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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies 1 Postdoctoral Scholars in US Institutions Since the 1960s, the performance of research in the United States has relied more and more on graduate scientists and engineers who have recently earned a PhD or equivalent doctorate and are pursuing further education and training in their field or learning a new specialty. These postdoctoral scholars, or postdocs, work on a full-time but temporary basis for one or more years to gain additional research experience in preparation for a professional research career. Figure 1-11 shows that the vast majority of all postdocs who received doctorates at US institutions work in universities (approximately 80 percent), with smaller percentages working in government (13 percent) and industry (7 percent). The number of postdoctoral scholars has increased in all sectors since 1981. Within academia (see Table 1-1) 272 institutions have postdocs, with the largest number concentrated at the research-intensive institutions. Population growth. The roots of the postdoctoral phenomenon reach back just over a century to the 1870s, when high-level apprenticeships became part of the new European-modeled research institution. Johns Hopkins University adopted the apprenticeship model shortly after its founding in 1876, and in the 1920s the Rockefeller Foundation established formal postdoctoral fellowships in physical science, recognizing that physics had become too complex to learn within the time limits of traditional programs. The hiring of postdocs grew only modestly during the first half of the twentieth century. The first period of rapid growth began in the late 1950s, when the 1 The data for the figures and a detailed description of the data sources for the tables and figures in the guide can be found in Appendix B.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-1: Total Number of Postdoctoral Appointments in the Life Sciences, Engineering, Physics, Chemistry, and the Social/Behavioral Sciences, by Sector, 1981-1997. Source: 1981, 1985, 1989, 1993, and 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. Cold War stimulated federal spending and a sudden demand for scientists and engineers. PhDs awarded in science and engineering approximately tripled from 1960-1970.2 Increasingly, those completing graduate school (20-30 percent in most sciences, 50 percent in biomedicine) took postdoc positions to broaden or deepen their experience before moving to faculty or other research career opportunities. The nation's laboratories began to count on this new corps of skilled, low-cost apprentices to increase the productivity and quality of research. By the end of that decade growth had slowed. In the early 1970s the baby boom cohort passed through the system, recession came, and the government reduced support of graduate fellowships quite abruptly. 3 The smaller pool of graduate students left laboratories short-handed and, partly as a response, the number of non-US graduate students increased. 2 Fechter, A. E., and Gaddy, C. D. “Trends in Doctoral Education and Employment.” Higher Education: Handbook of Theory and Research, Vol. XIII. New York: Agathon Press, 1998. 3 Breneman, D. W. Graduate School Adjustments to the ‘New Depression' in Higher Education. National Board on Graduate Education Technical Report No. 3. Washington, DC: National Academy of Sciences, 1975.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies TABLE 1-1: Top 25 Academic Institutions with the Largest Total Number of Postdoctoral Appointments in 1998 Institution Astronomy Chemistry Physics Biological Sciences All Academic Institutions 357 3,716 1,859 15,480 Top 25 Harvard University 11 115 44 1,003 University of Calif at San Francisco 319 Stanford University 72 7 423 Johns Hopkins University 53 23 292 University of Calif at San Diego 86 54 269 University of Washington 6 28 24 439 University of Calif at Berkeley 35 169 24 475 University of Pennsylvania 52 45 302 University of California, Los Angeles 85 38 213 Duke University 29 293 University of Michigan 8 37 30 183 University of Colorado 36 67 163 Washington University 35 13 281 Univ of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 60 16 218 Cornell University 63 48 156 University of Minnesota 6 47 21 249 University of Southern California 45 5 125 University of Arizona 51 40 36 188 California Institute of Technology 21 96 54 170 University of Wisconsin-Madison 2 42 17 171 Massachusetts Institute of Technology 78 20 127 Indiana University 36 22 156 Baylor College of Medicine 257 Univ of Texas SW Medical Ctr at Dallas 277 Univ of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Ctr 2 233 Source: 1998 Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Scienceand Engineering A changing pattern. By the late 1970s, the pattern of postdoctoral behavior began to change. Numbers of postdocs increased as PhD labor markets weakened. The time spent as postdocs began to lengthen, suggesting difficulty in finding jobs. A substantial number of those receiving PhDs reported that they became postdocs because they had few other options.4 Employment conditions improved somewhat in the mid- and late 1980s, but 4 Zumeta, W. Extending the Educational Ladder: The Changing Quality and Value of Postdoctoral Study. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath/Lexington Books, 1985.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Earth, Amospheric and Ocean Sciences Engineering Health Sciences Mathematical & Computer Sciences Psychology Social Sciences Total All Disciplines 897 2,830 12,137 642 612 383 39,619 15 46 2,110 8 25 24 3,407 834 11 1 1,165 20 77 459 10 21 1,089 4 45 551 5 21 12 1,006 80 66 363 21 17 26 982 15 44 368 7 9 1 953 14 87 77 16 16 32 945 3 39 401 42 5 15 904 14 67 375 2 13 6 813 6 28 342 6 11 10 730 22 45 311 1 4 6 647 41 48 246 17 13 631 8 7 272 2 2 3 623 17 1 238 1 1 7 559 6 81 156 5 8 2 554 20 70 101 3 5 3 539 15 31 225 24 3 6 479 43 63 29 9 12 478 33 89 6 2 471 22 45 100 1 10 13 465 30 102 47 7 42 3 456 5 4 127 7 23 28 408 149 406 123 400 162 2 399 the recession of the early 1990s brought longer-lasting sluggishness and caution in university hiring.5 With limited permanent job prospects, the population of postdocs reached unprecedented size6 and postdoctoral terms lengthened.7 5 Zumeta, W. “State Higher Education Finance and Policy Developments: 1997.” The NEA 1998 Almanac of Higher Education. Washington, DC: National Education Association, 1998. 6 Association of American Universities. Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations. Washington, DC, 1998. 7 Regets, M. “Has the Use of Postdocs Changed?” National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Studies Issue Brief. NSF 99-310, 1999.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-2: Postdoctoral Appointees in Academic Institutions by Broad Fields, 1980-1998. Source: Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering, 1980-1998. Meanwhile the number of non-US graduate students and new PhDs in science and engineering leveled off in the early 1990s having grown for many years. Overall, the most significant growth in the postdoctoral population has taken place in the last 15 years (Figure 1-1). According to data gathered by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the number of postdocs in university departments of science and engineering more than doubled between 1981 and 1998, rising from approximately 18,000 to 39,000 (see Figure 1-2). A figure for the exact population of science and engineering postdocs across all sectors (including government and the private sector) is not available, but it is estimated to be approximately 52,000. 8 Slightly more than half of these postdocs are non-US citizens. It is difficult to predict whether this upward trend will continue. Figure 1-3 provides a history of the number of doctorates who are planning postdoctoral study compared to the total number of doctorates for the three fields that account for most of the postdocs in science and engineering: biological science, chemis- 8 Figure 1-2 only provides information for postdoctoral scholars who received their degrees from US universities. No source of data includes all sectors that employ postdoctoral scholars regardless of where they received their degree. This is important, given the large number of postdoctoral scholars who come to the United States from other countries. However, a rough estimate can be made by comparing data from several NSF sources (see Appendix E for discussion of sources). In 1997, the last year for which sector data exists, the number of postdoctoral appointments in academic institutions was 73 percent of the total appointments across all sectors. From the 39,619 academic appointments one can infer a total population of about 52,000.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-3: Number of Doctorates and the Number Planning Postdoctoral Study, 1975-1998, by Field. Source: 1975-1998 Survey of Earned Doctorates.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-4: Postgraduation Plans of Science and Engineering Doctorates at the Time They Received Their Degree, 1998. Source: 1998 Survey of Earned Doctorates. try, and physics/astronomy. Interestingly, the proportion of doctorates planning postdoctoral study was roughly constant from 1975-1994. However, beginning around 1994 the trends were no longer parallel, as a declining number of recent US doctorates have been planning postdoctoral study in the three fields examined. The importance of postdocs to research. As a whole, the postdoctoral population has become indispensable to the science and engineering enterprise, performing a substantial portion of the nation's research in every setting. For example, a survey of research articles in two recent issues of Science found that 43 percent of the first authors were postdocs.9 In many labs, postdocs also educate, train, and supervise junior members, help write grant proposals and papers, and present the laboratory 's research results at professional society meetings. More than 15 universities have postdoctoral populations that exceed 500 (see Table 1-1). Postdoctoral experiences are increasingly seen as central to careers in research. As illustrated in Figure 1-4, about 40 percent of the 1998 doctorates that plan to remain in the US will enter postdoctoral study rather than regular employment. 9 Vogel, G. Science, 1999, Vol. 285, p. 1531.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-5: Median Number of Years Spent in Postdoctorate Appointment for Doctorates in the 1989-1991 Year Cohort, by Degree Field and Citizenship at Time of Degree. Source: 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. A postdoctoral appointment is a virtual prerequisite for those wishing to carry out long-term, independent research in the life sciences, physics, chemistry, and a growing number of other fields.10 In addition, postdocs with experience in non-research settings (e.g., AAAS Congressional fellowships, National Academies internships) can substantially enhance their potential for employment in government and non-governmental organizations. Postdoctoral terms. The length of a postdoc term varies by field (see Figure 1-5). Biologists tend to stay on the longest (five years is common), engineers the shortest (a year is common). Postdoc terms for physical scientists are usually two or, at most, three years, but some physical scientists work as postdocs for six years, while a small percentage of researchers extend their postdoctoral terms indefinitely. There is no difference in the time spent in a postdoctoral position 10 Nearly a decade ago, Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California and chair of the Postdoctoral Education Committee of the Association of American Universities, stated that “...in an increasing number of fields, the postdoctorate is becoming the terminal credential, with the result that the PhD in those fields, while still very important, is becoming de facto an interim milestone.” See: AAU, Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations, Washington, DC: March 31, 1998.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies How Is the Duration of a Postdoctoral Appointment Determined? Responses to this question were divided fairly evenly. The largest number (58 percent) reported that the duration of an appointment may be determined primarily by the adviser at any time during the appointment. Almost as many (55 percent) reported that duration is determined primarily by the source of funding and/or funding availability. Some 45 percent reported that duration is determined before a postdoc 's arrival. Many institutions reported firm limits on postdoctoral terms (typically 3, 4, or 5 years). Others allowed for extensions “in special cases, ” which sometimes required the approval of an administration officer. Other policies were 1) to appoint postdocs for a year at a time, with renewal depending on funding and performance, and 2) to allow the length of training to vary by field and source of funding, with no suggested limit. COSEPUP Survey Results when viewed from the perspective of citizenship for all science and engineering doctoral fields, but in the biological sciences, chemistry, and especially in physics temporary residents spend longer periods in postdoctoral positions. The 1998 Association of American Universities report11 recommended limiting the total postdoctoral experience to six years; some universities now impose five-year limits, with exceptions for such circumstances as illness, childbirth, a need for exposure to multiple fields, or a need to finish a project that is in an advanced stage. The COSEPUP survey results suggest that institutions have a wide variety of policies on postdoctoral terms, and many institutions allow the adviser to determine the length of the term at any time during the appointment (see Box). Multiple postdoctoral positions. In some fields, such as neuroscience, genetics, and epidemiology, more than one postdoctoral position may be useful to gain multidisciplinary expertise. In other fields, a tight job market forces some researchers to complete two or even three postdoctoral appointments while they hunt for jobs. In some cases, multiple postdoctoral appointments may bring many years of low compensation and a lack of security and stability that is demoralizing and stressful. This is of special concern for postdocs with families. In other cases, researchers may continue beyond their postdoctoral term to spend their careers in successive soft-money positions they find challenging and rewarding. Unmet expectations. By design, the experience of postdocs should be professionally productive and career enhancing. For many of them, however, the 11 AAU, Committee on Postdoctoral Education, Report and Recommendations, 1998.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies TABLE 1-2: Comparison of Postdoc Annual Median Earnings with Other Populations, 1997-1998 Population Annual Median Earnings Minimum Wage (4) $10,300 Poverty Level, family of 2 (3) $11,060 Poverty Level, family of 4 (3) $16,700 Administrative Support, all workers (4) $24,120 All US workers (1) $26,150 POSTDOCTORAL SCHOLARS, Academic sector, within 6 years of PhD (2) $28,000 POSTDOCTORAL SCHOLARS, All sectors, within 6 years of PhD (2) $30,000 Technical Support, all workers (1) $32,420 Bachelor's degree recipient, 25-34 years old (1) $35,030 POSTDOCTORAL SCHOLARS, Industry sector, within 6 years of PhD (2) $36,000 POSTDOCTORAL SCHOLARS, Government sector, within 6 years of PhD (2) $37,000 Public school classroom teacher, average, all workers (1) $40,130 Master's degree recipient, 25-34 years old (1) $40,800 Assistant Professor, Science & Engineering, within 6 years of PhD (2) $42,800 Doctorate degree recipient, 25-34 years old (1) $47,780 Professional degree recipient, 25-34 years old (1) $58,080 Sources: 1. Statistical Abstract of the United States, 1999, Tables 266, 282, 702, and 703 and refer to the time period, 1997-1998. 2. 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. 3. Federal Register, Vol. 64, No. 52, March 18, 1999, pp. 13428-13430. 4. www.dol.gov/dol/esa/public/minwage/main.htm Notes: This analysis should be viewed as only a rough approximation. For comparison purposes, all analyses are on the basis of 40 hours/week, 50 weeks/year in the 1997-1998 timeframe. Benefits are not included above. The degree to which postdoctoral scholars receive benefits varies widely. experience falls short of expectations. They often fail to achieve the recognition, standing, or compensation that is commensurate with their experience and skills (See Table 1-2 for salary comparisons). It is not uncommon for postdocs to hold uncertain standing in the institutions where they work, to receive inadequate mentoring or technical supervision and, in some fields, to accept stipends and benefits substantially below those of their professional peers in academia, government, or industry, as well as below those of non-PhD technicians. Some
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies researchers continue to be categorized as “postdocs” for a decade or more after completing their doctorate. Many postdocs voice frustration at not finding the kinds of positions they anticipated—notably, academic positions—when they began their many years of graduate and postdoctoral education. According to the Survey of Doctoral Recipients, the opportunities for doctorates and postdoctorates to move into faculty positions have decreased significantly since 1987 (see Figure 1-6 for the ratio of tenured faculty positions to number of doctorates). A substantial minority of postdocs in all fields reported difficulty in finding the jobs they wanted, and that the reason for taking a first postdoctoral appointment was that “other employment was not available” (see Figure 1-7). The NRC's Trends report on the life sciences noted a 42 percent increase in PhD production between 1987 and 1996 that “was not accompanied by a parallel increase in employment opportunities.”12 The report stated that many recent graduates who are unable to find fulltime positions use the postdoctoral experience as a “holding pattern.”13 Similarly, an on-line survey of Baylor University School of Medicine 's postdocs in 1997 indicated that 34 percent had prolonged their terms because of difficulty in finding other employment; only 6 percent reported a “permanent career position that will start in the next 12 months.”14 Variations by field and sector. It is difficult, however, to draw broad conclusions about postdoctoral experiences, which vary widely by field and by sector. In some fields, such as computer science and engineering, there is relatively little incentive to pursue a postdoc—or even a PhD—because rewarding jobs are available at the bachelor's and master's levels. In other fields, such as biology and physics, a postdoc is virtually mandatory, especially for academic employment. Some postdocs, especially in government or industrial laboratories, are paid better than some junior faculty. Stipends for academic postdocs, however, especially in the life sciences and chemistry, may be $15,000 to $20,000 lower than for government or industry postdocs (Figure 1-8). Even within a single discipline, experiences differ across advisers, programs, employment sectors, and geographic regions. At its focus groups and workshop discussions, COSEPUP heard lively debates on the quality of the postdoc experience (see Appendixes). There was little disagreement about the potential value of research activities—almost all discussants agreed that the postdoctoral period can be one of the most professionally 12 Office of Scientific and Engineering Personnel, National Research Council, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists. Washington, DC: National Academy Press, 1998. 13 The report states: “The frustration of young [life] scientists caught in the holding pattern is understandable. These people, most of whom are 35-40 years old, typically receive low salaries and have little job security or status within the university. Moreover, they are competing with a rapidly growing pool of highly talented young scientists—including many highly qualified foreign postdoctoral fellows—for a limited number of jobs....” 14 See www.bcm.tmc.edu/pda/reference/proposal.html
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-6: Ratio of the Number of Tenured Faculty to the Number of New Doctorates Awarded in 1987 and 1997. Source: 1987 and 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-7: Reasons for Taking First Postdoctoral Appointment, by Field of Doctorate, 1997. Source: Survey of Doctorate Recipients, 1997.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies FIGURE 1-8: Median Salaries in 1997 for Doctorates in the Six-Year PhD Cohort, 1991-1996, by Field, Sector, and Type of Appointment. Source: 1997 Survey of Doctorate Recipients
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies rewarding of their lives. The debate focused instead on institutional standing, compensation, benefits, and other issues, which cause many postdocs to question the value of the experience. As some indicated, the lost-opportunity costs of forsaking other employment begin to outweigh the benefits of an otherwise fulfilling experience. Some postdoc advisers and representatives of funding organizations indicated that the low compensation received by many postdocs is justified because it is offset by the benefits of supervised education and training.15 Some postdocs, however, stated that they are regarded primarily as a “skilled pair of hands” that support the work of the principal investigator (PI), rather than as junior colleagues who only require further education and training to move toward their own research independence. Increasing age. Issues of standing and compensation are exacerbated by the increasing age of the postdoctoral population. Today's junior scientists and engineers take longer to complete their doctorates (the average PhD recipient in the life sciences is 32 years old),16 and many then take two or even three postdoctoral positions. In the Baylor survey, 67 percent of respondents were over age 30 and 21 percent were over age 35; 46 percent had children. The NSF reports a similar picture among the postdocs it funds (see further discussion in Chapter 2). Although many postdocs have families that include children, few institutions or funding organizations provide family health insurance, child care, or other family benefits received by others of similar professional stature. The same is true of their salary (Table 1-2). A debate over responsibility. Another debate that emerged during focus groups concerned whether the host institution or the funding organization bears the primary responsibility for providing benefits and oversight for the postdoc. Some PI's are reluctant to increase the salaries of their postdocs due to limited funds and the possible reduction in the number of postdocs they could fund. Even if they wish to do so, postdoc advisers indicated they face barriers from both the institution and the funding organization at the proposal acceptance stage and once funding is received. Some major funding organizations stated that institutions are directly responsible because they set salary compensation levels and receive funding (as a designated portion of each grant) from which to provide fringe benefits. Many institutions contend that funding organizations are primarily responsible, because they set the standard at which most postdocs are compensated. In particular, many universities use the scale NIH has developed for its National Research Service Award as it is the only standard available. 15 E.g., good supervision, depending on the postdoc's level of experience and skill, might include guidance in planning a research program, obtaining funding, managing a lab, mentoring others, and finding a permanent position. 16 The NRC's report Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists found that life scientists in the 1990s took two years longer to complete a doctorate than their predecessors of the 1960s and 70s.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies Further, some federal funding organizations (including NIH) prohibit supplementing a fellowship from other federal grants. The postdocs themselves expressed frustration at having no role in these debates. In this guide, COSEPUP provides information, principles, and recommendations for all involved in the postdoctoral experience with the goal of enhancing the postdoc experience while preserving the excellence of the research enterprise.
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ENHANCING THE POSTDOCTORAL EXPERIENCE FOR SCIENTISTS AND ENGINEERS: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies SUMMARY POINTS Since the 1960s the performance of research, especially in universities, has relied more and more on a growing population of postdoctoral scholars. The size of the postdoctoral population has increased without a parallel increase in the number of academic faculty positions. Postdoctoral experience is now seen as a virtual prerequisite for academic careers and many other research positions in the life sciences, physics, chemistry, and some other fields. The postdocs themselves do not always achieve recognition, status, or compensation commensurate with their experience and skill. Many postdocs remain in their positions for an indefinite number of years, beyond the five years or so during which they are reasonably considered trainees. Many postdocs report frustration at not finding the employment positions they anticipated in return for their years of intensive effort. The demographic characteristics of postdocs are changing. Many postdocs are in their middle to late 30s, with families that include children, and their medical and family support needs have increased.
Representative terms from entire chapter: