Are they students? No, but they're not quite "real" scientists, either. They're sure in demand--just look at all the ads for them in the classifieds of scientific journals and trade publications. Yet the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health don't really know how many of them there are. And many human resources pros don't even know who they are in their own companies.
These mystery lab workers are postdoctoral research associates, or "postdocs," who cling to an ill-defined rung on the career ladder. The postdoc is an enigma, vital to research but at the same time woefully unrecognized.
"After doing a postdoc, I feel more prepared, but it's still very nerve-wracking," says Peggy Wallace, a third year postdoc in the lab of human geneticist Francis Collins at the University of Michigan School of Medicine in Ann Arbor, who just reported finding the gene for neurofibromatosis. Although Wallace has nothing but raves about her postdoc experience, it's making her question her career prospects. "The longer I'm in it, the more I'm learning about the bad side of academia, the disillusionments," she says, adding that her situation is prompting her to ask herself, "Do I really want an academic position?"
"The problem is that you're not really independent, but overall I think it is a good experience," adds Maarten Zijlstra, a postdoc in the lab of molecular biologist Rudolf Jaenisch at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Mass.
The postdoc is a byproduct of the growth of scientific research in the 20th-century American university. The dramatic demonstration at the end of World War II that science could solve social and political problems inspired the federal government to support graduate education in the sciences--with the stipulation that students work on real problems. Research became a way of life for the science graduate student.
The Sputnik era of the 1950s and 1960s saw a flurry of academic hiring in the sciences. In those days, graduate students segued straight into faculty positions. Aquatic ecologist Tom Wissing, a professor of zoology at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, recalls hitting the job market just before the crunch that closed the turbulent decade. "Up until 1969, there were many more opportunities in ecology than there were people available," he says. "In 1969, that changed, and we went into the dry era."
Budgets were cut in order to provide more funding for the Vietnam War, he speculates.
The 1970s saw the postdoc population rise as the number of science faculty positions plummeted. The birth of commercial biotechnology in the 1980s initially took some graduate students out of the postdoc pool. Yet today, many biotech companies are requiring that prospective employees have postdoctoral experience. Not only is doing a postdoc much more common now than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but newly minted scientists are also staying longer at their postdoc posts, or doing more than one stint at several different institutions. NSF estimates that the number of postdoctoral positions has jumped by 50 percent since 1980.
Finding statistics on the segment of the scientific workforce represented by postdocs is no simple task. Part of the problem stems from the fact that they move in and out of labs so quickly; another lies in semantics. NSF estimates that in 1988, the total number of science and engineering postdocs in the United States was 26,454. This figure excludes those in industry, medical schools, and national labs, and includes foreigners. The National Research Council's figure for 1987 is 12,296--but this includes nonscience and nonacademic postdocs, and excludes foreigners.
Another difficulty in tallying postdocs is the diversity of their support. "NSF postdocs are supported as a normal part of a researcher's grant, or by any of a number of programs specifically targeted at postdocs. Such programs exist for math and chemistry, and are just starting in the biological sciences. There has been a definite increase in targeted postdoctoral programs over the past few years," says Bob Abel, head of NSF's Special Data Group in Washington. Many government agencies and private foundations support postdoctoral research.
Adds Tom Kaufman, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator at Indiana University in Bloomington and a Drosophila geneticist, "The postdoc time is the best and most productive in a scientific career, because all you have to do is research--no committees, no meetings. You do what you like to do best." Kaufman did his postdoc in the lab of David Suzuki, a geneticist at the University of British Columbia who is best known for his science-oriented television shows.
Hui Zheng, a new Ph.D. from the lab of biochemist John H. Wilson at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, cites freedom from the pressures of grant-writing as another one of the pluses of postdocing. She considers herself fortunate to have a fellowship and a postdoctoral position lined up in the lab of biochemist Paul Berg at Stanford University, where she will work on genetic manipulation of embryonic stem cells.
Many other scientists cite as an advantage postdocs' freedom from the trials and tribulations of teaching. Yet a rare few postdocs actually seek teaching responsibilities. "People come in with virtually no teaching experience, and request teaching so they can improve their credentials," says Tom Wissing.
The postdoctoral breather between grad school and the "real world" provides many benefits. Foremost is knowledge, an unending goal for the scientist. "My Ph.D. was very valuable, and greatly augmented my knowledge of how molecular biology and human genetics fit together," says Katherine Call, a postdoc in the lab of genetist David Housman at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, a year ago, she nailed down a gene causing the childhood kidney cancer Wilms' tumor.
A postdoc can be a time to embellish one's graduate work--as Peggy Wallace did when she found a marker for neurofibromatosis, and then the gene itself, as a postdoc. (She had found markers for amyloidosis and Huntington disease in graduate school.) Or it can be a time to switch gears. "A postdoc is a good way to expand your horizons. If you have done a Ph.D. on flies, go to yeast or worms and learn new techniques and another way of looking at things," says Kaufman.
Industry as well as academia look highly on scientists who have blazed new trails while working as post-docs. Says John Rich, an inorganic chemist and program manager at General Electric's Research and Development Center in Schenectady, N.Y., "It helps if a person can demonstrate versatility in the postdoc. I like to see someone take on a project in a different area than what he or she did as a graduate student."
Ideally, a postdoc's newly acquired knowledge and skills will translate into publications, a measuring stick for future grant support as well as academic and industrial advancement. "We very rarely hire anyone fresh out of a Ph.D. program. Most job candidates have five to eight years of postdoctoral experience.
Most that we hire have their thesis publications and at least two or three other papers from their postdoc years," says Jon Jacklet, chairman of the biology department at the State University of New York, Albany.
The postdoc experience allows one to grow in other, less tangible ways, as well. "It's not so much that you learn specific lab techniques--it's maturity, too," says Wallace. "You develop more confidence in what you do, and learn the ropes of the system in terms of how to run a lab--picking areas of research, writing grants. It's good experience for easing into administrative duties and supervising people. A postdoc grooms you for a faculty position," she adds.
Today's scientist has a variety of employment opportunities. And while everyone acknowledges that a postdoc is an all-but-mandated stepping stone to the ivory tower, the situation is different in industry. Some companies absolutely require a postdoc for certain positions. For example, help-wanted ads for jobs at ImmuLogic, a biotech firm based in Palo Alto, Calif., and at the Princeton, N.J., facility of pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb each call for several years of such experience.
Other companies look favorably on a postdoc, but do not require it. "Postdoc experience is certainly an asset. But a postdoc is not necessarily a prerequisite in industry as much as it is in a university. When job candidates mention that they are considering doing a postdoc, we always encourage them to do so, and come back to us when they're done," says GE's Rich. Robert Neidermyer, vice president of business development at MicroGeneSys, of West Haven, Conn., a small biotech firm known for its AIDS vaccine, agrees.
"We consider having done a postdoc to be an asset in terms of the candidates we hire," he says. "We have not hired someone lacking postdoc experience, but this does not mean that we would not."
Small start-ups are not as fussy as larger, more established companies about requiring postdoctoral work, according to Joe Baldanza, a biotech recruiter for Winfield Associates in Weymouth, Mass. "Newer companies would hire someone without a postdoc, both for financial reasons and because they are looking for someone who is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, someone who wants to set the world on fire." But this picture may change, he says, because the biotech
field is very much in flux. "There is a retrenchment mindset now to a certain extent" because some biotech firms are taking longer than expected to be successful, Baldanza adds. Still other companies seek scientists who trained in specific labs. "In some fields, like microbial diagnostics, someone in a lab at the University of Arkansas can get a job with Hoffmann-LaRoche, for example, because everyone who works there came out of that particular school," and therefore is familiar with the quality of training there, says Marc D. Andelman, president of Biosource recruiters in Holliston, Mass. "There is a link between industry and academic labs," Andelman says. To find out the locations of the "hot" labs, he suggests that students seeking places to do their postdocs "go to the citation index. Cross-reference people who publish in industry and what schools they came out of. Trace people through their publications."
In some business situations, doing a traditional postdoc can actually take a job contender out of the running. Explains Baldanza, "Many companies demand prior industrial experience, as opposed to academic experience, because they want people who know how to operate in a corporate setting, who understand the profit motive, productivity, meeting deadlines. Academia is more laid-back. In industry, the scientist is up against certain limitations and restrictions. He or she has to finish a project by a certain time to meet financial obligations."
The necesssity of postdoctoral work for future success may depend on whether a Ph.D. studied mole rats, molecules, or muons. In certain fields you have no choice. In most biological sciences, it is standard. But in biostatistics, for example, people get faculty positions right out of grad school," says Wallace.
The duration of a postdoc also seems to vary with a scientist's field and reflects job market trends, as well. The average postdoc's stay in Housman's lab at MIT is three to seven years, says Kathy Call. Yet Tom Wissing laments the fact that he and other ecologists have trouble keeping valued postdocs beyond a year or two, because they are snatched up by job offers they can't refuse.
And chemists can be downright complacent. Christopher Whitmarch, who expects to receive his Ph.D. in ceramic precursors next spring from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., says that, for chemists planning to work in industrial labs, "a postdoc is something to do if you can't find a job immediately. It's something to do other than mowing lawns. But it is almost essential if you go into academia." He is headed for industry.
New Ph.D.'s who seek the further knowledge and skills they can attain by doing a postdoc but who also want to keep open the doors to both academia and the commercial sector often take advantage of a "hybrid" option: the industrial postdoc, a temporary position as part of an ongoing project at a company. At Genentech, a biotech firm based in South San Francisco, Calif., for example, a postdoc typically stays for two years. "The first year's pay is $28,000, and the second year's, $30,000, plus full benefits, like a regular employee," says Yvonne Davino of the company's human resources department.
Still another route is a research associate position, an advanced postdoc of sorts. According to Maureen Hanson, a professor in Cornell University's biotechnology program in Ithaca, N.Y., "If a person has done a postdoc for a few years, he or she can advance at many universities into a research associate position, which at Cornell is paid on a separate research track. These are people without faculty positions who are paid as much as a full professor, from $22,000 to $60,000." But such positions are contingent upon renewing "soft" money. Whether the associates are working under their bosses' grants or whether they have their own support, renewal of the awards is entirely contingent upon the willingness of the funding agency to continue providing money; thus, there is virtually no job security for the associate. "That's risky, because it depends on short-term--usually three-year--grants for continued employment," Hanson says. "But some people have chosen to do that, because they prefer pure research and that's the only way to do it," she adds.
The temporary nature and often less-than-generous salaries of many postdoctoral positions pose serious obstacles for some scientists-- particularly those with families.
Accommodating two careers can be especially challenging when the postdoc is over and the scientist must find a new position--which often means that a permanently employed spouse has to job-hop, too. Adding a child to the equation makes squeezing a postdoc into one's career plans even tougher. Recalls John Rich, who joined GE as a staff chemist without doing a postdoc, "Emily [his daughter] was a year old, and Sue [his wife] decided she didn't want to be poor anymore."
Postdoc pay has actually gone up quite a bit in the past 10 to 12 years, says Kathy Call, "but not that much, considering the amount of training we have all had." (See table on page 24 for some examples of what a postdoc earns.)
The lowly status of the postdoc can be a real downer. "A lot of universities don't acknowledge a postdoc's existence," says Tom Kaufman, adding that postdoctoral fellows often "can't get health insurance and things like that because they are not employees."
But, he notes, some institutions "are having their consciousnesses raised," and no longer treat postdocs "like indentured servants."
Postdocs at Stanford University have it particularly tough. They are deemed students, and must pay $2,200 in tuition. This tuition is typically paid out of the sponsor's research grant, but, in some cases, it is deducted directly from the postdoctoral fellowship award. To make matters worse for the Stanford postdocs, on Jan. 1, 1990, they themselves became responsible for paying taxes on all monies paid for their tuition.
Yet NSF sees the status of the postdoc differently. Graphs compiled by the agency's Division of Policy Research and Analysis list postdocs as faculty, lumping them in with "academic scientists and engineers."
The long hours of a postdoc--60 hours in a good week, 80 when things get hairy, says Wallace--are familiar from grad school. But the length of time of the postdoctoral appointment may be tough to handle, especially toward the end. "If you are still a postdoc but are really ready to leave, it can be frustrating," she says. Having to do projects under the lab head's direction can be a source of frustration, Wallace says; many postdocs nearing the end of their appointments would prefer to be "more independent and in control over what [they] do. But that depends a lot on where you work," says Wallace. It also depends upon one's personal agenda. "I'm excited about doing a postdoc, and want to take as long a time as possible," says Hui Zheng, who is about to begin her postdoctoral work.
Some scientists warn prospective postdocs to avoid "machine labs," in which a postdoc is one of many plugged, sometimes rather uncreatively, into an ongoing project. In such a lab, "a postdoc can get lost in the rush," says Kaufman, a researcher who has four postdocs working under his direction.
Recruiter Marc Andelman sees such postdoctoral experience as symptomatic of science in general. "I can't stand to see how they train students and postdocs to be part of a big project, to work on existing things. We need a few people who can see the broad picture, and come up with brilliant ideas, and work on their own."
But many scientists actually working in the so-called machine labs have a different view. They say that immersion in a lab in which there is so much talent and expertise enables them to thrive. "Here at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, when you want to do something, the next group down the hall has already done it. You can quickly do all sorts of things," says postdoc Maarten Zijlstra, who works on gene targeting. Kathy Call agrees. She was drawn to David Housman's lab at MIT because of a desire to combine molecular with clinical genetics, and winning an academic race to identify a gene behind Wilms' tumor was quite a coup. Although the lab has 16 postdocs, she, too, finds the atmosphere exhilarating-- although she attributes her success to luck.
All in all, if one can put up with transiency, low pay, and dubious status, the postdoc experience seems to be a very positive one. "Most of us enjoy our research, and we are able to find a project and adviser that really makes research quite exciting," says Call.
Adds Tom Wissing, who regrets not having done a postdoc himself, "Here at Miami we view postdocs as young scientists who can infuse the department with new ideas, and bring in a new vitality." Says Tom Kaufman, "Am I glad I did a postdoc? Absolutely! I look back and realize how little I knew after grad school."
Yet history may soon repeat itself. In the coming decade, an impending mass exodus of academic scientists may cause science Ph.D.'s to again find themselves swept out of graduate school right into the coveted tenure track. The reason--demographics. According to a 1989 report, "Science and Technology in the Academic Enterprise: Status, Trends, and Issues," sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineers, and the Institute of Medicine, "As a large number of academic research faculty hired in the 1960s and early 1970s will begin to retire in the 1990s, the number of students planning careers in academic research may be inadequate to replace those faculty." One school to which Tom Wissing just lost a postdoc, for example, expects to lose half its biology faculty over the next five years to retirement.
And so the postdoctoral experience, hailed by so many scientists as "the best years of one's research career," can add another apparent contradiction to its already befuddled reputation--it may soon become an endangered species.
Ricki Lewis, a Scotia, N.Y.-based writer, skipped a postdoc but has spent the past decade teaching and writing about biology.