairs in research universities and other places, most of them now have counseling degrees, almost all have master's degrees, and a substantial number of them have Ph.D. degrees. It's a permanent position within the university. We also have created all kinds of positions in universities that are permanent positions for technologically competent people. There's probably a center for teaching excellence at all of your institutions. Most of those are being run by Ph.D.s and they're being staffed, in many cases, by people who have Ph.D.s. Now they're not necessarily doing research, but they're employed by the university in permanent positions that we recognize as important.

Need for More Researchers at Universities

Are today's complex research questions evolving now where we need stable teams? If so, the importance of holding at least a part of the team together, over a period of time, is going to require us to define more permanent research positions within universities.

At the University of California, Santa Cruz, we direct the University of California Observatories. At Santa Cruz, we did the mirrors for the telescopes, so we have one of the most advanced optics laboratories and optics fabrication facilities in the world. Bausch & Lomb and similar places can't grind these mirrors. It's very specialized, technical work. In this and other areas of science, you need very sophisticated engineers, and these needs don't go away. An individual grant may end, yet these folks need to be kept. It doesn't make sense to have short-term postdocs trying to meet these kinds of needs. In addition to the established faculty and other established positions, we have other jobs within our universities that we need to be thinking about in the same way

The postdoc should, I think, be an opportunity to secure advanced training and to make the transition from graduate student to independent investigator. It shouldn't be a holding pool, forever.

Postdocs are not getting the mentoring that they need. The postdoc provides a reservoir of very well-qualified candidates for academic positions, and other professional positions as well. But is the university structured to ensure that the postdoctoral experience includes training and assistance in making a transition into the next position? Or is the postdoc, instead, merely a convenience for the investigator, a place on which we focus too little pedagogical attention?

Laboratories are generally not competent to advise postdocs or graduate students about how to move into environments other than the ones they're already familiar with. There is good technology transfer between the university and biomedical research industries, and in some others, particularly computer science. Often this results in university students and trainees moving into industry. But in other cases we're not doing very well. Most faculty members, unless they've had the fortunate experience that I had of being able to work in the White House for a couple of years, really don't know how to advise people about moving into government positions, or into other things.

New Structures for Grad Students and Postdocs

So we need some new structures. At Santa Cruz, we've been thinking about putting in place something we're calling Graduate College, which would allow us to provide a structure and a community for graduate students and postdocs, but give us a very specific way in which we could offer not just career counseling but really specific, tangible benefits, like certificates in advanced college teaching, certificates in instructional technology, certificates in laboratory management, labor relations, and so on.

Here are some other things that the University of California is going to propose. The proposals are to limit the time as a postdoc to a 5 year, total, anywhere. After 5 years, there's no prohibition on the individual staying in the laboratory. But the postdoc would then have to become a regular research employee with regular research-employee wages and benefits at that level.

UC is going to require, with few exceptions, that all of the postdoctoral fellows be 100% time and paid at least a minimum salary. This will mean there will be no more of those hidden postdoc positions where people are being paid less than they should be. And both employee postdocs and fellows will have access to health insurance for themselves and their families. You heard earlier that there are some legal barriers to simply putting everybody together. So the objective here is to try to have a fair and balanced program that people can depend on, and that as postdocs move among fellowship and laboratory support, they won't see this as a change in their status or in their family's status with respect to benefits. That's the objective.

I think that we have as much data as we need to enable us to understand the fragility of the postdoctoral experience. And we now have, hopefully, the determination to stabilize it and regularize benefits so that these creative young individuals--or not so young, as somebody has pointed out--will have the ability to contribute to the environments that they're in and the opportunity to move on into different career paths, whether they're as professors, in the university in other positions, in policy, in industry, or helping us to build a more effective K-12 education system.

Lessons From the National Academies Report

The postdoc report from the National Academies goes through who needs to do what. Academic administrators can help to identify and institute campus policies for identifying and tracking postdocs, whatever they may currently be called, and ensuring a certain level of stability in their lives and benefits. Faculties have a very serious set of responsibilities and pedagogical issues to address. When you are trying to run a lab you are always juggling funds. There is never enough money for all the good ideas that you've got, and you are--and this is something in my view we don't teach our graduate students and postdoctoral fellows well enough--you are basically running a small business. You have to be able to fund that business, meet your milestones in that business, and create the next generation. And though I think we've done pretty well with the first two items, I'm not convinced that we're doing so well with the third--creating the next generation--and I think we need to convene thoughtful faculty members to talk through, with postdocs and graduate students, what we need to enable effective postdoc training. Are there travel grants? And are there activities at the annual meetings to help postdocs, in particular, make the transition from postdoc to independent researcher?

What faculty and the rest of us need to focus on is that the purpose of a postdoc is to ensure the next step to a career. And if the next step is to an independent research career, then you have to be very careful to nourish within your laboratory opportunities for independent first authorship, to create a line of research in your laboratory that, once the postdoc moves away from it, is tangibly theirs for the foreseeable future.

Preserving and enhancing the research creativity of the nation's young researchers is the single most important long-term strategy for ensuring our nation's security and ensuring that we create the infrastructure necessary to keep the bright minds in our country, to continue to attract bright minds to our country, and then to ensure that those that we have educated are competent to work outside the academy, in an international environment, because many of them will not be cloistered in an individual university for the rest of their careers. They will be expected to participate in an increasingly international arena for science and an increasingly international arena in industry and in policy as well.

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