Are there are too many scientists in postdoctoral appointments in the United States? This debate has been fueled by statistics indicating that the number of individuals in these appointments is growing, that postdocs find it increasingly difficult to land coveted tenure-track academic positions--or perhaps any jobs at all--and by a recent National Research Council (NRC) report that recommended limiting the number of Ph.D. graduates in the biomedical sciences ( 1). Before we can answer this important question, though, we need to define who postdoctoral appointees are, how we count them, and how we can best prepare them for the next step in their professional careers.
Definition of a Postdoctoral Appointment
To reach the upper echelons of the biomedical sciences in academia or industry, postdoctoral training is considered the de facto terminal credential. Just as a Ph.D. in the life sciences was sufficient to land a faculty position 100 years ago, it is now the postdoctoral experience that is essential ( 2). Therefore I believe that the postdoctoral experience should be a training experience of defined length. In Biomedical Postdoctoral Programs (BPPs) at the University of Pennsylvania  we have adopted a uniform definition of a postdoctoral appointee. It is an individual who a has recently earned his or her terminal degree--Ph.D., M.D., or equivalent--who has come to the university to perform full-time research and scholarly training under the supervision of a mentor in preparation for a permanent position in academia, industry or other discipline, that will utilize his or her unique specialized training ( 3).
There are a number of key phrases in this definition. The terminal degree must be recent. Individuals who obtained their Ph.D. degree more than 5 years ago and have conducted research training throughout this period are ineligible for a postdoctoral position and should be appointed to either a position of higher rank or appointed to a staff position. An obligation exists to train the individuals in preparation for the next steps in their career. If postdoctoral appointees are not receiving adequate training in the skill set that they came to learn and are not being trained in professional skills, they will feel that they are ?hands-for-hire.? It is this part of the unspoken contract that often fails. Because the research is performed under the guidance of a mentor, an ?apprenticeship? model should exist.
Many institutions do not have a working definition of a postdoctoral appointee and can have multiple appointment categories, which makes it difficult to accurately count the overall population. Without this number, it is difficult to assess whether or not the country has too many postdocs.
Supply and Demand
We also need to consider the supply and demand portions of the equation. The demand for postdoctoral appointees has never been stronger. The University of Pennsylvania, like many research-intensive universities, has a sizable postdoctoral population, more than 50% of which comes from abroad. This dependence on foreign talent indicates that the U.S. education system does not produce sufficient quantities of graduate students to fill this need. The shortage of postdocs will become even more acute now that the NIH budget has been doubled. The increase in principal investigator?initiated R01s has increased the number of postdoc slots on research grants. The ability to fill these postdoc positions from abroad will become difficult as issues of homeland security make it increasingly hard to obtain visas for foreign nationals to gain entrance to the United States.
Where the equation becomes unbalanced is in the progression of postdocs into permanent positions. Being a scientist is a profession and as with all professions it is highly competitive. Thus individuals electing to undergo postdoctoral training have to realize that only a small percentage will obtain the coveted tenure-track academic position. However, this is not the only career option. We need to recognize that there are many rewarding career options for our postdoctoral trainees and we need to prepare all postdocs for their individual career choices.
Preparing for Success
Postdocs need appropriate career guidance and professional skill training in order to be prepared competitively for the next step in their careers. BPP at the University of Pennsylvania provides career guidance by working with University Career Services to provide one-on-one career counseling; we sponsor extensive career workshops so that postdocs are familiar with a wide variety of traditional and alternative career paths, and we sponsor an annual biomedical career fair. We also run extensive ?Research Success Skills? training in scientific writing, oral and public communication, laboratory management, and grantsmanship. Postdocs need to identify their career path early and ensure that their training matches this goal.
For individuals seeking faculty positions, funding agencies can do more to attract our best and brightest into academic positions by offering a substantial number of young investigator awards. NIH eliminated the FIRST award several years ago, but provided no alternative funding mechanism that was unique to the first-time applicant. NIH could fund a large number of pilot-project grants so that senior postdocs could generate the initial preliminary data to write a competitive R01 application.
For individuals seeking to follow alternative career paths, internship programs in Technology Transfer, Bioethics, Entrepreneurship, and Education should be widely available so that the necessary skills are learned to promote careers in patent and licensing policy, science policy, commercialization of science, and teaching.
Creation of Academic Staff Positions
The fastest growing portion of the job market is in so-called soft-money positions at universities ( 4). Here postdocs can end up with quasi-postdoctoral titles such as ?Research Associate,? but what we need is a new career path--that of ?academic staff-scientist.? Individuals who have completed several years of postdoctoral experience are valued colleagues and have much to contribute. Those who choose to stay at universities and conduct full-time research should be moved into permanent staff positions with full-time employment status. These individuals often have high-end skills on which the success of a research project critically depends. Individuals who fill these positions ensure continuity in a research area that cannot be maintained by the transient nature of the postdoctoral appointee. Both funding agencies and institutions need to recognize the value of these individuals and encourage the creation and support of positions for them. I fear that many individuals who are postdocs are fulfilling this mission but are inadequately recognized or compensated.
Are we training too many postdoctoral scientists? The answer is yes and no. We do not train sufficient graduate students in the United States to fulfill all current postodoc positions. It is also not clear whether all positions currently defined as postdocs actually provide opportunities for training. This may require a change in culture, so that a ?postdoc? who is providing only high-end technical support would be in a staff position, whereas an individual undergoing research training would have a postdoctoral title. It is this critical distinction that may determine whether we have too many postdocs.
1. 2000, NRC ?Addressing the Nation?s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists"
2. 1998, AAU Report on Postdoctoral Education
3. 2000, Guidelines for Postdoctoral Appointments, Training, and Education, School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania
4. Pew Charitable Trust and the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology