Report Calls Postdocs 'Neglected' and Proposes a Series of Reforms to the System
By ALISON SCHNEIDER
An unacceptable number of postdoctoral fellows are "neglected, even exploited," and across-the-board reform is long overdue,
according to a report released on Monday by the National Academies. Changes advocated by the report include capping the
length of the postdoc experience at five years, raising salaries, and strengthening the mentor system.
For the past year, the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy -- a joint committee of the National Academy of
Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine -- has been studying the employment conditions
for the 52,000 postdocs currently working in the United States. The committee didn't like much of what it saw.
"Many postdocs have stimulating, well-supervised, and productive research experiences," said Maxine F. Singer, the chairwoman of the committee and the president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. "However, we also heard from
postdocs who are neglected, underpaid, and even exploited. We heard from postdocs who are poorly matched with their research setting, some who find little opportunity to grow toward independence, and some who do not benefit from adequate guidance by a mentor."
And the numbers are growing. From 1981 to 1998, the number of people doing academic postdocs in science and engineering more than doubled, the report noted, rising to 39,000 from 18,000.
The National Academies talked to 39 focus groups at 11 universities; surveyed 39 research institutions; and held a workshop for more than 100 postdocs, advisers, and administrators before issuing its report: Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience
For Scientists and Engineers. The nearly 200-page report assesses the sorry state of the "invisible university," as postdocs are often called, and includes 10 central suggestions for change.
And a lot needs to change, the report said, particularly the "uncertain status" of postdocs, who too often fall between the institutional cracks. Postdocs, who officially are neither professors, staff members, nor students, have no one who is clearly accountable for their welfare -- a situation that leaves them vulnerable when it comes to obtaining fair salaries, decent benefits, and job security, the study maintained.
Many postdocs are paying the price. "Postdocs often receive no clear statement of the terms of their appointments and have no place to go to determine appropriate expectations or redress for grievances," the report said. Often, the only people postdocs can go to their advisers -- the people who hired them, pay them, and recommend them for future employment. "Given this dependence, a reluctance to be perceived as a complainer is understandable."
And, apparently, many postdocs have a lot to complain about -- especially when it comes to salary and benefits. In the life sciences, the average salary for an academic postdoc is $27,000. Things are even worse in chemistry, where the average
postdoc pulls in just $25,000. Those salaries are $15,000 to $20,000 less than what postdocs in the same fields are earning in government and industry.
Things are even bleaker on the benefits front. Many postdocs receive no health benefits for their families, the report noted, and some even have to pony up for their own coverage.
When it comes to status and benefits, the report said, academic postdocs are at the bottom of the institutional heap. Graduate students, professors, staff members, even postdocs in industry and government are all doing better than most academic
postdocs, the report said.
"Each of these groups typically functions under clearly stated assumptions, including defined expectations, rights, and responsibilities; normalized pay scales; periodic evaluations; standardized benefits; benchmarks for pay increases; and procedures for resolving grievances," Ms. Singer said at a news conference, "all the things that most of us have come to expect."
Academic postdocs should be able to expect the same things, she added. That's why her committee included 10 "action points" in its report and added other detailed recommendations for advisers, institutions, financing agencies, and disciplinary societies.
According to the report, advisers should provide new postdocs with a written outline of their policies on authorship, ownership of ideas and data, and removing projects from the lab when the postdoctoral term has ended. They also should provide annual evaluations of a postdoc's work.
The first thing institutions should do, the report said, is figure out how many postdocs are working there in the first place. Many institutions have no idea, the study noted. Then, institutions need to come up with an appropriate classification for their postdocs, one that reflects their contributions and status as apprentices. Also on the institutional to-do list: establish a minimum salary for postdocs, provide health insurance for all postdocs and their families, appoint an ombudsman to arbitrate grievances, and set up a postdoctoral office to offer guidance and logistical support.
Perhaps most importantly, the report urges institutions to cap the postdoc experience at a total of five years. "The postdoctoral term should include time spent in postdoctoral positions at any previous position as well as at the present institution," the report said. As postdocs advance in years, they should advance in status and pay, the study noted. And if an institution wants to keep a postdoc on after the five-year limit, it should promote the person to a staff position with regular benefits, including health and retirement, Ms. Singer added.
Moreover, in the face of a tight academic job market, institutions shouldn't keep adding to the postdoc population, the report said. A better alternative would be to expand the number of permanent lab workers.
Financing agencies have responsibilities, too, the report said -- namely to keep tabs on the working conditions at the places they're giving money to and to set some standards for postdoctoral salaries, medical benefits, travel, leave policies, performance reviews, and career planning.
As for scholarly societies, they need to do a better job of promoting the careers of postdocs at professional meetings, supporting job searches, and setting norms for postdoctoral work, the report said.
Of course, Ms. Singer noted, everybody wants to pass the buck when it comes to reforming the postdoctoral experience. "The reaction of many institutions is, We'd be glad to do this if federal grants provided more money," she said. And federal agencies are quick to say the problem is someone else's responsibility, too. "The only response is that it's everybody's responsibility,"
Ms. Singer added. "There is no easy answer, but if everybody points to everybody else, nothing will happen. Everybody may need to ante up a bit."