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Three Reports Tackle the Postdoc Mess

The plight of early-career scientists has come under exceptional scrutiny in recent weeks as three major scientific institutions each released a report on the postdoc system. The National Research Council (NRC) led off in mid-March 2005 with Bridges to Independence: Fostering the Independence of New Investigators in Biomedical Research.

Then in late April the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Sigma Xi weighed in, respectively, with Postdoctoral Appointments: Policies and Practices -- Report on a Workshop and Doctors Without Orders: Highlights of the Sigma Xi Survey. The three studies do not agree on the best solutions or even on what the real problem is. They propose fixes ranging from incremental improvement to radical surgery. But their near-simultaneous appearance suggests that the postdoc issue may finally be reaching critical mass among the nation's science policy elite.

Sigma Xi and NSF take a relatively incremental approach and reach some rather similar conclusions. Sigma Xi's Doctors Without Orders presents long-awaited answers from more than 7600 postdocs at 46 institutions to questions about demography, income, attitudes, and work life. This report provides the first real data on the national postdoc population.

NSF's Postdoctoral Appointments summarizes a 3-day November meeting at which postdocs, faculty members, university administrators, and representatives of funding agencies and professional societies explored how NSF -- and, by implication, other funders -- could improve the postdoc experience and better prepare young scientists for their subsequent careers. Though suggesting reforms, both these reports implicitly accept the main features of the present postdoc system.

The NRC's Bridges to Independence, on the other hand, takes a more critical look and proposes more radical change. Conducted at the behest of the National Institutes of Health, the study asks a different question from the other two. It focuses not on improving the welfare of the mass of scientists within today's postdoc system, but on how that system affects the health of the nation's overall research enterprise. The NRC study finds current practices not just seriously deficient but also an actual threat to the nation's supremacy in the life sciences.

Only decades ago, it states, American researchers got jobs that permitted independent research by age 30 or even earlier. Today, graduate school and postdoc appointments last so long that scientists don't start their careers as fully independent investigators, as indicated by their first competitive NIH grants, until an average age of 42. This delay creates a "crisis of expectation" among young scientists that has two "severe and troubling implications," according to the report: It lessens the opportunity for originality during the years widely considered among the most potentially creative in a scientist's life, and it discourages many of America's brightest students from even pursuing careers in science.

Rather than seeking ways to lessen the dissatisfaction of the 60,000 postdocs laboring in the nation's labs, the report urges NIH to refocus resources on speeding into independent research the several hundred considered likeliest to make their generation's signal discoveries. To accomplish this goal, which it views as essential to the nation's continued scientific vitality, the report recommends reallocating funds and changing policies in ways that would create earlier independent research opportunities for a few biomedical scientists, but could cause considerable and painful disruption for many others.

A Crisis of Cross Purposes

The basic contradiction that lies at the heart of the present postdoc system is not resolved by any of the three reports. The present system serves two purposes that in some ways conflict: training the independent investigators who will hold professorships at major research universities, and simultaneously providing skilled staff for the nation's academic labs. The national research effort depends on a continuous supply of low-cost, highly motivated, and highly skilled postdoc labor; yet only a small minority of those young scientists will ever land one of the tenure-track research university jobs for which postdoc positions supposedly prepare them.

The glue holding together the two parts of the increasingly creaky system -- and the rationale for thousands of men and women with a decade or more of university study to accept salaries that according to the Sigma Xi data average $38,000 ($7000 less than the average earnings of a similarly aged college graduate) -- is the widespread but usually futile hope of becoming an independent university researcher. Over 2 decades ending in 2001, the percentage of scientists holding tenured or tenure-track appointments 5-6 years after completing their Ph.D.s fell from 34.3% to 14.4%. Yet, despite these longstanding realities of the academic job market, fully 38% of respondents told Sigma Xi they were "relatively set in their plans" to work "in a research university." The inevitable "mismatch between expectations and likely outcomes" accounts for the "troubling undercurrent of malaise" among postdocs, the Sigma Xi report suggests.

Facing Reality

The fact that the great majority of postdocs must become something other than tenure-track faculty members at research universities -- and the difficulties, both emotional and practical, that many face in preparing for this reality -- were major themes of the NSF workshop's deliberations. Far too many postdocs find "at the end of their appointments that there are too few job openings where they expected to work, and that they lack many of the skills needed for other professional scientific careers," the NSF report states.

PIs and institutions share -- but often fail to fulfill -- the responsibility of helping their postdocs develop those skills, the report states. It urges NSF to adopt policies encouraging or even requiring universities and PIs to develop the facilities and programs needed to provide postdocs training in areas such as management, writing, and career planning. "An important measure of the success of the postdoctoral experience is not only useful research results," the report states, "but also the development of an individual capable of functioning as an independent professional," whether in academe or another career that uses scientific expertise.

Preparing postdocs for the careers that actually await most of them rather than the one so many wish for will require universities, PIs, and postdocs themselves to make better use of the postdoc period, the NSF report continues. It therefore urges a change in attitudes toward the postdoctoral appointment itself, with postdocs, PIs, and institutions all viewing it as a temporary, time-limited period that includes, in addition to research, effective career preparation. A particularly useful device for accomplishing this, the NSF report proposes, is the Individual Development Plan (IDP), a technique widely used in industry to clarify goals and expectations and evaluate progress. NSF would greatly improve the experience of many postdocs, the report suggests, by mandating that each postdoc, in conjunction with his or her advisor, create and use a formal IDP.

The Sigma Xi survey, in perhaps its most striking finding, gives strong empirical support to the value of the kind of "structured oversight" that an effective and properly used IDP would provide. "Postdocs reporting the greatest amount of structured oversight and formal training are much more likely to say that they are satisfied, to give their advisors high ratings, to experience relatively few conflicts with their advisors, and to be more productive in terms of publications compared to those with the least oversight and training," the report states. Remarkably, "adding a written plan that covers both postdoc and advisor responsibilities and regular, formal reviews" produces a difference in satisfaction roughly equivalent to "salary differentials of $20,000."

Whether it best serves the nation's interests to seek to improve working conditions for the mass of postdocs or to foster the creativity of a small cadre of the most favored young scientists -- or whether both goals can be pursued at once -- are questions that these reports do not (and, in fairness, cannot) answer. Nor do the reports explain how the nation would continue to recruit the low-paid but highly skilled lab workers necessary to scientific progress if the majority of young scientists did indeed put to rest their hopes for a faculty job when their training finally ends.

That today's postdoc system -- which grew up as an accidental consequence of government policies focused on other goals -- needs serious change is inarguable. Figuring out what form that change should take will require extensive and searching debate, however. Given the variety of the concerns that these reports raise, the quality of the thinking they represent, and the prestige of the scientists and organizations that produced them, they ought to be a real help in getting the discussion going.