There is a great deal that is right in science today: The American public strongly appreciates our research efforts, and Congress enthusiastically endorsed a doubling of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) budget. Furthermore, the intersection of physics, computer science, chemistry, and biology has driven the development of technologies that make it possible to consider what was thought impossible just a short time ago. This is (and should be) an exciting time to be a young scientist in the United States.
Why, then, are frustrated postdocs voicing concern regarding pay and benefits, respect, and working conditions? Although some faculty members and administrators choose to dismiss these concerns as the complaints of a vocal few, nobody can ignore hard facts. For many, the length of postdoc training has increased and the financial compensation for their hard work remains low. Unfortunately, many postdocs feel that they are in untenable situations with few prospects for the future.
What should be done? I think we should think globally and act locally.
It is not feasible or wise to limit supply, and we should never stop encouraging young people to consider science as a career. You only have to serve for a short time on the graduate admissions committee to realize how difficult it is to predict who will succeed in science, so we should continue to try to attract the best and brightest to careers in research.
We should, however, change our approach to graduate education, and NIH training grants should reward programs that provide intensive career training in addition to an outstanding scientific experience. We should be honest when we describe the career path of a scientist and should provide students with real-world numbers that reflect the realities of the job markets they will face. Undergraduate teachers should encourage students to choose a graduate program wisely--based not only on scientific reputation but also on its commitment to career guidance and mentoring of young scientists. Graduate programs must provide students with information regarding different career opportunities and must encourage students to prepare for nonacademic careers as part of their graduate training.
We also have to put an end to the notion that aspiring to become an academic scientist is somehow the only honorable goal. This will promote more open dialogue about nonacademic careers. If, as professors, we are unable (or unwilling) to learn about careers in the pharmaceutical industry, science law, writing, public policy, etc., we should encourage our students to visit the career center on campus. Well-informed graduate students will translate into well-informed postdocs with better job-seeking and networking skills.
We should also change our approach toward postdoc education. Some career paths do not require postdoc experience or require only a limited amount of experience, so we should stop assuming that all students need postdoc training or that all postdocs need a long period of training. Postdocs who want to become college teachers should plan a postdoc with an emphasis on teaching and should choose research questions and approaches that are easily established at undergraduate teaching institutions.
Because science professors are not experts in all careers and probably do not have many contacts among employers in nonacademic markets, career counseling must be tailored to meet the specific needs of individual postdocs and should be conducted by counseling professionals, in addition to the postdoc mentors. But because postdocs usually do not pay student fees--which are typically used to support the university career center--they are often not eligible for individual counseling appointments. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), our solution was to staff the Office of Postdoctoral Services with a career counselor dedicated to serving the postdoc community; at other institutions the solution is to contract a position in the career center.
NIH and other funding agencies that provide postdoctoral fellowships should reward institutions that develop strong postdoc programs by providing funds on training grants for career-development programs and to support the salaries of trained career counselors. For universities where there is resistance (real or perceived) to developing postdoc policies regarding minimum salaries, benefits, leave, and advancement into permanent positions, the development of educational programs is a less controversial start. But eventually these more complicated issues must be dealt with. Funding agencies can positively impact the outcome of this policy debate by establishing a minimum salary scale for postdocs paid by the individual investigator grants they award.
Postdocs need to understand the power they themselves possess. Faculty members want to build strong research teams, and recruiting good postdocs is key. Postdocs should become more discriminating and expect a greater level of commitment and concern from their mentors. Postdocs should vote with their feet: They should consider the training record of their mentors and evaluate the educational programs available to them when choosing a postdoc. That is not to say that scientific excellence should not remain a critical factor in choosing a postdoctoral mentor, but many postdocs risk their futures when they make it the only criterion. There are many outstanding mentors who treat their postdocs with respect, promote their postdocs' careers, and help their postdocs navigate the complex job market. There are also faculty members who will promote postdocs into permanent research positions with appropriate salary increases and benefits.
Finally, postdocs must also become more actively involved in shaping their future; that means they should come out of the lab (or computer room) and get involved at all levels in their professional development. At UNC we are very fortunate that there is a strong and proactive Postdoctoral Association that has a strong, positive relationship with high-level administrators on campus. Our postdocs work closely with faculty members on career and professional-development programs that are financially and logistically supported by the Office of Postdoctoral Services. They have developed contacts in the local scientific community and have invited speakers from across the country to participate in their workshops and symposia. They have a strong voice on the university committee charged with establishing postdoc policy, have made progress in addressing many of the key issues (and have learned to fight effectively), and are forging alliances with postdocs at neighboring institutions. I have watched them negotiate with their mentors for promotions and salary increases, apply for transition awards, and seek internships as science writers and as teachers at local colleges. Regardless of the national debate (which will undoubtedly drag on for a long time), individual postdocs taking care of themselves and helping change the future are the best evidence of the impact postdoc organizations can make.
Sharon Milgram is an associate professor at UNC and is director of the university?s Interdisciplinary Program in Biomedical Sciences. She is also an adviser to the UNC Office of Postdoctoral Services and the UNC Postdoctoral Association.