Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Reprints: 'Postdocs,' Seeing Little Way Into the Academic Job Market, Seek Better Terms in the Lab


Like most young scientists, Cheri Wiggs took a postdoctoral fellowship to get the laboratory experience she needed for a job in academe. But two years at the National Institutes of Health turned into four, and four into six, and still a tenure-track job failed to materialize.

Last spring, Ms. Wiggs began working as a grants reviewer at N.I.H. She returns to the laboratory one day a week now, to keep the door to academe open just a crack.

In the sciences, postdoctoral fellowships have become the terminal academic credential for a research career. The positions are supposed to be temporary, but they have amounted to a holding pattern for many young Ph.D.'s who are either unable to find permanent jobs in research or need more time to assemble the kind of publishing record that such a job now requires.

Working in the labs of established scientists, "postdocs" -- as both the positions and the people in them are known -- learn on the job as they perform much of the actual research done at U.S. universities.

Malinda Longphre began a fellowship in molecular biology at the University of California at San Francisco in 1996. Her position is up in October, but, she says, "I hear more and more people saying, 'So, what are you going to do for your next postdoc?' Apparently one is not good enough anymore, and you need a second. You keep putting your life on hold for the next step."

A report released in May by the Association of American Universities showed how predominant postdocs have become: From 1975 to 1995, it said, the number of postdoctoral appointees more than doubled, from 16,829 to 35,482. In the '70s, a new Ph.D. might spend a year or two in a postdoc before landing a tenure-track job. Today, a new Ph.D. can spend more than five years and hold a succession of such appointments -- and still fall short.

"Our greatest area of concern is the postdoc, because of the nebulous world they live in," says Bo Hammer, president of the Association of Science Professionals, a group of graduate students and recent Ph.D.'s. "They're not really students, they're not really university employees. The pay is low typically, and it doesn't lead to any commitment of a job in academe."

Ideally, he and others say, a postdoctoral fellowship is supposed to train a Ph.D. to become an independent scientist. Too often, though, the purpose is to provide an established researcher with cheap labor.

Postdocs are hired by individual faculty members with money from research grants; some postdocs pay their own salaries out of fellowships they have obtained, from N.I.H., for example. As a result, many institutions have little idea of how many postdocs are working on their campuses at any one time -- and most do not set campus-wide policies regarding their training, wages, or working conditions.

"Postdoctoral education today is almost exactly where Ph.D. education was in the 1890s -- very ad hoc," says Steven B. Sample, president of the University of Southern California and chairman of the A.A.U. panel that issued the report.

Universities cannot guarantee that a postdoc will lead to a job, but the A.A.U. hopes that institutions will at least begin to set uniform policies to guide how postdocs are compensated, how long they are allowed to stay in a fellowship, and how they should be advised. Mr. Sample has directed staff members to look into creating such policies at Southern California. "We have a duty of care to these people, to help them develop as researchers and help them find permanent positions," he says.

A small but growing number of institutions has already begun to improve the recognition and treatment of postdocs, including the University of California at San Francisco, the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, and the Johns Hopkins University. They were prompted by the grassroots lobbying of postdocs, who have created associations on those three campuses, among others.

Many postdocs say they have no complaints about the science they are learning in their labs -- it is often topnotch. What troubles them is feeling invisible on the campus. They are concerned not only about low salaries and poor benefits, but also about the lack of a grievance procedure when disputes over authorship or intellectual property arise in a lab.

Whether postdocs are treated and trained well depends almost entirely on the generosity and skill of the faculty member in charge of the lab. Stories of "postdoc hell" abound -- told anonymously, because people know that their future depends on a gold star from their advisers. "If you really boil it down, that's what you do a postdoc for -- a good letter of recommendation," says one former postdoc, who recalls that his faculty mentor seemed able to communicate only through shouting matches.

A postdoc at Einstein tells of working on a research project that is of little interest to the faculty member whose lab she has labored in for more than five years. The professor is the principal investigator (P.I.) for the grant that pays her salary of more than $30,000. "I get no intellectual feedback from him, which is no big deal, really, except that two heads are better than one," she says. "The problem is I wanted to collaborate with another faculty member, whose interests were similar to mine, and my P.I. wouldn't allow me to. You have to live within the paranoias and personality problems of your boss."

A former postdoc at San Francisco says she was the fourth Ph.D. in a row to leave her laboratory without a permanent job. Her faculty mentor would not show up for days on end. "My last year, I interacted with my adviser two or three times over the course of a whole year," she says, adding that she has been able to publish only one article. She has since taken another postdoc, to pump up her record.

Plenty of young scientists, on the other hand, say they have had terrific mentors.

"My P.I. was relatively enlightened," says Robert H. Rich, a senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, in Washington. His mentor let him leave the lab one day a week for an A.A.A.S. internship on science policy, which was Mr. Rich's main interest. The adviser "was willing to see that the purpose of the postdoc was to advance my career," he says.

Ms. Wiggs, the postdoc-turned-grants-reviewer at the N.I.H.'s Center for Scientific Review, has no sob story about her adviser, despite her finding no tenure-track job after six years at the lab. Her postdoc was in the laboratory of Alex Martin, a senior investigator in cognitive neuroscience at N.I.H.

"I got to do what I wanted," says Ms. Wiggs, who did both behavioral studies and neuro-imaging in Mr. Martin's lab and has 20 published articles on her vitae, all but one of them co-written, as is common. "I got to pick my projects. There were no issues about authorship, ever. And when I was pregnant, he was the one who told me, 'Take six months off.' He was just a real human being."

The admiration is mutual. Mr. Martin calls Ms. Wiggs "spectacular" and says, "The only reason she didn't land a research position is because she limited her job search," for personal reasons, to the Washington area. She agrees, but thinks that she lost out on at least one job because she didn't have a grant. "They're not just looking for the brightest and the best," she says. "They're looking for the brightest and the best with funding."

Mr. Martin takes on only two postdocs at a time because he knows he would have difficulty supervising any more than that. He takes his role as a mentor seriously, and is regularly evaluated on that basis at N.I.H. "One of the problems going on," he says, "is big labs' having lots of postdocs, and people not having a close enough relationship with their mentor."

Postdocs are "absolutely dependent" on that relationship, says Stuart Murray, a co-leader of a two-year-old group of postdocs at Einstein. "If your relationship with your supervisor fails, you're stuck. In many cases, there's a reluctance to blame the P.I., and it's the postdoc who is seen as at fault." Mr. Murray says he gets on well with his boss, but he also knows that his contract is subject to annual renewal. "That's quite a sword over your head."

The Einstein Postdoctoral Association got under way in 1996, when two postdocs who used to commiserate over lunch decided to see if their colleagues had similar concerns. Paula E. Cohen and Fiona J. Pixley called a meeting; more than 60 of the roughly 340 postdocs at the school showed up. "Some of the things were stupid on the face of it," says Ms. Cohen, a molecular biologist who has worked in Jeffrey Pollard's laboratory at Einstein since 1993. "Graduate students got free e-mail, postdocs didn't. While some P.I.'s would pay for e-mail for their postdocs, others wouldn't. And some people who had e-mail access had to share it with 15 people."

Gaining even minor perks makes postdocs feel like they belong, says Ms. Pixley. The college's season tickets to Yankees and Mets games used to be available only to faculty members and graduate students. "Now we're on the list, too," she says.

More important, she says, is the strength of the advising: "When the job market is easy, you don't need much guidance. But when it's tough, it should be the responsibility of the faculty member to look after the welfare of the people in his or her lab. That's been sadly lacking."

Einstein has had an institute to oversee postdocs since 1978, but its main function was administrative. Two years ago, the college gave it a new mandate and asked Dennis Shields, a professor of developmental and molecular biology, to take charge. Since then, he has secured free e-mail accounts for every postdoc, established a housing policy to provide subsidized housing for up to three years, and instituted a comprehensive health plan.

Sometimes, Mr. Shields says, postdocs are partly to blame for their own predicament. Advanced graduate students need to consider the atmosphere of a lab before they agree to work there. "If you need a lot of mentoring, don't go to a lab where the person is going to be flying around going to major meetings, because he won't be there," he says. "The most important thing to consider is the quality of the science and productivity of the lab, but secondly is your compatibility with the P.I."

To prevent young Ph.D.'s from becoming career postdocs, some institutions have placed limits on the number of years a fellowship can last. At Stanford University, the positions are limited to three years, with a fourth-year extension available for people who need to finish up their research, says Carol Vonder Linden, assistant dean of research and graduate policy. Some postdocs whose work requires more than four years are named "research associates," she says.

Margaret Levin is in her fifth year at Stanford, working in the lab of Susan McConnell on a project examining how the brain forms in mammals. To stay on for the fifth year, she took on the title of part-time research associate. "She only pays me part time," says Ms. Levin, who works about 60 hours a week, "because if she paid me full time for the actual years' experience I have, it'd be about $40,000, and she just can't afford that. So I'm making $30,000 before taxes."

Ms. Levin's beef is not with her adviser -- whom she calls "very accessible" -- but with Stanford, which asks postdocs to register as students and pay tuition if they want health benefits through the university. The quarterly tuition fee is $865. Ms. Vonder Linden calls the fee appropriate, since Stanford views a postdoc as advanced academic training.

"It seems really weird that you'd be charged tuition as a postdoc," Ms. Levin says. "Nothing I do feels like a student. You try to do something that benefits the lab and something to help you strike out on your own, that hopefully doesn't compete with the work of your adviser."

Some postdocs, she says, have found a way around paying tuition: "You register for a quarter as a student. Then you quit and become a visiting scholar and get covered under COBRA for health insurance for the next 18 months." (Told that Ms. Vonder Linden was unaware of that shortcut, Ms. Levin responds, "Of course they haven't heard of it. They wouldn't approve.")

At the University of California at San Francisco, the three-year-old Postdoctoral Scholars Association is pushing the administration to institute a registration fee for postdocs. It would be paid by their supervisors and used to expand services for fellows. The university has already set minimum compensation standards for postdocs and required faculty members to provide them with health benefits.

Working with professors in several departments, the association has organized a course for postdocs, "The Practice of Science." It has been offered three times so far, at no charge to the participants, and covers such issues as research ethics, alternative careers, and lab management.

The department of medicine at Johns Hopkins has also developed a curriculum for its postdocs. A year ago, the department created an office to oversee its 300 to 350 postdocs and help them to feel more like a part of the operation. This academic year, all new fellows will attend a series of seminars on bioethical issues and the fundamentals of basic and clinical research.

David M. Levine, associate director of the department and head of the new office, also serves as a grievance officer for postdocs. He received about 60 complaints in the first year, 40 from postdocs and 20 from faculty members. All but two of the complaints were resolved within a few days. "It's people who feel they aren't being as well-treated as others in the lab, or feel they are contributing more than they are getting credit for, or don't feel they're getting the feedback they want -- it's a wide range," he says. "The two serious cases dealt with feelings of people being harassed -- not sexually, although that could come up, but that they weren't being treated professionally."

Dr. Levine says faculty members in the department have few objections to his role as an ombudsman, because it wasn't something imposed on them. "We are carrying out what we as a department wanted to see come about," he says.

Adam Book, a fellow in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins, is co-president of an association of postdocs at the university. He says that administrators have been responsive -- adopting minimum salary guidelines, for example. His group is still lobbying for office space and better career counseling.

Old attitudes die hard, though. One day recently, Mr. Book heard that free coffee mugs were being handed out in the main lobby of the university's hospital, to celebrate its being rated first in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. A staff member handed him a mug but then reconsidered. She said she had been told not to give the cups to postdocs, because they weren't employees. "I already had it in my hand," he says. "I wasn't going to give it back. It's just a little thing that sums up how we're treated."


Copyright (c) 1999 by The Chronicle of Higher Education. Posted with permission on Science's Next Wave. This article may not be published, reposted, or redistributed without express permission from The Chronicle. To obtain such permission, please send a message to For subscription information, send a message to

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers