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Report Flags Postdocs' Problems

A major new survey of the career paths of young scientists has found that the postdoctoral fellowship, not the Ph.D., has become the testing ground for many who aspire to academic positions. The growing importance of the postdoc phase obligates universities and federal agencies to do a better job of nurturing this important but historically invisible segment of the scientific community and monitoring the quality of the training provided, concludes the report in tomorrow's Science (p. 1533). The study accompanies a 20-page special section on the status of postdocs around the world and efforts to improve their professional standing (pp. 1513 to 1532).

Maresi Nerad and Joseph Cerny, graduate school administrators at the University of California, Berkeley, tracked down almost 6000 Ph.D.s in six fields from 61 U.S. universities whose degrees were awarded during a 3-year period in the 1980s to learn about their career progression. They found that the prevalence of postdoc positions often deferred long-term goals: In biochemistry, for example, the average researcher was tenured at age 39, after spending nearly 4 years as a postdoc, with 40% doing multiple stints. Overall, almost twice as many Ph.D.s do a postdoc now as was the case 30 years ago, and it lasts almost 50% longer. "It's a short-term positive way to support research," says Nerad, "but it may be a negative strategy in the long run. Is a postdoc that lasts more than 2 or 3 years really necessary as additional training" to be a professor?

The authors suggest that universities adopt policies to regulate the treatment of postdocs, including designating "a central authority for postdoc affairs," placing more emphasis on career development, and setting a maximum of 5 years at the postdoc level. They also propose a national review of the problems facing two-scientist couples in hopes that solving them may allow the country to take "greater advantage" of this talent pool.