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, , 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.”

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):

  1. “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).”
  1. “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

  1. the branching point—the point at which many Ph.D. scientists choose nonresearch careers—should come before the postdoc.

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.

‘Age is an advantage’

The National Academies revisit the postdoc experience