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Academic Careers , , ,

Nat’l Academies Hope to Build a Better Postdoc

Last week, the National Academies announced the creation of
a new committee
that will explore the state of the modern postdoctoral
experience for scientists and engineers. By identifying the current number of postdocs, number of tenure-track positions available, tenure success rates, and the working conditions, salary, and benefits for postdocs, they hope to inform future policies
that could better the situations of postdoctoral researchers in the United States.

“There’s an awareness that we have a lot of capable
people in their twenties and thirties that are in these holding patterns in
their careers,” says Kevin Finneran, director of the National Academy of
Science’s (NAS) Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy and responsible
staff officer for the new committee, in an interview with Science Careers.

The committee’s study is a follow-up to a 2000 study that found that many postdocs were frustrated feeling like they were spinning their wheels professionally, receiving relatively low pay and few benefits and failing to rise to their own professional expectations.

Their situation has markedly improved since then, Finneran says, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. He says the creation of the committee was inspired by numerous talks NAS president Ralph J. Cicerone had with faculty and postdocs around the country.

“The subject just kept coming up,” Finneran says. “Senior scientists were saying, ‘This isn’t working. Our postdocs are getting discouraged.’ “

The basic problem is that there simply aren’t enough new permanent or tenure-track positions created every year to keep pace with the number of scientists and engineers earning Ph.D.s. The postdoc position, once an opportunity to hone one’s skills and learn from more senior colleagues, has become an academic purgatory for scientists waiting for a tenure-track position to open up, many experts have been saying over the years.

What’s more, some universities effectively look at postdocs as a cheap source of high-quality labor, rather than as the next generation of leading scientists, Finneran says. In response — and partly due to NAS’s 2000 report — postdocs at many universities pushed for better wages and benefits. Some have even unionized.

The postdoc position is a period of transition, Finneran says, so now is a good time for NAS to revisit the topic. Members of the committee will look at the very foundation of the current postdoctoral system, he says. It’s possible that the entire system needs to be gutted and rebuilt from the ground up, he says, though no one can say what such a reformation would look like. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the best way to do this?’ ” he says.

The committee’s 12 members hail from a variety of large and small universities, government agencies, and professional associations. It originally included a postdoc — Lorraine Tracey — but she has since been hired as the director of biological research and development at NanoDetection Technology in Cincinnati, Ohio, though she remains on the committee.

Finneran says the committee’s meetings will be open to the public (the first is tentatively scheduled for early October in Washington, D.C. — check the National Academies’ Web site for the exact date and location closer to the meeting) and will invite comments and suggestions from current postdocs. He says the group will soon launch a Web site that will allow postdocs and others to interact with the committee and learn how they can participate in the debate.