The National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP), which conducted the study, estimates that there are currently some 52,000 postdocs in this country, constituting an integral part of the scientific workforce.
Three-quarters of them are in the life sciences and more than half are from foreign countries. This group of people had just fallen into a big crack,” says Maxine Singer, COSEPUP chair and president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C.
COSEPUP arrived at this bleak conclusion after conducting workshops and focus groups in which it gathered information from 39 groups of postdocs and advisers at 11 universities, seven national laboratories, and five private research institutes or companies. HHMI and other organizations provided support for the project.
The study, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, reports that most postdocs with whom the committee spoke are garnering valuable research experiences and laboratory skills. It also observes, however, that many of them are not gaining the lab-management and grant-writing experience that they need. It highlights such chronic problems as low levels of professional recognition and inadequate research and career guidance from postdoctoral advisers.
The myriad of postdoc designations at different institutions is also a problem; many universities don’t even know how many postdocs are on their campuses. The situation is exacerbated, especially in the life sciences, by the length of a postdoc position, which in biology is generally three and a half years or more. The main issue, however, as Singer points out, is “terribly low stipends.”
“One of the concerns that we recognized is that many postdocs feel very underpaid,” said COSEPUP member Brigid Hogan, an HHMI investigator at Vanderbilt University. The committee found that in 19971998 (the last year for which data were available) the median annual salaries for postdocs during the first six years after receiving the Ph.D. were $28,000 in academia, $36,000 in industry and $37,000 in government.
Such salaries may be adequate in certain parts of the country but COSEPUP noted that no allowance is made at most institutions for geographical differences in the cost of living. How do postdocs in urban areasthe land of four-digit rentsmake ends meet? “For myself and some others, we have spouses who aren’t postdocs and [who] do get paid well,” says Mary O’Riordan, a second-year postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley.
Having a well-paid wife or husband is not a universal situation, however, and many postdocs must resign themselves to several years of poverty and even go into debt for such basic items as childcare and rent. “It’s unfortunate,” says O’Riordan, who is president of the Berkeley Postdoctoral Association. “Most postdocs I know would like to put away for retirement and save, but it’s just not an option.”
Some institutions in high-cost regions do make allowances. The Gladstone Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, adds a 10 percent living allowance to its postdoc stipends, which are already more than 15 percent above the government’s level. Farther up the coast, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle provides subsidized childcare. These examples are not the norm, however, nor does tweaking the stipends in high-cost regions fundamentally address the modest salaries that postdocs receive, regardless of their locations.
The National Institutes of Health recently increased stipend levels for its National Research Service Awards (NRSA) by 5 percent. For 2001, the NRSA annual salary is $28,260 for entry-level postdocs, $29,832 for researchers with one year of experience and jumps to $35,196 for those with two years of experience. In response to the COSEPUP report, NIH pledged to raise the NRSA levels by 1012 percent a year to a target of $45,000 for new postdocs, and to institute annual cost-of-living increases.
“It’s clear that NIH’s NRSA stipends are the de facto standard for many stipends in the life sciences,” says O’Riordan. What’s more, she adds, “NIH is trying to be more responsive in raising stipends.” Walter Schaffer, an NIH research training officer, says the agency is supportive of future increases, although obliged to proceed carefully. NIH addressed the COSEPUP report at length in a special Web site at grants.nih.gov/training/nas_report/NIHResponse.htm. Although NRSA stipends may set the standard, there is no guarantee that other institutions will meet it. Last fall, for instance, in a survey of postdocs at one research university, 13 of 25 respondents reported annual salaries at least $1,000 lowerand sometimes much lowerthan the 1999 NRSA guidelines.
To remedy the general situation, the COSEPUP report spells out responsibilities for each group integral to the postdoc experience: the postdocs themselves, postdoc advisers, administrators and institutions, professional societies and funding organizations. “Each one needs to do different things,” says Singer. “The societies can do a lot to foster attention by mentors. On the other hand, a lot rests on the particular mentors themselves, but also on the postdocs. Certainly the funding agencies could catalyze change by providing more money for stipends. There’s something for everyone to do.”
The committee’s main recommendations address the complexity of this issue:
- Postdocs should define their objectives, contribute their best efforts, take equal responsibility with advisers for communicating their needs and bear primary responsibility for their own success.
- Advisers should provide an educational experience that helps advance the postdoc’s career, clearly communicate expectations, act as mentors in research and for related skills and issues, see that postdocs meet other potential mentors, evaluate progress at least once a year, provide career counseling and assist in job placement.
- Institutions should establish explicit policies and minimum salaries, provide access to health insurance, maintain a postdoc office or officer, offer a standard employment contract, ensure career guidance, ask advisers each year for written evaluations of their postdocs and support a postdoc association.
- Professional societies should play a larger role in career guidance, support job hunting, develop norms for postdocs, collect and analyze postdoc employment data and organize workshops that help postdocs gain useful career skills.
- Funding organizations should craft a definition of postdocs that recognizes their unique status, establish terms and conditions that include appropriate salaries, benefits and reviews and play a larger role in encouraging best practices.
The report also had a few suggestions exclusively for the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation: establish a central postdoc office, develop criteria for postdoc pay scales, meet regularly with postdoc organizations and, for the NIH only, permit institutions and principal investigators to combine funding for traineeships and research grants, allowing the needed flexibility to increase stipends.
Though the COSEPUP report was seen as an important step, postdocs agree that the momentum for improving their situation must be maintained. Thus some 300 people, mostly postdocs themselves, convened in March at the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) in Washington, D.C., for a follow-up meeting. There, in the auditorium off the Great Hall where Foucault’s Pendulum keeps tabs on Earth’s rotation, they shared their impressions of the report and of what their institutions planned to do about the committee’s many recommendations.
Melanie Leitner, co-chair of the steering committee for the Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellows Association at Washington University, for example, pointed out that the report has led her institution to begin creating a postdoc office. In a similar spirit, Michigan State University has hosted a workshop on conflict resolution exclusively for postdocs, and the University of Chicago has formed a postdoc welcoming committee, postdoc e-mail list and Web page devoted to postdoc-related issues. What’s more, postdocs themselves are organizing. “If you look at postdoc organizations that are more than five years old, there are a handful,” said Leitner, “but if you count the ones that are two years old and younger, there’s a big bump up.”
Those attending the NAS meeting observed that it will be challenging to coordinate postdocs on a national level, given the disparities in everything from where postdocs work to what they’re called. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has provided some help: last November, Science magazine’s NextWave Web site (nextwave.sciencemag.org) created the Postdoc Network to serve as a national forum for exchanging ideas on issues faced by postdocs. Every week, the site posts discussions on subjects such as salary, benefits, career needs and the evolution of postdoc associations. It also links to more than 50 postdoc associations at institutions in the United States, and it provides data on salaries and policies for most of them.
The sense of the NAS meeting, however, was that the real work has yet to begin, especially when it comes to increasing salaries. “I’m glad that all the parties got together,” says Leitner, who was also active in graduate-student leadership when she was an HHMI predoctoral student at Washington University. “It was very valuable. But as a postdoc I was struck that no group picked up the charge and said: ‘This is terrible. We need to do everything we can to fix it.’ ”
The March convocation was “very encouraging,” agrees Berkeley’s O’Riordan. “I felt there was a real willingness from all parties to consider the [COSEPUP] report’s guidelines. But one of my impressions was that there was a real lack of clear solutions for implementation. It remains unclear who will take responsibility for what.”
Still, the consensus was that legions of postdocs out there are thankful for the new threshold set by the report. “I know that postdocs themselves have become bolder because they can point to this,” remarks Singer. “I believe that this report has really catalyzed something.”
this story in Acrobat PDF format.
Reprinted from the HHMI Bulletin,
July 2001, pages 20-23.
©2001 Howard Hughes Medical Institute