Cover Story

Postdoctoral research scientists who are concerned that they have slipped through the cracks of the defined scientific work force have banded together to form the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), a cross-disciplinary group working with universities and federal and private funding agencies to improve postdocs' lives.

The group maintains that postdocs, for the most part, do not - and ought to - have well-defined expectations of employment, appropriate employment rights and responsibilities, and commensurate or even normalized pay scales. It also calls for postdocs to have performance evaluations, consistent employment benefits - such as proper health care, pensions and occupational health insurance - and procedures for resolving conflict.

Created by the leadership of various postdoc associations at American universities, the association is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and housed at the American Association for the Advancement of Science. While open to all scholars, its active members are mostly from life sciences disciplines, which make up three-quarters of postdoctoral fellowships in the United States. However, one of this year's goals is to attract social scientists to the membership, says NPA Executive Director Alyson Reed.

"Postdocs often have an ambiguous status within institutions - it isn't clear if they are considered students or faculty or staff - which makes it hard for them to find resources or access services that faculty and students use," says Reed. "We aim to remedy this essential problem."

NPA insists that institutions clear up that ambiguity and resolve other practical, quality-of-life issues for postdocs, she adds.

This past October, in response to a National Science Board (NSB) report on work force policies in science and engineering (available at www.nsf.gov/nsb/documents/2003/nsb0369/), the association made recommendations on how the science community could improve conditions for postdocs:

  • Reduce time spent in training positions from as much as four or five years, to a standard of no more than two years.

  • Increase opportunities for transition to independence as an unsupervised scientist.

  • Help secure appropriate status, compensation and benefits for all postdocs, such as prompt title changes and standardized pay scales and health benefits.

  • Create opportunities for interdisciplinary training.

The association is also advising the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Advisory Committee to the Director and has submitted a white paper of its recommendations to the committee, Reed says. The committee could make significant changes in the treatment of postdoctoral scholars required for federal funding.

"Our real success in the last year has been getting these issues on that national community's table," Reed says. "Funding institutions, the NSB, the NIH, academic institutions, preceptors and principal investigators, and the postdocs themselves all bear responsibility for quality of life - and opening up the dialog is the first step in learning how to cooperate."

Ideally, says Reed, she'd like to see every institution that hosts postdocs establish an office of postdoc affairs that monitors employment conditions and assists fellows who feel they've been discriminated against in receiving credit for work or intellectual property.

NPA is also keeping an eye on the challenges faced by international postdocs, who face new worries about U.S. residency due to a clamp-down on student visas.

The association will try to increase its visibility, membership and local affiliations in the next year, says Reed, who indicates that all signs point to a productive future for NPA.

"We've been welcomed into every corridor we've entered in the last year," she says. "There's real interest in the scientific community to address the concerns of its postdocs."

-K. KERSTING


 

For more information on the National Postdoctoral Association, including a listing of committees actively recruiting new members, visit www.nationalpostdoc.org.