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Postdocs: Pawing Out of Purgatory

Jennifer Strange In September 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a report on the state of postdoctoral fellowships. Among other findings, the NAS determined that postdoctoral fellows were poorly paid. They believed that the system exploited them, and many had little hope for the future.1 Much has happened since then. The National Institutes of Health raised future postdoc salary targets by as much as 10% a year over the next five years. Offices for postdoctoral affairs have crop

By | March 24, 2003

Jennifer Strange

In September 2000, the National Academy of Sciences released a report on the state of postdoctoral fellowships. Among other findings, the NAS determined that postdoctoral fellows were poorly paid. They believed that the system exploited them, and many had little hope for the future.1

Much has happened since then. The National Institutes of Health raised future postdoc salary targets by as much as 10% a year over the next five years. Offices for postdoctoral affairs have cropped up in institutions around the country: Yale University created its office in July 2002, for example, and Stanford University has built a program that some consider model.2 Postdocs themselves have stepped up to put down obstacles, founding postdoc associations in their institutions and councils in their states (notably California). The National Postdoc Association established shop this past January, supported with funds from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.3

High-ranking scientists and policymakers now join in the call for postdoc rights. Maxine Singer, scientist emeritus of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (DC), used her bully pulpit as that organization's president to campaign for better postdoc programs. Elias Zerhouni, head of the NIH, mourned the dearth of young scientists in full-fledged research positions in his speech to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February, and called for compassion from institutional mentors.

Michael Gottesman, director of the NIH's intramural program, derides the current condition of the postdoc fellowship in general. "A postdoc was never meant to be a permanent position, but it's turned into one," he says. "We have to turn it back into a temporary training phase that leads to better and brighter things."

IL PURGATORIO Despite the encouraging words of these august advocates, postdocs themselves report few substantive changes in their conditions. Not all institutions even provide fellows with affordable insurance, for example, and some require postdocs to pay extra to cover their spouses and children. Of the 2,800 postdocs who supplied answers to The Scientist's "Best Places for Postdocs" survey in January, only 55% reported that they had adequate insurance for their families.4 Few schools mandate programs for training postdocs or for providing them career assistance. Less than half of the survey participants (48%) say their principal investigators (PIs) act as mentors, help the postdocs raise independent funding (47%), or discuss career options (42%).

Prospects for long-term academic jobs after fellowships end are limited, and postdoc salaries can vary dramatically, depending on the organization that funds the fellowship. With almost no opportunities to advance in the ranks of their own institutions, and little help moving to other organizations, many postdocs say they are treated like glorified lab rats--except they get paid less than do others on staff with lesser degrees.

A great many postdocs, including the dozens interviewed for this article, feel neglected, taken advantage of, and most of all, disillusioned. The whole institution of the postdoc fellowship is flawed, many say, and a historical mistake. The common complaint goes something like this: One becomes a postdoc because the science establishment doesn't know what else to do with fresh-out-of-school PhDs. A postdoc is too educated to become a technician with limited career advancement, but too green to become an independent scientist. "You're not really anything, you're just in some amorphous stage following your PhD," says Christian Wade, a postdoc at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle.

Some accept that the postdoc stint helps cull the crop of young scientists. "Part of the process is attrition," says Willard Freeman, who is just beginning his second postdoc at Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. "It's like they're saying 'We'll see who will put up with it for the longest, and then we'll reward you if you make it.'"

But it's now common for postdocs to enlist for a second or even a third stint before biology departments consider them qualified for faculty positions. What was once meant to be a brief trial period after graduate school has become a semi-permanent holding pattern for thousands of ambitious, qualified scientists. "They fall into a black hole, because they are neither graduate students nor are they full-fledged on the academic ladder," says Joyce Freedman, assistant vice chancellor for research administration and compliance at the University of California, Berkeley. The university has recently hired a postdoc coordinator, and is trying to equalize salaries and benefits for all fellows. It also has an ombudsman who can intervene between a postdoc and a PI, and a grievance procedure. "Being a postdoc, you're in a very, very vulnerable situation," Freedman adds.

Many postdocs question the value of the training they receive. "At best I've learned how to handle mice more effectively," says one postdoc who requested anonymity. "But I wouldn't call the tasks that I perform in the lab training." Another is more blunt: "Does it feel at all like training? Hell no! It is just another way that one group of people gets the shaft."

Another persistent complaint about the postdoc system is that it breeds bland scientists--those who succeed at playing by postdoc rules get the jobs, while those who push the limits of what a postdoc is allowed to do are punished. "I doubt the system as it exists is even capable of differentiating between the good and bad postdocs," says Greg Van Citters, postdoc at City of Hope's Beckman Research Institute in Duarte, Calif.

Even worse, says Jennifer Carroll, a postdoc at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, is that it perpetuates poor performance. "Mediocrity seems to be allowed to fester, and the best way to get rid of mediocrity seems to be a good letter of recommendation ... to pass the buck on to the next lab," she says.



STANFORD'S SUPD
The Stanford University Postdoc Association (SUPD) works like a well-oiled machine, boosting postdoc power on campus and lobbying for real improvements to postdoc life. It even hosts happy hours. The SUPD has already won permanent seats for postdocs on several university-wide committees that set policies on research, budget, and labor issues; one campus committee focuses on postdoc problems.

"They're an inspiration," says Raymond Clark, one of the founding members of the University of California, San Diego, Postdoctoral Scholars Association (psa.ucsd.edu). "The Stanford situation can be held up as one of the 'best practices' for how postdocs can engage the administration in dealing with postdoc concerns."

The SUPD's success comes from focusing on individual issues, not general complaints. Rather than lobbying to reduce insurance costs--a general problem--the association targeted an issue that members considered more important. "The biggest healthcare issue that most postdocs face is pregnancy," says Mark Siegal, an evolutionary geneticist who serves as cochair of the SUPD. So the Association successfully lobbied to change to a healthcare plan with better childbirth coverage. Now the SUPD is campaigning for rent subsidies to help members pay the spiraling San Francisco Bay Area housing costs.

Such campaigns are buttressed by the SUPD's longevity. Because postdocs come and go, many associations lose momentum with leadership changes. Stanford's group, in its third generation, focuses on apprenticeships and recruiting. "The biggest challenge long-term is turnover," Seigal says. "Not just that people leave, but an administration can take a wait-them-out attitude towards a group that's too pushy. I might not be here to see most of the changes I help effect, but I want my legacy here to outlast my postdoc here."
--Sam Jaffe

 

IL INFERNO Hazy job prospects are one of the primary causes of postdoc anxiety. Thousands of candidates often vie for only a handful of faculty jobs, leaving the rest to move to industry or eventually leave the field of science. Many postdocs call for a more honest approach from their advisers. "Career counseling could really help us a lot," Carroll says.

Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, understands such complaints. She says that it's a different world than when she was a postdoc with Canada's National Research Council; at that time scientists were in great demand. "It was the post-Sputnik era and we were starving for scientists," she says. "That's not true today." Now the supply of PhD scientists in biology and medicine far exceeds the demand in academe. "But there are so many other pathways to pursue today," she adds. "People should be encouraged to go in different directions."

While lack of career advice and coaching rank high on the list of postdoc complaints, money matters rank surprisingly low. That's despite the fact that most postdocs are in their late 20s or early 30s, often with new families to support and living on near subsistance wages. Most postdocs understood the financial sacrifices when they embarked on their careers, but that doesn't make it any easier. "Loan paybacks begin soon and I cannot repay them," says Van Citters. "The 'joys of science' provide little comfort when bills come due."

The most common money complaint was the lack of regional variation in salaries. Most postdoc salaries are indexed to those paid to NIH postdocs, which vary from $31,000 (US) to $34,000 a year. Those NIH numbers should rise to a maximum of $46,000 a year by 2008. That might satisfy postdocs in a Midwestern college town, but those in expensive metropolitan areas like New York City or San Francisco are shortchanged.

The health insurance problem isn't one that appears to be easily solved either. Many institutions fight to provide their postdocs with some form of coverage, but not all do. They point to the NIH, which doesn't provide benefits for its more than 3,000 postdocs. "That's not going to change," says Gottesman. "There are too many government regulations that restrict our ability to provide benefits." Most universities, however, don't have the same restrictions.

Even for postdocs who have resigned themselves to making low salaries, nothing is more irksome than learning that many of their fellow staffers with lighter workloads and lower educational status earn more. "I think it is very unfortunate the way that postdocs who have the highest degree conferred in the United States make less money than research associates with either a BA or MS. And the excuse for that is even lamer: 'You are still in training.' ... What does that mean?" Carroll asks.

HEAL THYSELF The postdoc predicament cannot be blamed on academic institutions alone. "I'm also critical of most postdocs," says Freeman of Emory. "It's up to you to make the best of the situation.... There's a little too much whining going on."

But Freeman agrees postdocs deserve more of the one thing they get the least of: respect. After all, postdocs have gone through ten years or more of schooling in a scientific specialty, and they often feel that the senior staff of their labs view them as slave labor. "Postdocs must be mentored, not treated like slave labor and kept in the lab at all costs," says Van Citters.

Others would settle for just a little respect. "In graduate school, I thought that earning my PhD would somewhat level the playing field and give me some clout and respect," implores Christian Wade. "However, I have been disrespected consistently and talked down to since starting my postdoc. The impression is that I am still a lesser person and don't know anything."

Sam Jaffe (sam.jaffe@verizon.net) is a freelance writer in Philadelphia;

Paula Park can be contacted at ppark@the-scientist.com.

References
1. "Enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers: A guide for postdoctoral scholars, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies," National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2000, www.nap.edu/books/0309069963/html.

2. Stanford University, Office of Postdoctoral Services; postdocs.stanford.edu/index.html.

3. National Postdoctoral Association, www.nationalpostdoc.org.

4. P. Park et al., "Postdocs pick institutions that build community," The Scientist, 17[3]:18-21, Feb. 10, 2003.



HOW TO BE A BETTER POSTDOC ADVISER
Too many postdocs rely on their principal investigators to get them their next job, and too many PIs consider their postdocs as glorified technicians. "Scientists need to learn to spend more time on advising than just on overseeing research," says Michael Gottesman, deputy director of the intramural program at the National Institutes of Health.

A postdoc should know exactly what the PI's expectations are from the first job interview. If long hours are mandatory and often disrupt weekends, a PI should inform the candidate. If the PI values creative research ideas and an independent streak, that also should be made clear. Those who just want people who follow orders should disclose that at the start.

Once the applicant has accepted the job, the PI should hold another meeting. This time, expectations should be put in writing. "There needs to be more accountability," says Debra Gearheart, who just finished her postdoc at Georgia Medical College in Savannah. She recommends a "formalistic contract outlining the expectations of the mentor and postdoc." The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology urges PIs to make individual postdoctoral development plans.

Once the postdoc begins work in the lab, the PI should set up a formal schedule of review meetings, maybe once every quarter--the NIH provides a guide for PIs. Many PIs end up guiding the postdocs down their own career paths. But science journalism, administration, and industrial research can be just as rewarding and lucrative as a tenured professor's career. "When I was a postdoc, you were considered a success if you replicated your PI's career," says Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation. "People have to understand that there are many pathways today."
--Sam Jaffe

 


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