Reposted with permission from Science News, 8 April 2005

Careful tending of a young plant, every gardener knows, is more likely to yield a bountiful harvest. A new survey of 7600 postdocs shows that axiom also applies to the research lab.

The survey, conducted by the scientific society Sigma Xi and released this week ( sigmaxi.org ), suggests that a well-structured environment for postdocs pays off in greater productivity, more so than do salary and benefits. That finding, says its author, backs up the point that postdoctoral associations and their advocates have been making for years: Treat us with respect, rather than just as a pair of hands, and we'll deliver.

"What really counts is not the money but the [postdoc] experience," says Geoff Davis, who led the study. "[Principal investigators] need to realize that they are obligated to provide training to their postdocs, and universities and funding agencies need to ensure that PIs are fulfilling that obligation."


With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, Davis and his colleagues e-mailed a questionnaire to roughly 40%--some 22,000--of the postdocs working at 46 institutions. The list included 18 of the top 20 U.S. academic employers and the largest government employer, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Administrative oversight included elements such as an office to manage postdoctoral affairs and formal review of postdocs' performance. Davis also asked about formal and informal avenues for honing postdocs' communication, management, and other professional skills.

The researchers then correlated these measures with the number of peer-reviewed publications and similar indices of success. The results showed that there was a stronger correlation between administrative oversight and productivity than there was between salary and productivity. "Having a comprehensive career plan, formal reviews, and good training produces an improvement in the postdoc's satisfaction level that is equivalent to a $20,000 raise," says Davis. Postdocs in well-structured positions also seem to report fewer conflicts with their advisers.

The findings reaffirm what postdocs have been saying for a decade, says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Post- doctoral Association in Washington, D.C., one of the sponsors of the study. "Postdocs make a financial sacrifice in the hope of advancing their career prospects," she says. "They have a greater chance of achieving that goal if they sit down with the PI to develop a formal plan and then use that plan to review progress."

A handful of institutions already have policies to foster that kind of experience, and others are recognizing their value. "It's to everyone's advantage: the institution, the PI, and the postdoc," says Joan Lakoski, a senior administrator at the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Schools in Pennsylvania, which this fall will require its PIs to prepare an "Individual Development Plan" for their postdocs. PIs will also have to conduct an annual performance review. "The process could easily be viewed as another tiresome piece of paperwork mandated by the university," says Lakoski. "But it's really an opportunity to improve scientific productivity."