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Growing force. Led by an explosion in the life sciences, postdocs have become a major force in academic research over the past 20 years.

Better Treatment of Postdocs Urged

U.S. academic labs offer the best of scientific opportunities for postdocs--and the worst working conditions. That's the conclusion of a committee of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering and the Institute of Medicine, whose new report validates complaints by postdocs of low pay, poor benefits, and lowly status. While the report lends its considerable weight to efforts to provide how postdocs are treated, it takes no position on the burning issues of whether postdoc salaries should be raised and whether there should be caps on the size of the workforce, which has more than doubled in the past 20 years to an estimated 52,000 (see graph).

The recommendations are contained in a guide issued this week. The panel, chaired by Maxine Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, concludes that postdocs are "indispensable" to U.S. science and a major reason for its success. But low pay and uncertain job prospects have made them disgruntled. An electronic survey conducted by the committee documents both the relative poverty and the precarious status of postdocs. For instance, only about half of their academic employers provide them with vacation time and sick leave, and almost 60% give advisers complete control over the length of postdoctoral appointments.

The panel urges institutions to adopt a common definition for postdocs and policies for their appointment, training, compensation, evaluation, and career guidance. It also emphasizes that faculty should view postdocs as "apprentices" who require mentoring, rather than as a "pair of hands" to carry out research at the bench. As for pay, however, it says only that their compensation "should be commensurate with their contribution to the research."

Academic administrators and science managers give the report high marks. "I think the scientific community would be well advised to take these recommendations very, very seriously," says Michael Teitelbaum, program director for the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which helped pay for the study. But some scold the panel for not speaking out more forcefully for improvements. "They don't want to alienate the university faculty, who would have to pay higher salaries out of their grants," says Letitia Yao, a former chemistry postdoc and current staff member at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, who helped form one of the first postdoc associations at the University of California, San Francisco. "It all comes down to money: If institutions were paying postdocs 45 or 50 thousand [dollars], they'd also treat them right. You wouldn't even need a guide."

Related sites
The Web Guide to Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers
The Postdoc Network