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New postdoc report covers familiar ground

“Concern about the postdoctoral training system has been gnawing at the research community for decades.” So starts the report, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, issued today by the U.S. National Academies. It’s the sequel to the seminal report from 2000, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers. “The sources of uneasiness,” the report continues, “have changed only slightly over time.”

Another thing that has changed only slightly over time is characterization of the postdoc problem and proposals to address it. The postdoc experience in the United States continues to need significant reform, the report states. Only a minority of the postdocs working in university labs have opportunities to receive high-quality training from eminent senior researchers, develop their own research ideas, gain experience in lab management and grant writing, acquire contacts and a publication record and, ultimately, move into a tenure-track position at a research institution. This mirrors the conclusions of the 2000 report, which said, “In some cases, the postdoc is poorly matched with the research setting; in others, there is little opportunity for growth toward independence, guidance is poor, or a mentoring relationship fails to develop.” Those who hold fellowships or training grants at universities are much likelier to have a positive experience than the majority of postdocs, who are supported by their adviser’s research grants, the new report says.  

For those postdocs with positions in industry or at national laboratories, the experience often provides a sound basis for moving into a permanent career. For the majority of postdocs, however—those supported by professors’ research grants and working in university laboratories—the postdoc years generally do not provide high-quality mentoring, movement toward scientific independence, adequate compensation and recognition, or guidance toward establishing a permanent career. The contours of the “normal” postdoc experience are hard to discern or document, however, because lack of adequate data on postdocs and their outcomes has rendered the picture “foggy,” the report states.

The report is the latest in a series of studies going back to 1969, and each one has declared the need for change and proposed specific reforms. The current document observes that, especially since the 2000 report, a number of positive steps have occurred, such as establishment of postdoctoral offices at many universities and increased use of individual development plans to help postdocs clarify their career options.

Since then, however, the number of postdocs—and the percentage supported on professors’ grants rather than the more effective fellowships or training grants—has risen sharply. Growth in the number of faculty posts hasn’t kept pace. There has been little progress toward providing adequate data about the postdoc population at universities, a deficiency that observers often have noted over the years and that has impeded analysis for decades. Evidence is also lacking that the majority of postdocs are receiving even marginal, let alone adequate, training and mentoring.

As in previous reports, the expert committee that authored this document (which was chaired by Gregory Petsko, Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience  at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City) makes a number of proposals (emphasis in original):

  • “Postdoctoral appointments for a given postdoctoral researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances. This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience, though extensions may be granted in extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness).”
  • “The title of ‘postdoctoral researcher’ should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.”
  • “Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.”
  • “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] should raise the NRSA [National Research Service Award] postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars), and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries. In addition, host institutions should provide benefits to postdoctoral researchers that are appropriate to their level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees ... [including] health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.”
  • “Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.”
  • “Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers.”

The report does not directly address the question of whether the current supply of postdoctoral trainees is appropriate to the number of research positions available. Several of the report’s conclusions and recommendations, however, seem to suggest that, at least in some fields, the number of postdoc positions should be reduced. In particular, the report asserts that

  • the postdoc should be an advanced research training experience—not, it is implied, broad training for a wide range of careers;
  • new faculty posts have not kept pace with the number of postdoctoral scientists in training, so there are, at least in some fields, far more postdocs than available research jobs;
  • the postdoc should not be a default choice for new Ph.D. recipients;
  • postdoc salaries should be substantially higher;
  • the branching point—the point at which many Ph.D. scientists choose nonresearch careers—should come before the postdoc.

Together, these assertions and observations appear to suggest that in fields where currently the ratio of postdocs to available research positions is especially high, the number of available postdoctoral positions should be reduced. We asked committee Chair Petsko to comment, in an e-mail interview, on whether the committee intended to imply that there should be fewer postdoc positions. “[That’s] not for us to say explicitly,” he replied. “[T]he number of postdocs any given field ‘needs’ is, I think, a decision each community needs to make for itself, considering the factors you listed certainly, but also some field-specific ones as well. Such a conversation almost never takes place, especially in the life sciences; maybe it will now. As for me, I would not be surprised if, in the life sciences, which is the area I know best, that was the conclusion reached were such a conversation to be held.”

The proposals in the new report have all been made before. But circumstances have changed, and awareness and acceptance of the issues addressed in the report have never been higher. Whether these recommendations will have a greater effect than in the past remains to be seen.