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Postdoc Production: Negative Selection of the Scientists of the Future?

P ostdocs are newly qualified research scientists, free from the restrictions of the graduate schools from whence they came and the administrative burdens of faculty positions to which many aspire. As the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy wrote recently, "Postdocs are central to this nation's global leadership in science and engineering. It is largely they who carry out the sometimes exhilarating, sometimes tedious day-to-day work of research. It is largely they who account for the extraordinary productivity of science and engineering research in the United States. Many among them will discover fundamental new knowledge" ( 1).

Postdocs are a population of individuals that has slipped between the cracks of the recognized workforce of the scientific community. Not graduate students, not faculty members, and not staff scientists, the roughly 50,000 postdocs in the United States are an undefined, heterogeneous group of "apprentice" scientists. In the majority of cases postdocs do not benefit from the clarity of employment conditions of other scientists; they generally do not have well-defined expectations of employment rights, pay commensurate with experience and education, or even normalized pay scales. In addition, often there are no performance evaluations; often no pension plans and other employment benefits (such as health insurance) offered to other workers at the same institution; or procedures for resolving problems. And commonly their opportunities for career progression are limited.

The apparent contradiction of these two descriptions comes as little surprise to those of us in the scientific community. With such an obvious disparity--widely acknowledged in a burgeoning mass of surveys, publications, and speeches from all sides of the scientific community, from junior scientists to top levels of government--the question is "What can be done to remedy the situation?"

Making the postdoctoral position into a regular job (as opposed to a "traineeship") could resolve many of the problems that are widely acknowledged in the current postdoctoral arrangement. Currently the academic career progression goes from graduate student, to postdoc, to staff scientist in some institutions, then on to assistant, associate, and full professor. This system has worked well historically, but since the recent explosion of the postdoc class, there are mounting problems in carrying on with this system. Why not expand the position of staff scientist to include postdocs? The transition from the postdoc's current unclear status to being a regular employee of the institution in which she or he works could benefit postdoctoral scientists, the labs they work in, and, I would argue, scientific research itself.

While this short essay could not possibly go into all of the logistics, demographics, and organizational changes that such a transition might entail, it will, hopefully, provide some compelling arguments in favor of making the change. Currently, academic research is the only profession that seems to discourage the best and the brightest from entering it. Academic science offers Ph.D. graduates in the process of choosing careers a little over half the salary of alternative options, few if any employment benefits, no guarantee of the quality of their postdoctoral experience, and, at best, an uncertain career progression beyond the postdoc.

Three of the major factors involved in choosing any career are salary, security, and status. Currently, postdoc pay is not commensurate with experience; postdocs can sometimes be hired and fired at will, and the status of postdocs is undefined. At present, the majority of institutions do not enforce a minimum standard salary for postdocs. While making the postdoctoral position into a job might not do much to increase salaries for postdocs, it would at least provide a uniform or more reasonable pay scale across the academic sector, similar to scales already existing for assistant and associate professors.

If the postdoc position was considered a regular job, the security and status issues would diminish, as the researcher would benefit from the usual employee rights and benefits in the work environment. A pertinent example might be admission to employee pension plans: My ad hoc poll of postdocs around me indicates that only half of them are admitted to the institute's pension scheme--and this only becomes useful if they stay at the institute more than 5 years (quite a challenge with institution guidelines typically limiting postdoc positions to a maximum of 2 to 3 years), while the other half--who for the most part have successfully attained their own grant support--are excluded completely from the pension plan. Does this make sense? Another example (just one more among many) is that roughly half the postdoc population has families, yet there are no standard provisions for maternity or paternity leave for postdocs. Often it is left to the discretion of the postdoctoral advisor. Clearly postdocs, who have usually studied for upwards of 8 years, should be entitled to some of the rights and protections of regular employees.

Furthermore, in my opinion the unstructured way the postdoc experience is set up tends to discourage the best practices of scientific research and training. Currently the major yardstick by which postdocs are judged is their publication track record, as there generally are no formal performance appraisals for postdocs. For this reason postdocs are discouraged from attempting long-term or high-risk projects that might lead to significant scientific discoveries and advances in the field. Instead they are encouraged to take the safer path, performing less challenging, more routine experiments in order to assemble the number of publications necessary to take the next step in the career progression. Is this the best way to train the scientists of the future? As formal employees of institutions, postdocs would have regular reviews and appraisals of performance that would track their performance in addition to their publication output, and they could attempt challenging projects without the fear of losing their careers if the results do not pan out within the usual 1-, 2-, or 3-year postdoc timeframe.

In addition, as post-postdoc career progression depends almost entirely on published data, do we consider it reasonable to allow the underlying nature of the specific entities we study to determine who makes a career in science and who does not? For example, postdoc A and postdoc B, who are equally bright and hardworking, are studying unknown systems X and Y, the understanding of which will have far-reaching implications in both cases. System X turns out to be relatively simple to explain and postdoc A successfully publishes the data in the pages of Science and goes on to be recruited by a top department. System Y turned out to be very complex. Postdoc B was not successful in publishing and could not progress in his or her career in science. Although simplistic, this example demonstrates that we need to have more to rely on in hiring than just a publication record. A history of performance reviews could go a long way to helping with this problem.

Americans value scientific research and technological development for the contributions they make to the continued economic prosperity and health of the nation. Government and private-sector funding of research and development is undergoing unprecedented growth, which leads to a hunger for even more postdocs. Yet the current postdoctoral arrangements seem to be discouraging talented graduates from becoming academic scientists and may not be fostering best practices in the scientific endeavor. Making the postdoc into a job could be a significant factor to encourage more of the best science graduates to enter and stay in the profession, improve the quality of science performed, and help to ensure a great scientific future.

Avi Spier is a postdoc, and was Chair of the Scripps Research Institute's Society of Fellows.

1. Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies (Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy, National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, National Academy Press, Washington D.C., 2000).

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