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Heavyweight academies take up the cause of US postdocs

Nature volume 407, page 119 (14 September 2000) | Download Citation

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Beleaguered postdoctoral researchers in the United States have acquired some influential allies. This week, the nation's academies of science, engineering and medicine released guidelines intended to improve the lot of postdocs — many of whom are frustrated by low pay, long hours and inadequate recognition for the work they do.

Postdoc groups hope this high-level endorsement of their complaints will give them leverage in negotiating for improved conditions. “I think it will make a fantastic difference,” says Pauline Wong, a postdoc in biological chemistry at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and president of its postdoctoral association. “It will open the eyes of institutions for whom postdocs' concerns are not on the radar screen.”

Postdocs exist in a netherworld between graduate students and faculty members, usually with no official status. As a result, they often miss out on the benefits assigned to these groups. Graduate students, for instance, receive training and career guidance, whereas faculty benefit from health insurance. And both students and faculty members can turn to established grievance procedures if problems arise. But postdocs say that their uncertain status leaves them vulnerable to neglect and exploitation by unscrupulous lab chiefs.

Responding to widespread complaints — and a few horror stories — the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine asked their Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy to investigate the issue. Over the past year, the committee has conducted focus groups, issued questionnaires and studied earlier surveys in compiling its report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers.

The report lists ten ‘action points’ for urgent attention (see box). It stresses that postdoc positions should be apprenticeships for a research career, not simply support for individual projects, and argues that postdocs should receive appropriate financial compensation. But it stops short of recommending a minimum salary.

Figure 1: Academic postdocs' pay lags behind other sectors.
Figure 1
Box 1: Actions to improve the postdoc's lot
  • Award institutional recognition, status and appropriate financial compensation.

  • Develop distinct policies and standards for postdocs.

  • Develop mechanisms for regular communication with advisers, institutions, funding organizations and disciplinary societies.

  • Monitor and provide formal performance evaluations.

  • Ensure postdocs have access to health insurance.

  • Set limits for total time of postdoc appointment.

  • Invite participation of postdocs when creating standards, definitions and conditions.

  • Provide substantive career guidance.

  • Improve quality of data on postdoctoral working conditions and employment prospects.

  • Improve the transition of postdocs to regular employment.

But will employers act on the recommendations? Kimberly Paul, a biochemistry postdoc and vice-president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association, believes the guidelines would have real teeth if grant-giving agencies wrote them into their conditions for receiving funding. The report encourages the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do this.

The NIH is changing the regulations for postdocs at its campus in Bethesda, Maryland. In fact, says Michael Gottesman of the NIH Office of Intramural Research, virtually all the recommendations are already in force for the agency's own postdoctoral employees.

But neither the NIH nor the NSF have done anything to enforce guidelines for postdocs employed on grants they award to universities. “This is not an enforcement agency,” says William Noxon of the NSF's Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “We can't really do anything.”

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