Better Working Conditions, Compensation, Benefits Needed

2002-03-14 19:04
Better Working Conditions, Compensation, Benefits Needed
For Growing Population of Postdoctoral Scholars

WASHINGTON -- Employment conditions for postdoctoral scholars, especially at universities, need to be significantly improved to develop the human capital necessary for a healthy research enterprise in the United States and to maintain the nation's global leadership in science and technology, says a new guide from a committee of the National Academies.

Since the 1960s, universities and other research organizations in the United States have come to rely more heavily on a growing population of postdoctoral scholars to carry out research endeavors. These scholars -- commonly known as postdocs -- are scientists and engineers who have recently earned a doctorate and are pursuing more training in their profession or learning a new specialty. They typically work in academia, government, industry, or private research institutes for a few years under the guidance of an adviser to gain additional research experience. The postdoctoral population has more than doubled in the past 10 years to about 52,000, according to the committee's estimates.

"There are several unfortunate consequences of the rapid growth of the postdoctoral population in the United States, including embarrassingly low pay and meager benefits for many postdocs," said Maxine F. Singer, chair of the National Academies' Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy, and president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington, Washington, D.C. "Although many postdocs have stimulating and productive research experiences under the supervision of attentive, thoughtful mentors, we also learned about postdocs who are neglected, even exploited, while making creative and fundamental contributions to the research projects on which they work."

While most postdoctoral students value highly their experiences and the opportunity to engage in rewarding research without competing responsibilities, many of them are dissatisfied with their situations. Postdocs frequently have uncertain status in university settings since they are not faculty, staff, or students. They often receive no clear statement of the conditions of their appointments and have no place to go to determine appropriate expectations or redress grievances. Administrative responsibility is commonly lacking for assuring fair compensation or providing adequate benefits or job security. At times, the postdoctoral scholar is not well-matched with the research setting, guidance is poor, or a mentoring relationship with their adviser fails to develop, the guide says.

In response to these findings, the committee set forth several guiding principles for the postdoctoral experience. First and foremost, it should be viewed as an apprenticeship with the purpose of gaining scientific, technical, and other skills that advance the postdoc's professional career. Second, postdocs should receive appropriate compensation, benefits, and recognition for their contributions to research. Third, to ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, everyone involved should agree on a clear and mutual understanding of the nature and purpose of the appointment.

When considering needed improvements, it is essential to recognize that situations differ markedly from discipline to discipline and from setting to setting, the committee said. Postdoctoral scholars themselves vary in proficiency -- some are very experienced with little need for guidance, while others require substantial coaching. They also vary in the rate at which they learn. Moreover, slightly more than half of postdoctoral scholars are not U.S. citizens and face additional challenges related to culture and language.

To remedy some of the problems and enhance the postdoctoral experience, the guide recommends that the entire research community -- postdocs, advisers, institutions, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies -- follow a set of action steps:

> Institutional recognition and status should be awarded commensurate with the contributions of postdocs to the research enterprise. Postdocs should be assured access to health insurance and to institutional services. Distinct policies and standards also should be developed for postdocs in their institutions, especially universities where these policies can be molded on those already available to students and faculty. And postdocs should be invited to participate in creating standards, definitions, and conditions for appointments.

> Mechanisms for frequent and regular communication between postdocs and their advisers, institutions, and funding organizations should be developed. This communication should include initial expectations on the part of both postdoc and adviser. Advisers should submit formal evaluations, at least annually, of the performance of postdocs. Without evaluations, some postdocs may be uncertain about their standing or progress.

> Limits should be set for the total time spent as a postdoc. This should be about five years at all institutions, with clearly described exceptions, so that these scholars are able to assume professional level positions within a reasonable amount of time.

> Substantive career guidance should be provided to improve postdocs' ability to prepare for regular employment and take steps to improve the transition of postdocs to regular career positions.

> The quality of data should be improved both for postdoctoral working conditions and for the population of postdocs in relation to the availability of jobs in research. Prospective postdocs should be informed about job market demand so they can make better decisions about whether additional experience is necessary.

The committee plans to distribute the guide widely to postdocs, advisers, administrators, funding organizations, and disciplinary societies, and make presentations at major meetings of scientists, engineers, and university administrators throughout the country. An enhanced Web version, with links to best practices, discussions, and other resources, is available.
The present postdoctoral experience has many marvelous aspects, and these must continue, the committee said. But the scientific and engineering enterprise also must improve those elements that are not working well. The guide is designed to maintain the vigor, excitement, and leadership of the U.S. research community by ensuring that all in the system are treated appropriately.

The development of this guide was supported by the National Research Council, Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the Sloan Foundation. The National Academies comprise the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council. They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter. A committee roster follows.


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