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Reforms Need To Overhaul Postdoctoral Education Experience, National Research Council Says

Report recommends five-year limit on work and a minimum salary of $50,000

by Andrea Widener
December 15, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 50

Significant changes are needed to improve the mentoring of postdoctoral scientists and prevent abuse of a system that is often focused on producing results rather than training scientists, says a National Research Council (NRC) report released last week.

“Most institutions don’t have any idea of how many postdocs they have, which suggests that postdocs are still invisible people,” says Gregory A. Petsko, chair of the committee that wrote the report and a professor at Weill Cornell Medical College.

The postdoctoral system has well-known problems—this is the fourth report on postdocs from NRC—but only a few reforms have taken hold. Meanwhile, the number of postdocs continues to grow.

The new report recommends major changes, including a five-year limit on total postdoctoral work and a minimum $50,000 salary with benefits to better reflect postdocs’ education and experience.

The National Postdoctoral Association supports both steps, Executive Director Belinda Lee Huang says. “We believe strongly that it should be a temporary training.”

Institutions and individual investigators need to improve mentoring and career development, starting in graduate school, the report says. That will ensure postdocs are getting advanced research training for a career, rather than filling the role of a technician or staff scientist. It will also help budding researchers realize that a postdoc is not required for many careers and should not be a default step for becoming a scientist.

The report lays out tasks for the federal government, research institutions, lab heads, professional societies, and postdocs, who need to be stronger advocates for themselves, Petsko says.


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