US postdocs happy, but...

Pilot survey to be released today finds structural issues, difficulties for non-citizens

Apr 16, 2004
Trevor Stokes(ts42@nyu.edu)

Most US postdocs are fairly content, according to results from a pilot survey by Sigma Xi to be presented today (April 16) at the second annual meeting of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) in Washington, DC. However, noncitizens are less positive, and many respondents noted a lack of training in non-research areas, among other complaints.

Survey leader Geoff Davis, visiting scholar at Sigma Xi, told The Scientist that “eyeballing the data, the majority of postdocs are satisfied with their experience.” The majority of the 750 respondents—of 2000 asked to participate—rated their advisors highly overall. Davis did not release specific results.

But respondents noted a lack of formal training for work that “isn't directly involved in research,” such as communication, management, and teaching, Davis said. Only about half of respondents viewed their positions as “primarily for the purpose of training in research or scholarship.”

Noncitizens were less happy with their postdoctoral experiences. Davis said that the survey also reflected concerns over tighter security regulations that have considerably affected scientists' ability to do research in the United States—for example, postdocs' ability to travel abroad to meetings. The full survey will include questions that will allow noncitizens to elaborate on their concerns.

Respondents also criticized the lack of structure between postdoc and employer in terms of performance reviews and employment contracts. According to an editorial last year in Nature Genetics, only 20 US universities have offices that deal with postdoctoral affairs.

The pilot survey was conducted by Sigma Xi from December 2003 to January 2004 at Georgetown University, the University of Pittsburgh, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, the University of California at San Diego, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The full survey is set to begin in early May and will include about 40 institutes.

Results from the full study, which is a collaboration among Sigma Xi and the National Postdoctoral Association, the Postdoc Network at Science's Next Wave, and the Science and Engineering Workforce Project at the National Bureau of Economic Research, are expected in the early fall. Davis said he hopes the full survey will attract thousands of respondents.

Melanie Sinche, director of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Office of Postdoctoral Services, told The Scientist that the two main hurdles of the study were tracking postdocs and working with institutional review boards, which was necessary because the study involves human subjects. Sinche worked with her university's human resources and payroll departments for a year before compiling a postdoctoral list and said that they are “further along in tracking postdocs than most institutes.” The school had a 40% rate of participation in the survey.

Dorothy B. Berkoben of the Office for Postdoctoral Fellows at Harvard Medical School told The Scientist that although her office accounts for the 650 postdocs at the medical school, there isn't a mechanism to account for the thousands of other postdocs in affiliated hospitals.

Although various postdoctoral associations have conducted previous surveys, they had mixed success because they were run by busy postdoctoral volunteers, according to Davis. Sigma Xi is “taking the surveys that they started and put[ting] resources behind them,” he said. “We want to pick up what the postdoctoral associations have started.” (The Scientist conducts an annual “Best Places to Work” survey of thousands of postdocs in the United States and elsewhere.)

Davis hopes to learn if establishing realistic and formal expectations before a postdoc starts will result in a positive postdoctoral outcome, as was found in a national PhD survey released in 2001. Such a policy would be relatively simple to put in place, according to Davis, but may make a huge difference, as it seems to PhD students.

Ken Birnbaum, a senior postdoc at New York University, said, however, that it would be best to “treat postdocs like any other professional group, not focusing on expectations, but rather on how to get us services that will help us advance our careers and prepare us for the job market. For most postdocs, the endgame is getting a job.”

Davis said that the survey will not only give a national snapshot of the postdoctoral condition, but it will also give the participating institutes a look into their own policies regarding postdocs. The results may become a tool for postdoctoral advocacy to funding agencies and administrations to help make a compelling case for improving the postdoc experience, he said.

“The postdoc world is only now getting a lot of attention, and we need this kind of information to make improvements,” Davis said.