Invisible No More: Making Progress on Policies for Postdoctoral Training
By: Sylvina Raver, Ph.D.
The biomedical research enterprise in the United States is in trouble. Recent unprecedented volatility in federal research funding has prompted the biomedical workforce to grow at a faster pace than the number of available research positions. Funding booms, such as those that occurred in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, enabled research institutions to train more young scientists, while simultaneously increasing the dependence of the entire research structure upon external federal funding. Subsequent funding cuts, as have occurred since 2003, cause the research system to contract and force young investigators into a saturated employment market after they complete their training. This workforce imbalance is a key driver of the hyper-competitive environment that now permeates the entire biomedical research endeavor and has prompted scientific leaders and professional societies, such as the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), to call the current state of US research “unsustainable,” and demand “immediate attention and action” to address its flaws.
Postdoctoral researchers, or postdocs, are vital to the research enterprise, as they perform much of the nation’s research, train junior scientists, and write grant applications and publications. Postdoctoral training conforms to an apprenticeship model in which postdocs are trained in the image of their mentor (the PI) and are expected to devote all of their effort toward conducting lab research. However, recent accounts suggest that only 15% of postdocs will go on to head a research lab. PI’s often lack knowledge about career trajectories outside of academia, and many universities and research institutions do not offer professional development for careers other than in research. The length of postdoctoral appointments has steadily increased, indicating that postdocs are struggling to find suitable positions after completing their training. Indeed, the average age at which a new investigator in the United States lands a tenure-track academic position is now 37 years old.
Despite the crucial role that postdocs play in the research community, they have long been considered an “invisible university”, as data on their numbers and career outcomes have not been well-documented. Around 30,800 to 63,400 postdocs are estimated to be currently pursuing science, health, or engineering research in the US. However, these estimates are grossly inaccurate, as these numbers do not include postdocs employed outside of academia, those training in the humanities, or postdocs with doctorates from non-US universities who may represent as much as 60% of the population. Postdocs often exist in a nebulous realm between employment categories and can thus find themselves without many benefits, such as health insurance or retirement contributions, afforded to other employees with comparable credentials and experience.
The National Postdoctoral Association’s (NPA) 2014 Institutional Policy Report revealed a typical postdoc in the US today is a scientist in their early to mid 30’s: who is likely a foreign citizen with a temporary visa, who holds their appointment for 5-6 years, is paid the minimum NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) recommended stipend of $42,000, and who may be offered professional development only for a research career. Given the likelihood that postdocs will find a career away from the bench, training in skills relevant to an expanded sphere of employment is crucial.
The NPA is dedicated to improving the postdoc experience through education, advocacy, and community building. It convenes an annual meeting to pursue this mission in coordination with individual postdocs, Postdoctoral Associations (PDAs), Postdoctoral Offices (PDOs) and other organizations that share a stake in postdoctoral training. The 2015 meeting was held from March 13-15, during which attendees discussed pressing issues affecting the postdoc community and the biomedical research enterprise, and identified possible solutions to many of these challenges. While PDAs and PDO’s strive to enact the NPA’s recommendations at their home institutions, the NPA is actively consulting with national agencies, including the NIH, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Academy of Sciences, on policy decisions that affect the entire postdoc community. Ongoing NPA advocacy efforts include proposed “increases for NIH training stipends, requirement for mentoring plans on NIH grants, more independent funding for postdocs, and increased data collection on postdocs, including tracking outcomes” (page 4 of the NPA’s 2014 Institutional Policy Report).
The NPA is not alone in its efforts, and through coordination with other groups, significant progress for postdocs has been made. A follow-up to a 2000 National Academies’ report titled, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, notes many major achievements. For example, the NPA’s creation in 2003 has provided a unified voice for the postdoc community, and more research institutions are participating in the NPA’s National Postdoc Appreciation Week, which recognizes postdocs’ efforts. Many universities are creating designated offices to better serve postdocs’ needs. The NSF now requires research proposals that include plans for hiring a postdoc to also include plans for mentorship. The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has developed myIDP, an online tool that helps postdocs better understand available career options and helps them create individual development plans to better inform career decisions.
Despite these achievements, the 2014 National Academies report outlines six interconnected recommendations for improving postdoctoral training that will require concerted and coordinated efforts at all levels of the research enterprise for successful implementation:
- Period of Service: limit postdoc appointments to 5 years, barring extraordinary circumstances,
- Title and Role: reserve the title of “Postdoctoral Researcher” only for those requiring advanced research training,
- Career Development: expose graduate students to non-academic career paths in their first year of training, and explain that postdocs are only for those wishing to continue in research,
- Compensation and Benefits of Employment: raise the NIH NRSA postdoc starting salary to $50,000, annually adjust it for inflation, and provide the same benefits to postdocs that are provided to equivalent full-time employees,
- Mentoring: encourage host institutions and funding agencies to urge postdocs to seek advice from multiple mentors; hold institutions accountable for evaluating the quality of mentorship,
- Data Collection: maintain a database that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdocs.
The venerated reputation of National Academy members lends credibility and political clout to these policy recommendations. However, some young investigators are eager to take more active roles in the future of the research enterprise. In October 2014, a team of Boston area postdocs held a symposium titled, “The Future of Research”. This event included workshops that elicited the opinions of postdoc and graduate student participants on “problems and solutions surrounding training, the structure of the research workforce, funding, and incentives and rewards in science.” A report of this event was quickly made available and distilled many ideas discussed during this symposium into three overarching recommendations:
- Increase connectivity between junior scientists and other stakeholders
- Increase transparency of career outcomes for postdocs and expectations for individual postdoctoral appointments
- Increase investment in junior scientists to allow for greater independence at this stage of training
The Future of Research organization provides resources for those interested in convening similar symposia to engage their local postdoc communities.
The challenges faced by the postdoctoral research community are complex and require coordination among all stakeholders to remedy. Although postdocs may feel as though they toil in the background of the research enterprise, it is encouraging to know that organizations such as the NPA, the National Academies, PDAs, PDOs, and grassroots assemblies of postdocs are working daily to enact meaningful change.