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The Current State of the Postdoc Experience

An important step in the career of many higher education professionals starts with a postdoctoral position. These positions provide the necessary experience, mentoring, and networking opportunities for a person's career. For this career topic, we reached out to Cathee Johnson Phillips, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association for a conversation regarding "postdocs" and advice for people who are looking to obtain a postdoctoral position. The National Postdoctoral Association works to advocate for postdoctoral positions and to help academia and industry understand the vital role postdocs play in their organizations.

After reading, we invite you to continue the discussion in our LinkedIn group or follow HigherEd Careers on Twitter.
Andrew Hibel, HigherEdJobs: What is a postdoctoral position and how has the job changed over the years? Has this change had a positive or negative impact on postdocs?

Cathee Johnson Phillips, National Postdoctoral Association: The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) define a postdoctoral position as "a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path." The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) worked with these organizations to establish this "official" definition, and we fully support it.

I should point out that there are various titles for a "postdoc," usually related to how the position is funded and whether the institution classifies a postdoc as an employee. For example, a postdoc might be called a "research associate," or a "postdoctoral fellow," or a "postdoc paid direct," or... So that's important to keep in mind when looking for a postdoc position.

While the general "job description" of the postdoc has not changed that much, the number of postdocs has. Since the '70s, the number of postdocs has steadily increased, as has the number of fields that offer or require postdocs. The number of postdoctoral scholars in the United States on temporary visas has tripled since 1985. Also, in biomedical fields, a postdoc has become required if a person has any hope of becoming a faculty member on the tenure track or wants to succeed on other biomedical career tracks.

The length of a postdoc also was dramatically increasing from a few years to more than five years or even ten years. That trend seems to have reversed in 2005. Finally, the U.S. scientific enterprise has become increasingly dependent upon postdocs to conduct research and maintain its position in the global research enterprise.

Source for these statistics: National Science Foundation Division of Science Resource Statistics. (January 2008). Science and engineering indicators 2008. Arlington, VA: National Science Board.

The impact of these changes is difficult to pinpoint; we need more data to understand why these changes are taking place as well as the impact they are having. For example, the data that we do have suggests that if a person remains in a postdoc for longer than five years, their chances of having a successful career in science diminishes. Of course, that may depend on how you define "successful." For sure, the postdoc has become a necessary position within the scientific enterprise. And, because the postdoc has become such an established part of the U.S. research system, the issues of appropriate compensation and benefits and working conditions have become paramount within the postdoctoral community. The negative impact is that we have more persons paid inadequately and more persons without benefits, as many postdocs are not considered employees. The positive impact is that the larger postdoc workforce now has a stronger national voice and can work to improve compensation and benefits and the working conditions. That's why the NPA was founded--to represent that national voice.

Hibel: For what type of professional would a postdoctoral position be an ideal job from which one can build a career?

Phillips: The majority of these positions are found in science, especially in the life sciences. Postdocs are increasing in the computer/mathematical sciences, the physical sciences, the social sciences, and engineering, and also outside of science, in the humanities. A biomedical scientist comes the closest to being the professional for whom a postdoc would be ideal, although, used properly, a postdoc can be invaluable for any professional.

Hibel: How can a person get the most out of the postdoctoral experience?

Phillips: Network. Network. Network.

And, possibly change one's attitude. Don't look at the postdoc as just a period of advanced research and increasing knowledge of a discipline. Also look at it as a time of professional development and growth in regard to lifelong learning and critical skills such as communication, professional etiquette, leadership and management, and responsible conduct of research.

Ph.D. candidates need to research postdocs while still in graduate school. They need to network with other postdocs and postdoc advisors. Call up an institution's postdoc office (if they have one) and visit with them. They need to understand the nature of the postdoc and know what questions to ask.

BOTH prospective and current postdocs need to ask themselves, "What are my long-term career goals and what do I need from my postdoc to achieve these goals?" In this economic climate, with fewer tenure-track academic positions available each year, they need to consider all of their career options. There are self-assessment tools, such as FASEB's Individual Development Plan (IDP), and resources, such as the NPA's Core Competencies, that can help them to consider what they need to get out of the postdoc to succeed.

Hibel: What are some of the most important questions a person should ask of a potential postdoctoral advisor?

Phillips: They need to ask discipline-specific questions in order to be sure that the postdoc will meet their career expectations. They also need to ask (and negotiate for):
  1. What is the compensation? Does your funding provide annual increases?
  2. How many hours a week will I be expected to work?
  3. What benefits will I receive? Will the funding cover any of these benefits? How much will I have to pay for these benefits? Or, conversely, how much will the institution pay on my behalf?
  4. Is there paid time off? Is there any type of paid maternity/paternity leave?
  5. Do you conduct annual reviews? Is there any kind of formalized performance evaluation? (Yes is good; No is not so good.)
  6. What kind of professional and career development opportunities are there? Are there any structured mentoring opportunities? Will you allow me to spend time pursuing these opportunities?
  7. What funding is there for travel to conferences to present papers, etc.?
  8. Will I be allowed to write grants for my own funding?
  9. Will I be allowed to publish? At what level of authorship? (Disciplines have different protocol regarding "first author," "last author," etc.)
  10. What is the average length of time a person spends in a postdoc under you? Will you help me to find a permanent position as my postdoc ends?
You'll have to weigh all these answers and then decide what your priorities are. A negative answer may not necessarily be the reason NOT to accept the position--but you should go into it with your eyes open.

Hibel: What are your top recommendations for using LinkedIn or other professional networking sites?

Phillips: Definitely use them, but be careful how you present yourself. Consider your profile as an informal, but serious, job application for everyone that sees it. If you are interested in a position at an institution, try to find others in your desired position at this institution and link with them. Then, see what you can learn about their postdoc experiences from their profiles. Have they advanced in their careers? How long have they been a postdoc?

Be positive. Don't use these sites for complaining. Would you hire someone who might talk about you publicly if he or she is unhappy?

Hibel: The NPA is very active in advocating for the betterment of postdocs and their working conditions. I have read many of your white papers and letters to national organizations regarding policy changes. Regarding the NPA's letter to the National Institutes of Health1 about proposed policy changes, what do you feel to be the most important changes to NIH policy in recent years? What lasting impact will they have on the lives of postdocs?

Phillips: The most important changes were having the NIH officially recognize the postdoc position by establishing an official definition. Postdocs have been described as "invisible." Being recognized by the NIH and the NSF has helped significantly to reduce that invisibility. One can't improve conditions for a community unless others are aware of that community.

Another important change was that the NIH intramural office set a five-year limit on postdocs, an example that has been followed by many research institutions across the country. I believe that it was this change that has stopped the trend toward longer postdocs.

Finally, the NIH promised to raise the base level of the stipends for the National Research Service Awards, the NIH training grants that fund thousands of postdocs. While the promised increase has been delayed due to lack of appropriation from Congress, we have new hope that under the Obama administration, this promise will finally be fulfilled. The NIH sets the national standard, and if they can increase the stipends, others will follow suit and improve the lifestyle for thousands of postdocs.

Hibel: Reading the NPA's Agenda for Change2 there are lots of positions that, if taken up by academia, would have a large impact on the careers of postdoctoral professionals. In what areas has the NPA seen improvements made in the way postdocs are given access to funding and credit for their work on projects after they have left them?

Phillips: I would love to say that we've seen significant improvements in these areas, but it doesn't seem that we have. Although, I must say that this perception is based on anecdotal information rather than on "hard" data and that there are some institutions and postdoc advisors who have worked hard to improve these things. I would say that awareness of these issues has increased. Independent funding for postdocs and credit for work represent going against the system at many institutions; these improvements may require a culture change that will take several years. That's why it is so important for a person to negotiate these things before entering a postdoc.

Two areas that have seen dramatic improvement in academia are the tracking of postdocs and the establishment of postdoc offices and/or associations at institutions. The NPA is very proud of the role we have played in that (yes, I'm bragging a little). Until recently, most institutions did not know how many postdocs they had, due to the nature of the position. Tracking postdocs is the first step in improving their situation. Postdoc offices/associations give the postdocs a central place to go for assistance and for peer support, and give postdocs a voice within the institutions.

Another area that has really gained attention is mentoring, and we credit that to the new NSF requirement that grant applications that support postdocs must include a one-page mentoring plan or these grants will not be reviewed. This requirement is an important step toward improving the postdoc experience.

Hibel: In what areas of concern would the NPA like to see more done? How has the response differed between academia and the private sector?

Phillips: OK, here are our current strategic priorities:

Increase federal funding and review funding guidelines. (70 percent of postdocs are federally funded.)

Improve the postdoctoral experience.

Emphasize professional development.

Improve efforts to serve international postdocs.

Encourage and facilitate diversity within the postdoctoral community.

Our efforts to date have focused on academia, because academic institutions are the heart of the postdoc and employ the majority of postdocs. We've had a positive response there in many ways. The NPA is just beginning to learn about the private sector (assuming you mean industry and everything else besides academia, whether public or private institutions)--and we're making an intentional effort to do so.

Hibel: The NPA hosted its 8th annual meeting3 and had the honor of hosting NIH Director Francis Collins, Ph.D., M.D., as keynote speaker. Under Director Collins, how, if any, has the approach the NIH takes toward the work of postdocs changed? What direction do you hope it takes in the future?

Phillips: Dr. Collins' keynote was very encouraging and exciting for the NPA. He is a huge supporter of postdocs. For example, he is 100 percent behind the 6-percent increase in NIH training stipends requested in President Obama's budget for FY 2011. Considering that the stipends were not increased at all for several years and only increased by 1 percent each year in 2009 and 2010, a 6-percent increase is huge. We really appreciate President Obama's support of new scientists and his recognition of their value to the U.S. Of course, now Congress has to appropriate funds for this increase.

I really hope that the NIH will continue their efforts to gather more data about postdocs, to improve postdoctoral training, and to improve the transition to and reduce the time to independent funding for scientists. Did you know that most scientists won't acquire independent funding until their 40s or even their 50s? A first step might be to increase the number of Pathway to Independence awards. We've also asked Dr. Collins to consider creating more small, independent research grants that "travel" with the postdoc, so that they have better control of their career pathways.

The major question in my mind is: How will our actions and policies of today affect the research workforce of the future? Long-term projections are difficult and chancy, but they need to be done. There was a major study of the postdoc situation done in 2000--one upon which the NIH based many of its postdoc policies. It's time for another study, especially with the trends we are seeing in the data, the significant changes taking place in the global research enterprise, and a new administration in the White House. I hope that the NIH will support such a study.

Hibel: The NPA also hosted Audrey Murrell, Ph.D. at the annual meeting to discuss mentoring, an area the NPA has been very vocal about in its white papers4. What insights did Dr. Murrell share about effective and meaningful mentoring?

Phillips: I should say that I was able to attend only a few minutes of this session because of having to attend to other business at the meeting. I've only heard very good things about her plenary, and I've visited with others and I can share their insights. She emphasized that mentoring is dynamic--a two-way street and that the protégé is as responsible as the mentor in regard to the effectiveness of the mentoring. She challenged some mentoring myths, such as the views of mentoring as simple coaching from an individual mentor, and the traditional "universal" mentoring styles in terms of type, frequency, and duration. Mentoring must be beneficial to both parties to be effective and meaningful, and mentoring needs change over time, so it's important to be flexible. There is really no "universal" mentoring style that will work for everyone.

Hibel: What is, in your opinion, the job growth outlook for postdoctoral positions in this economic climate? What industries do you see as leading the pack in creating more job opportunities for postdocs?

Phillips: Well, I'd have to have a crystal ball to answer these questions. There are whole committees of experts trying to answer them. But, here's my best shot, and please don't quote me down the road unless I happen to have been correct. I think that the number of postdoc positions will continue to grow overall over the next five years--but that 2011 is going to be the year that the 2008 economic downfall really hits the academic institutions. So, we may see a temporary decrease in the number of new positions. But, given the recent news about the lack of positions for Ph.D. candidates in the humanities, we may see a significant increase in postdocs in the humanities. But, which industry will lead the pack? Well, because of the recent increases in graduate enrollment in the biological sciences, I would say that the biomedical industry will remain the leader of the pack in the creation of more postdocs.

Finally, I'm going to go out on a limb and suggest that the number of postdoc positions will begin to decrease within the next few decades. I have a lot of reasons for thinking that, but it would take pages to give them all. OK, I'm way out on a limb now, and I hope I don't fall too far if it breaks.

Hibel: What final words of advice would you give someone who is looking to emerge from their graduate program and step into a postdoc position?

Phillips: Consider all of your career options. Network and do your homework regarding postdocs, advisors, and institutions. Take advantage of resources like the NPA (we know our stuff). Practice your negotiating skills. And, above all, don't be afraid to ask questions. They need you as much, if not more, than you need them.