Best Places to Work 2006: Postdocs

FEATUREBest Places to Work 2006: Postdocs Jason Varney | varneyphoto.comBY TED AGRESWhether they are in North America, Europe, or the Middle East, this year's top-ranking research institutions in The Scientist's Best Places to Work survey offer postdocs such important features as collaborative, intellectually challenging environments, quality research facilities, and flexibility in designing and conducting research projects.

Feb 28, 2006
Ted Agres
Best Places to Work 2006: Postdocs
Best Places to Work 2006 - Postdocs
Jason Varney |
Whether they are in North America, Europe, or the Middle East, this year's top-ranking research institutions in The Scientist's Best Places to Work survey offer postdocs such important features as collaborative, intellectually challenging environments, quality research facilities, and flexibility in designing and conducting research projects.

However, these institutions vary widely in addressing other needs and desires of their postdocs. Some facilities offer a range of programs in accordance with National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) guidelines.1 Others offer little, if any, support beyond having a well-funded facility and world-class scientists (which apparently can compensate for otherwise benign neglect).

While a majority (75%) of survey respondents describe their current postdoc positions as Good, Very Good, or Excellent, they aren't as sanguine about their futures. Only 14% expect to have a job in industry in the next two years-a low percentage considering the number of jobs available in that sector of the life sciences. Over one quarter (29%) expect to hold a tenure-track academic position; but between 1993 and 2001 the number of tenure-track assistant professorships at major research universities remained steady at approximately 1,200-not nearly enough jobs for the almost 20,000 PhD life scientists in the United States. Another quarter (27%) plan to stay where they are or move to another postdoc position (see Length of Postdocs graph). More than 10%, however, don't know where they'll be in two years- a slightly disconcerting position for the many postdocs married with children.

1. B. L. Benderly, "The incredible shrinking tenure track," Science's NextWave, July 2, 2004.

Postdocs worldwide have common concerns, judging by the NPA guidelines, a set of white-paper recommendations that The Scientist published,2 and comments submitted in this year's survey. Postdocs want knowledgeable principal investigators and mentors who have genuine interest in their research and personal development. They desire clarity in their research program with clearly defined goals and feedback measurements. They seek training in grant writing and other career development skills. They want to be compensated adequately and receive medical, retirement, and other employee benefits. Perhaps most importantly, they crave a greater sense of security about their future careers (see the charts and graphs on this page as well as the tables in the Article Extras sidebar, right).

The J. David Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco pays close attention to its postdocs' needs. John LeViathan, postdoc adviser and human resources manager, says Gladstone follows NPA guidelines, offering excellent salaries and employee benefits, emphasizing mentoring, career and professional development, and making wide use of surveys and meetings to monitor progress. Gladstone jumped from 12th place in 2005 to first place in North America this year. "Postdocs are fully involved in the process," LeViathan says. "They are in the driver's seat." But it's not all warm and fuzzy. Like other top institutions, Gladstone has a strong research base. As postdoc Danny Hatters puts it, "working with top-class and motivated scientists" is what's most important.

At the other end of the postdoc care and feeding spectrum is the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, UK. Lacking any special programs or activities for postdocs, LMB came in second place outside of North America. "We just focus on science," explains Matthew Freeman, a senior group leader in developmental biology with six postdocs working in his lab. "There is a strong, interactive atmosphere here," Freeman says. "Research is number one; everything else is secondary." The postdocs agree. "The strong informal relationship with my PI and the amount of time he is willing to spend helping with my research" is most appreciated by one LMB postdoc, who did not wish to be named.

When it comes to giving postdocs appreciation, respect, and freedom, the 11th-place Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI) in Amsterdam excels. Research projects are designed with clear objectives and metrics, yet postdocs have considerable freedom to conduct independent research, says Peter Peters, NKI's dean of postdoc affairs. Each year the institute's 75 postdocs organize a retreat focusing on career and professional development. The event, held at a four-star hotel with NKI paying the bill, is so popular that postdocs from other institutes in Holland ask to be invited. "We treat all the postdocs with respect," Peters says.

The average length of time postdocs plan to spend in their current position is two years. While the average length of time that life scientists spend in postdoc positions overall is only three years, almost one-fifth (18.6%) spend five years or more in postdoc positions, according to this year's survey respondents. In North America only 15.3% endure for five years or more, but in Europe and Israel almost one third of responding postdocs (32.4%) are in for the long haul (data not shown).

Like other scientists, postdocs prefer their respect be accompanied by something more tangible, such as adequate salaries and benefits. In some cases, being affiliated with a government agency rather than a private university or research institute can offer better salary and benefits. Postdocs at the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), part of the US Department of Agriculture, receive the same salary as well as health, retirement, and life insurance benefits as the regular staff scientists, says Dave Love, ARS deputy human resources director.

Postdoc salaries at ARS start at around $55,000 and range to more than $67,000, compared to the NIH's recommended stipend levels of $35,600 to $51,036 for fiscal 2006. Many top US institutions, including second-place Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center ("the Hutch") in Seattle and eighth-ranked Wadsworth Center in Albany, NY, structure postdocs' salaries around these guidelines.

The majority of survey respondents (52.5%) say that they are not citizens of the countries in which they're currently working, and North America has a higher percentage of non-citizen postdocs (55.7%) than Europe and Israel (40.1%). Almost half of the postdocs working outside of North America (49.2%) were born in the country in which they're working, while only 36.1% of North American postdocs were born in their country of current employment.

The ARS, which catapulted from 66th place in last year's survey to 10th place this year, also has a strong research base. "Postdocs are given meaningful opportunities to conduct and publish their research," says Love. For postdoc Charlie Barnes, "cooperation among all people in the lab in working towards our common goals" is what he most appreciates about ARS.

In addition to salaries and solid research opportunities, benefits are important to postdocs. "I truly love the research I'm doing," says Jennifer Schmahl, a postdoc at the Hutch. "But it would be nice if postdocs on grants had the same benefits as those on salary." Karen Peterson, the Hutch's postdoc adviser, agrees but says Federal tax regulations prevent postdocs on stipends and grants from receiving employee benefits. The Hutch tries to compensate by offering childcare subsidies, conference travel twice a year, and scholarships for continuing studies.

Postdocs in Europe generally have fewer concerns about benefits than do their colleagues in the United States, largely because of nationalized health care. But postdocs in Israel and Canada can also find themselves bereft of benefits. At the fourth-ranked Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, postdocs on fellowships receive no health care or retirement benefits. "The upside is no tax is deducted from their pay," says Michal Irani, who heads Weizmann's postdoc program. It was a conscious decision. "We could either have fewer postdocs with more benefits or more postdocs with fewer benefits," she says. "We've tried to optimize the program with more postdocs."

In Canada, postdocs face a similar situation, observes Carl Breckenridge, vice president for research at ninth-ranked Dalhousie University in Halifax. While the Canadian government provides universal health care, a recent change in regulations bars postdocs on fellowships from receiving it, he says. Other benefits are determined by the particular grant or fellowship. "Our institute doesn't have a level playing field in providing benefits," Breckenridge says. What is attractive is Dalhousie's medium-sized labs (three or four postdocs to each) and research flexibility.

As for giving postdocs more certainty about their future careers, no institution can do much, other than watching for the best and brightest and offering permanent positions when they become available. Says Irani, "If a star shines, we are happy to grab him."

The Scientist posted a Web-based questionnaire and invited readers of The Scientist and registrants on The Scientist web site who identified themselves as non-tenured life scientists working in academia or other non-commercial research organizations to respond. From more than 40,000 invitations, we received 2,983 usable responses from scientists in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe. We asked respondents to assess their working conditions and environments by indicating their level of agreement with 46 criteria in 11 different areas. They also indicated which factors were important to them. We identified 114 North American institutions and 37 institutions from elsewhere with 4 or more responses.

To calculate an institution's overall ranking, we first weighted each factor based on the average importance score. Because several factors that ranked as important in the North America are valued less elsewhere and vice versa, we used different factor weightings to rank the two groups of institutions. The overall rankings are based on the average score per institution from all respondents on all factors weighted according to their regional importance. Detailed information on the survey methodology is available on The Scientist Web site at Our sample of scientists was self-selected, and we have made no attempt to standardize the results or to conduct detailed statistical analysis.

Survey data and analysis provided by AMG Science Publishing.

1. "Recommendations for postdoctoral policies and practices," National Postdoctoral Association, Washington, DC, February 2005.
2. R. Harper-Mangels et al., "A 10-step plan for better postdoc training," The Scientist, 20(1):24-5, January 2006.