Shadow People No More: New Report Puts Postdocs in the Light

Washington, D.C.--Shoddy working conditions, poor mentoring, and "embarrassingly inadequate" compensation for Ph.D. scientists are unfortunate but long-standing traits of the postdoctoral workforce, the National Academy of Sciences reported earlier this week. Their most recent publication-- Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers--released at a press briefing on 11 September, is an attempt to oil the wheels of reform in a culture that often perpetuates substandard working conditions for postdocs.

Other than the need to improve the postdoctoral experience of many of the 52,000 postdocs across the U.S., Maxine Singer, chair of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), which wrote the report, believes if the U.S. is to develop "a healthy research enterprise" then postdoctoral employment conditions must be "significantly improved."

The much-anticipated 184-page guide sets out how to do just that, suggesting that those wielding the "most power"--advisers, research institutions, and funding agencies--strive to rectify problems that fuel neglect and exploitation of postdoctoral researchers. The committee's recommendations (of which there are over 50) are geared toward standardizing the terms of postdoctoral appointments across the U.S. while enriching the postdoctoral experience. Ambiguous definitions of postdoctoral positions, lackluster supervision, and unspecified terms of employment are some of the problems COSEPUP highlights.

Defining the Problem

To improve current conditions, the committee says it is important to arrive at a definition of "postdoc." They suggest that postdocs be defined as Ph.D.s who have no more than 5 years of postdoctoral experience. But because not all new Ph.D. graduates go straight into postdoctoral positions, the committee suggests that definitions should not be based upon the number of years after graduation. To COSEPUP members, postdoctoral positions are primarily apprenticeships.

Science's Next Wave is committed to enhancing the postdoctoral experience. To that end, we have secured funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to develop The Postdoc Network--a new section of Next Wave we will launch in November this year. The site will provide postdocs, associations, and universities with a central online center in which to share ideas, discuss issues, and best practices. Communication is key. Click here to find out more, or e-mail Emily Klotz for details.

But regardless of what definition these scientists eventually become classified under, they must shoulder "the primary responsibility for the success of their experiences," the report states. It is up to Ph.D.s to properly understand the expectations of their future postdoctoral positions--and it is down to lab heads and institutional departments to clearly describe those expectations.

Postdoctoral Stipends

But explicitly detailing the terms of appointment is not enough: COSEPUP members also think federal postdoctoral compensation is "still too low for optimal functioning." (The current National Research Service Award stipend for starting postdocs is $26,916.) Even so, many universities regard the NRSA stipend scale as a standard by which to set minimum payment levels.

In light of the fact that neither the National Institutes of Health nor the National Science Foundation share a common benchmark for establishing stipends, COSEPUP members recommend these agencies "develop rational criteria for a pay scale" that is reviewed regularly. The committee did not specify what they would consider to be a reasonable stipend range or how such a range might differ geographically, or between disciplines. Nevertheless, this recommendation may now put pressure on the NIH and NSF to increase payments, which in turn might propagate similar changes in institutional pay scales for postdocs.

Evaluations and Virtual Exit Interviews

To really understand whether postdocs are content with their salaries and appointments, the committee recommends getting feedback from the postdocs themselves. While more than two-thirds of nonacademic organizations consider performance reviews standard practice, almost half the academic institutions questioned in a survey conducted by COSEPUP said they do not officially review their postdocs. Singer believes that without formal evaluations "some postdocs may be uncertain about their standing or progress." The committee recognizes that such mentoring is an important part of the postdoctoral experience and proposes that good mentoring practices be tied more closely to the grant approval process.

Survey of Organizations with Postdoctoral Scholars

COSEPUP surveyed 25 academic institutions in the U.S. that had the largest numbers of postdocs, as well as governmental labs and industry, to get a better sense of postdoctoral employment conditions. Some of their findings include these responses from the 40 respondents:

  • 12.5% of institutions classified postdocs as faculty; 12.5% considered them students; 40% called them employees and 50% were regarded as fellows.

  • 70% say job placement is a dual responsibility of the adviser and postdoc.

  • 36.7% of academic institutions say funding determines medical benefit availability.

  • 0% of nonacademic organizations (N = 10) said funding determines medical benefit availability.

  • Almost half the academic institutions do not provide vacation time for all postdocs.

  • 70% of all organizations had staff on hand to deal with needs of non-U.S. and foreign postdocs.

  • 57.5% of institutions did not have organizations available to postdocs.

Although committee members did not say there are plans to include evaluations as supportive documentation in federal fellowship grant submissions, the committee did suggest postdocs sit "virtual exit interviews" to help determine "the quality of a postdoc experience and to identify problems." The idea is to give postdocs the opportunity to complete online questionnaires maintained by funding agencies' Web sites. Such procedures would enable granting organizations to better judge "whether certain labs should continue to receive funding for postdoc training."

Early Feedback

The COSEPUP guide "finally puts together the things that postdocs knew existed," says Arti Patel, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. And because the guide is being heralded by the National Academies--whose authoritative voice bellows across the country--many feel reform may soon be on the way.

"I am very excited about this," exclaims Pauline Wong, president of the Johns Hopkins University Postdoctoral Association and a postdoctoral fellow. Although she is "very enthusiastic" that the report is out, she has a few questions concerning the recommendation that advisers could appoint postdocs as staff members (after 5-year term limits end). "This is tricky," she mulls. "Does this mean postdocs enter another limbo stage? Does this move postdocs into nontenure track positions? Who'd be funding their research?" she asks. Questions aside, Wong feels the guide lifts the lid on the plight of postdocs--"We're no longer the shadow people!" she exclaims.

"I'm very glad to see these recommendations," enthuses Levi Watkins, dean of postdoctoral programs at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "We have to start recognizing this neglected community" in order to bring about change, he explains.

Implementation Might Be Tough

Even though Watkins is one of the most influential figures in Hopkins's postdoctoral community, he has found it tough to motivate faculty: They have been slow to act on guidelines he issued in August 1999 to standardize the terms of appointments for the university's 1000-plus postdocs, for example. "Once something is passed, many people go back to the status quo," Watkins observes. "You have to maintain the enthusiasm of passing [guidelines] with the enthusiasm of action," he says. COSEPUP should take note of experiences similar to Watkins': Implementation may be a long, arduous process.

Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers

From Science magazine,

Report Urges Better Pay and Conditions (15 September 2000, p. 1854).

The report "does not say how to implement these guidelines," points out Singer, but rather it highlights the areas that need attention. "To be effective, the reforms will need to be collaborative endeavors," she concludes. The committee will reconvene next March to discuss how the guide has been digested by the scientific community and whether or not implementation of its recommendations is proceeding.

Those kinds of efforts have to come from local commitment, adds Watkins. "You need to have a committed and outspoken administration and absolute decency for your academic family ... then change will happen."

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