The National Academies Press recently published a report on "The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited", which was also summarized in Science magazine. (The committee chairman was interviewed in the magazine here.) This work updates a 2000 report called "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers".
The sources of concern have not changed much over time (my favorite excerpt of the report is in the summary: "Is it really necessary to remain in training until their mid-30s before being qualified for his or her chosen career trach? Are these highly qualified PhDs researchers receiving the recognition and remuneration that they deserve? Is there an appropriate balance between the number of postdoctoral researchers that are trained and the number of jobs that require postdoctoral training?"), but the number of PhDs has increased quite dramatically since the 2000 report.
The following particularly caught my attention: "One important finding is that the postdoctoral experience differs considerably among types of institutions. Compared to postdoctoral researchers working at universities, postdoctoral researchers who work at national labs or in industry are typically paid much more, remain for shorter periods, and are often offered fulltime jobs at the end of their appointment. Likewise, postdoctoral researchers who are on fellowships or traineeships have higher salaries, better mentoring, and more control over their research than those who are working under a principal investigator's research grant. The majority of postdoctoral researchers are working under research grants."
The Science summary packs a punch too: "Only a minority of the postdocs working in university labs have opportunities to receive high-quality training from eminent senior researchers, develop their own research ideas, gain experience in lab management and grant writing, acquire contacts and a publication record and, ultimately, move into a tenure-track position at a research institution." Ouch.
Another quote: "The current document observes that, especially since the 2000 report, a number of positive steps have occurred, such as establishment of postdoctoral offices at many universities and increased use of individual development plans to help postdocs clarify their career options." I don't have (and have never had) post-docs in my group, but I noticed how, a few years back, the NSF started requiring the PI of grant proposals to submit a mentoring plan for any post-docs the grant would fund. In retrospect, it seems awful to think that this was introduced because some (many?) post-docs were receiving no mentoring whatsoever from their faculty member, in spite of the faculty in this case being traditionally called "mentor" rather than advisor or supervisor. (Oh, the irony.)
I was initially taken aback by the following quote (by the committee chairman) in Science magazine: "We cannot, in my opinion, train too many STEM PhDs." That's a bit easy to say when you think of the meager salary that said post-docs receive. But it turns out that the committee also recommends a substantial increase in post-doc salaries, and that the full quote in the interview was: "We cannot, in my opinion, train too many STEM PhDs. It’s an ideal preparation for a technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world. But we can have too many people just defaulting into postdoc positions who don’t need to do so—and we do."
The report makes far-ranging recommendations to improve the post-doctoral experience. Here are a few:
- A limit of 5 years (cumulative) in duration for postdoctoral appointments,
- A use of the title "postdoctoral research" limited only to those people receiving advanced training in research, following by a transition to a permanent position (at the same institution or elsewhere) with a different title and appropriate salary.
- An increase in the post-doc starting salary provided by the NIH's National Research Service Award to $50,000, adjusted annually for inflation and regionally for cost of living and other factors.
- An environment that encourages post-docs to seek advice from multiple advisors.
- A bifurcation point between academic and non-academic careers that occurs before (not after) the post-doc experience.
Let's hope that, if we have to wait 14 more years for an update to this update, it will report substantial progress and improvement of the post-doc experience.