The invisibility of postdocs: updating postdoc administration at institutions

The invisibility of postdocs: updating postdoc administration at institutions

In 2015, a paper by coordinated by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB), “Toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise: Finding consensus and implementing recommendations” identified a number of consensus recommendations made across academia for ways to improve the sustainability of the research enterprise. At a summit organized by the society in February, working groups discussed ways of implementing some of these recommendations. A key issue that came up was the necessity of the postdoc population, and yet the scarcity of information we have about this key step in the academic pathway.   As discussed in “Four reasons we don’t need 37 names for postdocs,” a key barrier to reforming the postdoctoral position is effectively administering it. With the huge variety of designations and ways of administering postdocs, we are in a position in the academic enterprise that we don’t know how many postdocs there are at institutions. Not only is this making identification of postdocs and ensuring their salaries comply with new federal labor regulations (see our “FLSA and postdocs” resource) difficult; it also hampers efforts to use the skills of postdoctoral researchers, a “trainee” population that is largely untracked. A key complaint from faculty search committees in trying to make a more diverse faculty is the “talent pool”; however postdocs from a diversity of backgrounds are in the postdoctoral workforce – there are more than 3000 postdocs from underrepresented minorities in the postdoc population. The nebulous nature of administering them makes postdocs hard to identify.   For these reasons and more, FoR and ASBMB are proposing a nationwide implementation of a clear system of postdoctoral administration. Mike Schaller and Gary...
The U.S. National Postdoc Survey: make sure you are counted

The U.S. National Postdoc Survey: make sure you are counted

While problems facing the scientific workforce have lately been receiving increased attention, e.g. through efforts such as Rescuing Biomedical Research and meetings such as the Future of Research, data collection on the status of postdocs has been inadequate.  In many cases, postdocs have not been clearly defined, in part due to lack of consistency in job titles, and it is unclear how many postdocs positions there currently are nationwide, with estimates ranging anywhere from ~40,000-90,000.    A shortage of data has limited national efforts to propose and assess policy changes.  The last large-scale survey of postdocs was performed in 2006.  While recommended reforms such as Individual Development Plans (IDPs) have been proposed and implemented over the past decade, such ongoing policy efforts have been severely constrained without access to adequate data to assess the effects of these policy changes.   At UChicago, postdocs have been collecting longitudinal data from postdocs at our institution for over 15 years.  These data have led to substantial policy changes that have improved the local postdoc experience.  While attending the National Postdoc Association annual meeting two years ago, Sean McConnell and Erica Westerman (UChicago survey committee leaders) realized that other institutions have also been conducting surveys of their postdocs, but rarely has this data been shared beyond individual institutions (limiting its impact), underscoring the need for postdoc data collection to be conducted on a national scale.   To address this need, last month a team of postdocs from the postdoc association at the University of Chicago launched the National Postdoc Survey (NPS).   This postdoc-led (grassroots!) survey [more info at https://postdocsurvey.org ] is being sent...

A call for transparency in career outcomes

Jessica Polka, Kristin Krukenberg and Gary McDowell have an article in today’s edition of Molecular Biology of the Cell, “A call for transparency in tracking student and postdoc career outcomes“. The article calls on the scientific community to collect and disseminate data on graduate student and postdoc career tracks.Without this data, it is not possible to tell whether there is, in fact, a national “STEM shortage”, and whether there are sufficient jobs available for graduate students and postdocs to justify the large numbers currently passing through the academic system....

Future of Research in US edition of “The Conversation”

STEM postdoc researchers are highly trained, but for what? By Gary McDowell, Tufts University The STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics supposedly suffer from a shortage of graduates. Conventional wisdom says there’s no one for employers to hire for science and engineering jobs. This STEM shortage myth has even figured in the immigration debate in the US. But look again. There are actually plenty of STEM graduates; the US is just training them the wrong way. It’s true there are many professional STEM vacancies but there are also many STEM grads who could fill them. The problem is the current training pipeline doesn’t direct graduates to these non-academic jobs. STEM students aren’t prepped for the professional world. Instead, they are guided toward an academic workforce that has expanded through a dramatic rise in the number of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Graduate researchers and postdocs – that is, researchers with PhDs carrying out advanced research – are part of the academic career track originally designed to lead to tenured academic research positions. As renowned engineer Vannevar Bush advised President Truman in 1945, while advocating for the creation of a National Science Foundation: The plan should be designed to attract into science only that proportion of the youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science in relation to the other needs of the nation’s high priority. However, the number of permanent – that is, tenured – jobs has not increased since that time, leading to hyper-competition and a massive pool of postdocs. Junior researchers are shamed by a culture that perceives leaving academia as a betrayal. Colloquially non-academic...