Improving the Postdoctoral Experience
Editor's note: Responding to readers' concerns about treatment of postdoctoral fellows in US academic life science labs, The Scientist invited the National Postdoctoral Association to participate in an online discussion with science policy leaders. Attendees included Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation; economist Richard Freeman, Harvard University; Michael Gottesman, deputy director for Intramural Research, National Institutes of Health; Xenia Morin, Keck Postdoctoral Fellow and lecturer in biology and chemistry, Bryn Mawr College; Avron D. Spier, CEO, Allon Therapeutics; Claudina Aleman Stevenson, visiting scientist, Tufts University School of Medicine. What follows is an excerpt of that discussion.
Rita Colwell: I do suggest a fundamental question we should ask to judge the quality of the postdoctoral experience: Namely, is it providing the scientific and professional skills that will advance their professional careers? As postdocs, these professionals make significant contributions. Their compensation and benefit packages should reflect that, as well as attract individuals to pursue this advanced education and training. At the same time, we need to be sure the postdoctoral experience provides postdocs the skills necessary to pursue their career goals.
Claudina Aleman Stevenson: What can be done to encourage faculty to adopt the thinking that they are training future collaborators and not competitors?
Michael Gottesman: In the NIH intramural program, we have tried to develop principles of mentorship, which guide our investigators in their interactions with trainees, especially our 3,200 postdoctoral fellows. These have been formalized in "A guide to training and mentoring in the intramural research program at NIH."1
Within my own Laboratory of Cell Biology in the National Cancer Institute, I try to follow a few basic principles in dealing with my fellows. When they enter the laboratory, every effort is made to define a cutting-edge science project, and if possible, a written proposal is put together to seek support outside of the NIH system. The purpose of this is to allow some period of time for the fellow to become acquainted with the literature in my scientific field (mechanisms of resistance of cancer cells to anticancer drugs), and to work on the logical development of a proposal that can help guide research in the lab.
Stevenson: What policies could be implemented at institutions and funding agencies to encourage similar changes in culture [in academic labs]?
Richard Freeman: Economists shudder at the word culture. To establish the correct "culture" for postdocs would seem to require some explicit understandings with the potential for publicizing, penalizing, or changing the behavior of those who do not follow them. The Gottesman lab principles would seem to be a very good guide or handbook of good practices policies.
But there should be some institutional commitment to something like this guide, insisted upon by NIH for all its research projects that use postdocs, with some ombudsman procedure to deal with the problems when the guide of good practices is not followed. I think a written contract at day one that specifies the learning options, seminar rights, and publication expectations ... and something about [postdocs'] responsibility, with a process to deal with problems, would help establish the right "culture."
Avron Spier: Individuals are now staying in their postdocs longer than ever before. This has led to an inflation of the credentials required to advance to the next position at Harvard.
Colwell: We have learned that we need to know more about and attend to career transitions, since too many trained people seem to leave academe at each transition.
Xenia Morin: I left a postdoctoral fellowship to start a family. I personally did not feel that I could "do it all," nor we, as a family unit, could do it all ... raise small children, [with me in] a full-time job in science.... Without controls or reasonable expectations that allow scientists to achieve some balance in their lives, and more importantly, to fulfill their responsibilities outside of their work, like caring for family members, we will not retain some scientists.
Colwell: Through programs for institutional change, universities are deliberately and methodically examining university policy and practice on issues such as time to tenure, and options for accommodating family needs during that time. We are also learning how important it is for everyone to have effective mentors, or coaches.
From the perspective of NSF [National Science Foundation], those individuals who have earned doctorates in science and engineering are a critical part of our national human capital, and we believe institutions can and should be thinking more about how to ensure their success, whether by revising policies and practice, or by rethinking academic career paths to allow for diverse points of entry and reentry.