Postdocs warrant more status and support

For a growing number of researchers, attaining a Ph.D. represents only a first step toward a career garnering respect and financial health. Before their first job, many will toil for 5 years or more as postdoctoral scholars to gain further training or learn a new specialty.

Unfortunately, their vague status—not faculty, staff, or student—can leave these so-called postdocs vulnerable to poor pay, little mentoring, and slow advancement toward the skills they seek, according to a report issued this week by the National Research Council (NRC) in Washington.

Some 52,000 of these postdocs currently serve at U.S. institutions. Harvard University–with 3,400 postdocs–is among the institutions where such apprentice researchers now outnumber graduate students. Though most postdocs are at least 32 years old, the report finds that they usually earn just $30,000 a year. A person the same age but holding only a bachelor’s degree makes, on average, some $5,000 more. Data also indicate that about half of the postdocs have children—yet few receive medical coverage for themselves, much less their families.

Even so, postdocs perform valuable work. Increasingly, they carry out most of the day-to-day research in many laboratories, the NRC panel discovered. Though many have positive research experiences, “we also learned about postdocs who are neglected, even exploited, while making creative and fundamental contributions,” notes NRC panel chairman Maxine F. Singer, president of the Carnegie Institution of Washington (D.C.).

Her panel’s report offers a long list of recommendations to redress inequities. They include offering status and compensation to postdocs “commensurate with [their] contributions” to research, ensuring that all postdocs have access to health insurance, and limiting how long a postdoc’s appointment can last, perhaps to about 5 years.

The NRC group also proposed that there be means for frequent communication between postdocs and their advisors, research institutions, funding organizations, and scientific societies.

The panel “raised some important issues,” says Susan Duby, director of graduate education for the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. Yet she wonders where the money would come from for the costlier recommendations, such as health benefits.

The need for formal postdoc associations at research institutions impressed panel member Brigid L.M. Hogan of Vanderbilt University Medical School in Nashville. These organizations should serve as a clearinghouse for information on everything from visas to contracts and as a center for dispute mediation and career development, she says.

Steven E. Sloop, former president of just such an innovative postdoc association at Lawrence Berkeley (Calif.) National Laboratory, says that such organizations can prevent postdocs from becoming “indentured servants” to the research bosses.

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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