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Improving the Postdoc

Although not broken, the postdoctoral system has deficiencies that could be remedied

January 26, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 4

For many people who earn Ph.D.s, the expectation that they will go on to a postdoctoral position is simply a fact of life. Traditional postdoctoral positions generally involve scientists spending one or two years following the completion of their graduate studies doing research to improve their capabilities or move into new areas. Such positions best prepare people to move into academic positions. Although the postdoc system has served many scientists well, people also see problems and a number of ways in which it could be improved.

"Fundamentally, the postdoctoral system--indeed, the whole seamless system of graduate education through the postdoc and even through the early-career faculty stage--is not broken," says Robert L. Lichter, principal at Merrimack Consultants, which specializes in higher education issues. "It's good, but can it be better?"

Last year, Lichter, together with Geraldine Richmond of the University of Oregon and Willie Pearson Jr. of Georgia Institute of Technology, organized a workshop to discuss the postdoctoral experience, with funding from the Chemistry Division of the National Science Foundation. The report from that workshop is available online at


"Nobody is arguing that [the traditional postdoc] should be thrown away. Quite the contrary, it's a proven mechanism for a well-populated career pathway," Lichter says. Instead, Lichter hopes that the postdoctoral system can be broadened to provide options for people who think that they may not want to go into laboratory research and academic positions.

Tracy L. Morkin's postdoctoral experience is an example of how the traditional postdoc can be adapted to include other interests. Her position combined the traditional postdoc, which she did at Columbia University with Nicholas J. Turro, with exposure to topics outside the laboratory, including science policy and education. In conjunction with the Nanotechnology Science & Engineering Research Center at Columbia, Morkin and Turro organized a workshop for the Columbia community on nanotechnology at the science and society interface, which gave Morkin an opportunity to delve into science policy issues. She and Turro also put together an educational module on zeolites for advanced high school students, early college students, and scientifically interested members of the public. Morkin's interests have always been in undergraduate education, and she believes that her postdoctoral experience has prepared her well. She is currently a lecturer at Emory University.

Morkin, left, a lecturer at Emory who had an atypical postdoc experience, talks with undergraduates.
Morkin, left, a lecturer at Emory who had an atypical postdoc experience, talks with undergraduates.

"Compared with my colleagues and other people I've spoken to, my experience has been fairly atypical," Morkin says. "Most postdocs that I've spoken to have definitely been in the lab researching and very little else."

AT COLUMBIA, as at many other institutions, postdocs are closely associated with their research groups and less with the department as a whole. However, Morkin doesn't think that her personal experience could have been improved on the institutional level.

"I sought out the opportunities to do things I wanted to do, whether I was presented with them or not," she says. For example, she became involved with NSF's Research Experiences for Undergraduates Program. "I volunteered to be a part of the departmental framework more than I might otherwise have been."

Morkin does suggest, however, that departments could benefit from incorporating postdocs more fully into the life of the department. "Very few people do their grad work and postdoc at the same place. Postdocs bring many valuable perspectives from their experience at other institutions," she notes. "I think it would be fantastic if departments chose to tap into those resources."

James Vyvyan, associate professor of chemistry at Western Washington University, Bellingham, also had a good experience as a Dreyfus postdoctoral fellow at Hope College in Holland, Mich., working with Stephen K. Taylor. "The Dreyfus program, when structured appropriately, is possibly the ideal preparation for an academic career in a predominantly undergraduate institution," Vyvyan says. This program is sponsored by the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation "to attract talented Ph.D. recipients to careers as teacher-scholars in chemistry, chemical engineering, and biochemistry departments of undergraduate colleges and universities," according to the foundation's website.

While Vyvyan was a postdoc, he taught classes and directed undergraduate research. In addition to helping supervise Taylor's research students, Vyvyan had the opportunity to develop his own research ideas. Many people think of the Dreyfus fellowship as a "teaching postdoc," Vyvyan says, but actually it involves both teaching and research. "The teaching is certainly important, but learning how to supervise research students is critical in terms of preparing someone for an academic career."

At Hope, Vyvyan was treated as a regular faculty member in many respects. "I was involved in all of the department meetings, and my input was welcomed and valued in terms of departmental decision-making," he says. "I had full autonomy in the courses I was teaching. When I did get into a tenure-track position, I was ready to go. The learning curve was not very steep because I had that additional experience."

Vyvyan's experience was unusual. One of the ambiguities postdocs regularly face is their classification at their institutions, where they usually occupy a no-man's-land between students and professionals. "Most institutions don't even have postdocs on their screens. They are literally invisible," Lichter says.

BUT THAT may be changing, thanks to a growing number of institutions with postdoc associations and to the efforts of the National Postdoctoral Association. NPA was founded last year under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Through a series of meetings, "it became clear that there was a need for a national professional association that could address postdoctoral issues on a national level," says Alyson Reed, executive director at NPA. The organization sees itself as an advocate for postdocs with the federal agencies that fund postdocs. In particular, NPA addresses career development and transition issues, other workforce issues, and the way postdocs are treated during their appointment.

However, NPA is not trying to fit all postdocs into a single mold. "We understand that different institutions have unique needs," Reed says. "Some of the funding agencies that have set up postdoctoral programs have legitimate reasons for structuring them in different ways. We don't want to stifle that process or diminish those needs. But there's no question that the variety of ways in which postdocs are classified--Are they employees? Are they students? Are they trainees? Are they staff researchers?--makes it harder to gather coherent data about where they are and what they're doing."

Reed points out that the standard of living for postdocs may vary greatly, even within a single institution. Whether postdocs have benefits such as medical insurance can depend on their source of funding. "We are trying to address variability when it has a negative impact, but we understand that there will probably always be a certain amount of variability because each institution is unique and postdocs are unique individuals," she says.

Government agencies are addressing some of these issues as well. The National Institutes of Health is considering changes to its Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award fellowship (NRSA). NIH has already committed to increasing the salary level to $45,000, to make the salary more competitive with those in other sectors and to increase the attractiveness of scientific careers. However, many recipients of NRSA fellowships are at a disadvantage compared with postdocs paid with research grant funds because they lose employee benefits when they receive the fellowship.

Earlier this month, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) sent a letter to NIH Director Elias Zerhouni expressing the organization's "concern over current program guidelines and stipulations that lead to significant disadvantages to Kirschstein-NRSA postdoctoral fellows and trainees." FASEB recommends that the awards "should unambiguously state that funds to offset benefits costs are available to its fellows and trainees."

Philip A. Osdoby, professor of biology at Washington University, St. Louis, chaired the committee that drafted the FASEB letter. "Years ago, those awards were very prestigious to have," Osdoby says. "Our concern was that there really has been a falloff of people applying for those awards. We thought that one of the reasons for that related to the disparity in the benefits that awardees would be getting if they were paid off an R01," which is a type of NIH research grant.

NIH IS TAKING steps to address such concerns. At the Jan. 12 meeting of the Advisory Committee to the Director, the director's senior adviser, Kirschstein herself, who is spearheading NIH's efforts in this area, presented four proposals from a working group at NIH addressing postdoctoral issues.

One proposed program will provide one-time funding to help establish postdoctoral offices at institutions. In addition, the working group suggests the development of a uniform benefits package to enable equitable treatment for all postdocs, regardless of the type of appointment. The working group also proposes the development of a mechanism to collect data from NIH grants on training and career pathways of postdoctoral fellows. Finally, the working group suggests providing portable or transition grants to give promising postdoctoral fellows the means to advance to independent positions. Kirschstein says these proposals need to go through several levels of vetting before they are ready for implementation.

Lichter would like to see a "broader view" taken of what constitutes a postdoctoral position. Individuals who employ postdocs need to recognize that allowing postdocs time to broaden capabilities in areas outside of research is desirable, Lichter says. The report from the workshop Lichter coorganized also calls upon more nonacademic organizations to offer postdoctoral opportunities.

The Chemistry Division at NSF has already instituted a fellowship program that may make such appointments a reality. The Discovery Corps Fellowships pilot program is aimed at scientists who want to take on challenges other than traditional lab work (C&EN, Oct. 13, 2003, page 54). Fellowships are available for recent Ph.D. graduates and for those with at least 10 years of experience beyond the Ph.D. degree.

Lichter believes that many of the same recruitment issues found in attracting minority students to graduate school are also operating at the postdoctoral level. "We say we want the best people we can get, but then we say if they don't come to us we can't appoint them," he says. "The real issue is how do we establish a real presence in the communities where we're going to find people."

Programs such as the Discovery Corps Fellowships, Lichter believes, are a good start to effecting change and improvement at the postdoctoral level. But even more important, he says, is a national discussion already started on ways that the postdoctorate can be improved.


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