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Spring/Summer 2015 Vol. 15 Number 1



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The Postdoctoral Experience
©Fanatic Studio/Illustration Source

Ideally, a job as a postdoctoral researcher looks something like this: Under the mentorship of a principal investigator, a recent Ph.D. recipient receives additional scientific training -- learning new research techniques, gaining access to professional networks, accruing publications of their work, and learning grantsmanship and other vital tools of the trade. After a short period of time, this person transitions into a tenure-track faculty position or another full-time research position.

For most U.S. postdocs, however, reality is far different from this ideal. Many stay for years in low-paying positions that offer little mentoring or training, hoping for tenure-track positions that for most are unlikely to materialize. While the number of postdoctoral researchers has surged in recent decades, the number of research faculty positions into which junior researchers can hope to move has not kept pace.

The result is a system that has created expectations for academic career advancement that cannot be met, says a recent report from the Academies. It recommends reforms -- both to improve the postdoctoral experience for those whose career paths require it, and to help more students explore science-related career paths for which postdoctoral training is unnecessary.

Postdoctoral positions need to have mentoring and training at their center, the report emphasizes. The title "postdoctoral researcher" should be applied only to those who are receiving significant advanced training in research, and funding agencies should require evidence of this training. In addition, host institutions and funders both should offer training programs for mentors and evaluate their performance.

Current salaries for postdoctoral researchers are low, the report says. The committee that wrote the report examined five different approaches for determining an appropriate minimum salary, and all of them suggest an amount of $50,000 or more. The National Institutes of Health should raise the National Research Service postdoctoral award -- which has become the de facto standard for postdoctoral salaries at many universities -- to $50,000 and adjust it annually for inflation.

No one should spend more than five years total in postdoctoral positions, the report adds. Host institutions should maintain a record of how long a postdoctoral researcher remains in a position and provide that information to funding agencies as part of grant proposals. And given the shortage of tenure-track research jobs that actually require postdoctoral training, host institutions and mentors should make students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients.

-- Sara Frueh


The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited. Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers; Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy; National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine (2014, 122 pp.; ISBN 978-0-309-31446-6; available from the National Academies Press, tel. 1-800-624-6242; $49.95 plus $5.00 shipping for single copies).

The study was chaired by Gregory A. Petsko, Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry Emeritus, Brandeis University. The study was sponsored by the Presidents' Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund.


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