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Postdocs at the Tipping Point

For those who aren't familiar with it, the "tipping point" is a concept from epidemiology (popularized by the best-selling book by Malcolm Gladwell) that suggests that small changes accumulate innocuously until a critical mass is reached, at which point a large-scale, irreversible change occurs in the system under study. There is reason to think that the institution of the postdoc is approaching a tipping point.

Over the past 10 years, more and more attention has been paid to the quality of the postdoctoral training experience in the U.S. Many studies and reports, numerous conferences, meetings, and symposia, as well as a range of internet-based resources, clearinghouses, and networks have emerged. This rise in postdoc visibility has been accompanied -- and to some extent precipitated -- by the explosive growth in the number and influence of postdoc associations and postdoc offices at research institutions across the country. An important consequence of this increased attention on postdocs and postdoc issues was the formation and rise of the National Postdoctoral Association ( NPA).

Founded in 2003 by a small group of local postdoc association leaders, the NPA rapidly has become the pre-eminent leader of and advocate for postdoctoral scholars. The NPA now has 67 sustaining-member organizations, comprised of postdoc associations and offices at institutions hosting nearly half the postdocs in the U.S.

The NPA has provided a voice for postdocs at more than 100 national and regional meetings, conducted scores of interviews with national media outlets, produced a growing library of resource materials (available on their website), and hosted three annual meetings that brought together postdoctoral advocates from around the U.S. to advance postdoc causes. They have also forged alliances with many of the leading national organizations in science and higher education, relationships that will be crucial for progress in the years ahead.

At the same time, the NPA has been working tirelessly for national and institutional policy changes that would have a direct and positive impact on the quality of life for postdocs and their training experiences. This work, conducted together with their partner organizations, has resulted in the adoption of portions of the NPA's recommended practices by more than 70 institutions.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has modified some of its postdoctoral fellowship programs to foster a greater emphasis on mentoring, training, and independence. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently increased the institutional allowance for the Kirschstein National Research Service Awards (NRSAs) to partially cover the rising costs of health insurance for postdocs. The Departments of Homeland Security and State have altered some of their regulations and procedures to reduce barriers experienced by international postdocs seeking positions in the U.S. All of these changes were aggressively pursued by the NPA, working in concert with its allies. With so many players working for similar goals, it is impossible to assign definitive credit for advances, or blame for failures. Yet few would dispute that the NPA has contributed to the progress that's been made in recent years.

These national policy changes, however, have only nibbled around the edges of a much larger problem. As the NPA hears over and over again, the main issue for postdocs is the disparity between career expectations and outcomes. To be more specific, postdocs are counseled to expect a tenure-track faculty position at a research university if they do "all the right things." This counseling is both explicit -- you cannot get a faculty position without completing a postdoc -- and implicit: Principal Investigators (PIs) assume that the postdocs in their labs are being prepared to do the same kind of work that they are doing.

The career outcomes for most postdocs do not adhere to these expectations. While unemployment rates for Ph.D. scientists remain very low, the majority have not attained the type of position they had originally envisioned and been trained to perform. Related issues for postdocs include the lack of adequate training, professional development opportunities, mentoring, and career guidance at most institutions. Quality of life issues such as compensation, benefits, status, and working conditions continue to be a concern.

While quality-of-life and training issues lend themselves to institutional and national policy initiatives, the issue of disparate expectations and outcomes is harder to tackle. This disparity is at the very heart of the scientific enterprise, the culture of higher education, and the economics of research in an increasingly competitive global environment. Indeed, the interests of postdocs (and other science trainees) and the long-term interests of science are inextricably linked. Postdocs are the future of science. If the scientific community, of which the NPA is a vital part, does not address these issues proactively, then the ultimate victim will be the U.S. scientific enterprise itself.

The mismatch between the postdoctoral training experience, which is geared toward preparing individuals to work as PIs running their own research labs at academic institutions, and the actual career pathways of most postdocs in the 21st century, is somewhat easier to address, though it is far from easy. Compounding the mismatch is the criticism that in many labs, this type of pre-professional training is not taking place at all, and that many postdocs are being used as a form of highly skilled but inexpensive labor to conduct the research that drives the economy.

The leadership of the NPA recognizes that these are systemic problems knitted into the very fabric of the scientific culture. Some advocates for change have called for a radical revamping of the research grants that fund the majority of postdoctoral researchers in this country. Since training is not a required component of these grants, the thinking goes, why not prohibit PIs from employing graduate students or postdocs on these grants? Let the PIs hire staff scientists at a living wage with full benefits, and treat them like employees.

Under this scenario, the existing training grants and fellowships offered by NIH and NSF would remain intact, or perhaps increase. Postdocs participating in these training programs would be treated as temporary apprentices with access to a broad range of programs, services, and experiences to advance their professional careers as independent researchers. The alternative to this scenario is another radical notion: that all postdocs funded on research grants are entitled to training, and therefore PIs should be required to plan for this in their applications and be held accountable for the outcomes of this training in their evaluations.

The NPA believes that both of these proposals have merit, but that altering research grants to require a training component for postdocs is a more realistic short-term means for addressing the problem. The NPA's position is consistent with the recent recommendations of the National Research Council, and is an idea that they have been pursuing for the past three years through their many interactions with the NIH and NSF leadership.

Changes like this have some support within the leadership of the funding agencies, but getting them implemented will be difficult. Those who favor such changes, including forward-looking policy makers, administrators, and postdocs themselves, need a strong advocate -- such as the NPA -- to pressure these organizations to push these changes through. The NPA will continue to do its part to push for changes that lead postdocs and postdoc issues to the tipping point.

But the NPA can't do it alone. In order for the NPA to succeed in this long-term effort, they must have greater involvement from individual postdocs; they must have their financial support as well. The NPA has benefited greatly from the early support of its principal funder, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the sponsorship of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). But the 3-year grant from the Sloan Foundation will expire at the end of 2005, and it is not in the best interests of the association or of postdocs for the NPA to be dependent on the generosity of the AAAS and other societies over the long term. Without the active support and involvement of a broad swath of the postdoctoral community, the NPA will not be able to sustain its efforts.

Critical mass is building; the tipping point approaches for both the NPA and for the issues most important to postdocs. Postdocs must now choose either to maintain the status quo or to work for positive change through the now-established channels, namely the NPA and institutional postdoc associations.

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