Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Looking Forward, Looking Backward

Most Aprils, it's the cherry blossoms that draw the crowds to Washington, D.C. But this year, people from across the country gathered on three consecutive days at two of the capital's most prestigious scientific venues to discuss the past, present, and future of America's postdocs.

On the 16th, the National Academies of Science (NAS) hosted 252 interested parties--including postdocs, representatives of university programs and funding agencies, members of the media, and a small number of principal investigators--at its august main building facing the National Mall. On the 17th and 18th, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) attracted more than 160 to the elegantly modern headquarters of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

A Continuing, Multifaceted Discussion

Conveners at NAS's Second Convocation on Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers were officially charged with evaluating developments since the publication 4 years ago of the landmark book by the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) that examined the postdoc situation and recommended improvements. NPA, meanwhile, was holding its second annual meeting. But because the overwhelming majority of those who attended the NPA meeting had also been at the convocation, the second gathering served as a kind of follow-on to the first. The entire 3 days became a continuing, multifaceted discussion of everything to do with postdocs.

Day after day, certain themes sounded in scheduled presentations from the podium, in questions and comments from the audience, in breakout session discussions, and in informal chats in the halls and over meals: the uneven quality of mentoring; the failure of many universities to provide services to postdocs; the difficult and uncertain transition from postdoc positions to real careers; postdocs' often ambiguous status and often inadequate compensation and benefits; and the deteriorating position of postdocs from abroad.

At the same time, however, speakers noted significant progress in the past few years. NPA chair Carol Manahan, for example, noted in her welcoming remarks to NPA the increasing number of postdoc offices and associations on campuses across the country, the spreading movement to limit postdoc appointments to about 5 years, improvements in compensation and benefits at a number of institutions, and the growth of NPA itself, which now has more than 40 institutional members, with a combined enrollment topping 27,000 postdocs as well as more than 300 individual members.

In welcoming participants to the NAS convocation, Maxine Singer, retired president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the chair of COSEPUP, also cited examples of progress, among them the "very productive" union negotiations conducted by University of Connecticut Health Center postdocs, which should serve as "a wake-up call to mentors." Her "one disappointment" about the convocation, she noted, "is that there are so few PIs registered today." The tenured faculty members in whose labs the postdocs work need "increased awareness that this is an issue that is not going away."

Not only were mentors--with a few notable exceptions--absent from the meeting; but effective mentoring appears to be absent from the lives of many postdocs, as speaker after speaker noted. Mentoring means more than supervising lab work, stated Convocation keynote speaker Shirley Malcolm, head of the Directorate for Education and Human Resource Training at AAAS (which also publishes Next Wave), who serves as PI on the Sloan Foundation grant that currently funds NPA. Instead, true mentoring involves "taking a deep interest in a person's development as a scientist and a citizen of the scientific community." It includes guiding postdocs toward career options that are realistic, attainable, and suitable to the individual's abilities, goals, and aspirations. Even after the postdoc period ends, a good "mentor keeps you as part of the family," Malcolm said.

Lack of effective mentoring, she noted, is only one aspect of the "holding pattern" in which many postdocs find themselves, in some cases for as long as 7 or 8 years. Another is the "disconnect" between the needs of postdocs and PIs, which Jonathan Weist of the National Cancer Institute (and winner of an NCI award for outstanding mentoring) cited in a talk at the NPA meeting. The postdoc period should be "first and foremost an apprenticeship," Singer said. But, Weist reported, many PIs bringing new postdocs into their lab, Weist said, "are hiring for a job" and seeking "a pair of hands" rather than committing to a trainee.

Indeed, it is because of the progress and activism of recent years that "the expectations" of many postdocs "have moved on" past that type of arrangement, whereas the "expectations of many mentors have not," said Ruth Kirschstein, special adviser to the director of the National Institutes of Health, during a talk at the NPA meeting. (She also received the association's distinguished service award at a reception in her honor.)

Today's situation is a far cry from the experience of postdocs in decades past described by Singer during her keynote address at NPA. During the 1930s, postdocs worked on their own research rather than their lab chief's; paying postdocs out of a professor's grant was strictly forbidden as it deprived the researcher-in-training of independence. Until the 1960s, young scientists who chose to become postdocs (and most did not) stayed in that status for a year or two, then established themselves as independent investigators well before they left their 20s. Singer, for example, who got her Ph.D. in the mid-1950s, had a regular NIH position and her own lab at the now-unthinkable age of 27. And this, she said, was not unusual.

Terminal de facto credential?

By the 1970s, however, increasing numbers of labs had come to count on postdocs as inexpensive skilled labor. By the 1990s, the age of scientific independence was climbing drastically, Singer observed. (At the NPA meeting last year, David Burgess, biology professor at Boston College, claimed that no investigator younger than 35 received an NIH grant.) Singer shared her fear that the rising age of newly independent investigators may negatively affect the quality of science. For better or worse, a postdoc position is now the "terminal de facto credential" in the life sciences (although not in some other fields), Trevor Penning, associate dean of postdoctoral training at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPA.

Worsening financial realities, meanwhile, present PIs with "unprecedented challenges" that will hamper their ability to meet postdocs' rising expectations, predicted one of the few PIs present, Phil Clifford, associate dean for postdoctoral training at the Medical College of Wisconsin, in a talk to NPA. "The ivory tower is getting worn and dingy [and] the provost sold the ivory ... to build the new administration wing." Academia is now "a business," with labs run as "sole proprietorships" expected to develop lucrative intellectual property. Competition for grant money has meanwhile become ever "fiercer." Overall, Clifford said, the situation "is going to get worse."

"No one designed the present system. It just happened," Singer told NPA, adding that perhaps "it isn't wise" to allow this system to continue if it has serious flaws. Incentives derived from the past continue to shape modern behavior, and the time has come for a serious look at possible changes in the incentive structure, she suggested. "The central issue is the long training" that life scientists now undergo, with graduate students taking more years than in the past to obtain the doctorate and new Ph.D.s spending previously unprecedented stretches as postdocs. Trying to deal incrementally with different specific issues, which doesn't grapple with the whole problem, may constitute "what President Bush calls 'swatting flies,' " Singer opined.

Malcolm, on the other hand, stated in her NAS talk her view that a thoroughgoing rethinking of the postdoc system is unlikely in the foreseeable future. Reexamination of particular federal policies, for example those concerning postdoc salary and benefits and the need for PI mentorship, strikes her as a more feasible project. Other speakers noted that the situation's extreme complexity also hampers change. Any alteration in practice can have an array of unexpected consequences. Awarding individual grants to postdocs, for example, which many favor as a means to greater independence, would deprive institutions of the overhead payments they depend on, Penning observed.

In 3 days of lively talk, the two gatherings fulfilled their official objectives. The NAS convocation documented many instances of progress since the COSEPUP study, noted areas still in need of improvement, and generated many new ideas. NPA, meanwhile, celebrated the enthusiasm and energy of its growing membership and worked on a lively agenda for future activism. COSEPUP plans to post a transcript of the proceedings on its Web site around the middle of May.

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