National Academies report urges higher salaries and better training for postdoctoral researchers

December 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

for-maggie-postThe National Academies released a report today that advocates for improvements in training and salary for postdoctoral fellows in academia. Although postdoctoral training is necessary to pursue careers in academia, it now frequently is associated with poor pay, indefinite terms and uncertain prospects for career advancement.

“The demand for junior research workers has boomed in recent decades, but the number of research faculty positions into which the junior researchers might hope to move has not kept pace,” Gregory Petsko, chairman of the Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers that wrote the report, said in a statement. “The result is a system that has created expectations for academic career advancement that in many — perhaps most — cases cannot be met.”

The report urges action in six areas: compensation, term length, position title and role definition, career development, mentoring and data collection.

The report specifically recommends:

1)      Postdoctoral salaries should be increased to at least $50,000 and adjusted annually for inflation. The starting salary at most institutions for many disciplines is $42,000. Furthermore, federal agencies should require institutions to provide documentation in grant proposals about the salaries the postdoctoral researchers will receive.

2)      Postdoctoral appointments should be for a maximum of five years. Funding agencies should assign each postdoctoral fellow an identifier to track them better.

3)      The title “postdoctoral researcher” should be used by institutions only for positions in which the individual receives significant advanced training in research. “Postdoctoral researcher” should not be used for people in positions that are more suitable for permanent staff scientists, such as lab managers, technicians, research assistant professors. The report also urges funding agencies to use “postdoctoral researcher” consistently and “require evidence that advanced research training is part of the postdoctoral experience.”

4)      Postdoctoral training should be viewed by graduate students and principal investigators as only a stage in which to gain advanced research training. It should not be considered the default step after Ph.D. training.

Institutions should make first-year graduate students aware about careers outside of academia. Mentors should become familiar with career-development opportunities at their institutions and through professional societies so that they can better advise mentees. Professional societies should gather information about the range of careers within their disciplines.

Graduate students and postdoctoral fellows should make use of the resources available to them.

5)      Training postdoctoral fellows entails more than just supervision. Mentoring should be emphasized. Postdoctoral fellows should be encouraged to seek guidance from multiple advisers besides their principal investigators, and they should seek out mentoring and resources from professional societies. (Related:  See this recent Nature Careers article about career-development opportunities, including ones at ASBMB.)

The report also calls for better data keeping on postdoctoral fellows. The committee found current data on postdoc demographics, career goals and career outcomes inadequate and out of date. “Only rough estimates of the total number of postdoctoral researchers, and no good information about what becomes of postdoctoral researchers who earned their Ph.D.s outside the United States, exist,” says the report.

The report recommends that that National Science Foundation establish a central database to track postdocs, including nonacademic and foreign-trained fellows. Moreover, funding agencies should “look favorably on grant proposals that include outcome data for an institution’s postdoctoral researchers.”

The last time the National Academies examined postdoctoral training was in 2000. A number of improvements have occurred since then, including the creation of offices of postdoctoral affairs at universities, requirements for mentoring plans in grant proposals to the NSF and some resources for postdocs to explore their career options and make more informed decisions.

However, other aspects have not improved. Data on the number of postdoctoral fellows and how postdoctoral fellows turn out are still inadequate. Moreover, the committee found “no convincing evidence that most postdoctoral researchers are receiving adequate mentoring.” The committee also said that “there is little evidence that universities and mentors are providing adequate information about and preparation for other types of careers.”

The committee appears to want to change the nature of postdoctoral research from a vague transition time back to an active career-development stage. As the committee writes in the preface of the report, “The postdoctoral period should be a defined period of advanced training and mentoring in research and that it should also be, as the majority of the committee members remembered from their own experience, among the most enjoyable times of the postdoctoral researcher’s professional life.”

Three ASBMB members were on the report committee: Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College; Carol Greider of Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and 2009 Nobel laureate; and Nancy Schwartz of the University of Chicago.

Maggie Kuo is ASBMB Today's science writing intern.

Maggie Kuo, the author of this blog post, is ASBMB Today’s science writing intern.

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