The Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of The National Academies gathered scientists, academic and research agency administrators and postdoctoral fellows from diverse disciplines on April 15 to discuss ways to improve postdoctoral career development experiences of new doctorates in the social, physical and biological sciences and engineering.

They reflected on COSEPUP's 2000 report, "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers," to determine what kind of progress had been made for postdocs in the last four years and what aspects of postdoctoral education policies need further attention. This second convocation on the report was held in Washington, D.C.

The report offers a guide for institutions on how to manage postdocs that is based on three principles:

  • The postdoctoral experience should be first and foremost an educational apprenticeship the purpose of which is to gain scientific, technical and professional skills that advance the postdoc's professional career under mentorship of one or more senior scientists.

  • Postdocs should receive appropriate compensation, benefits and professional recognition for their contributions to research.

  • To ensure that postdoctoral appointments are beneficial to all concerned, all parties--the postdoc, the mentor and the institution--should agree on a clear and mutual understanding of the nature and purpose of the appointment.

The guide also includes 10 "action points," ways advisers and institutions can improve postdoctoral experiences, which COSEPUP chair and biologist Maxine Singer, PhD, says are intended to make a difference to young scientists.

"We want to know whether the action points that were published in 2000 are still compelling," she says.

The points are:

  • Award institutional recognition, status and compensation commensurate with the postdocs' contributions to the research enterprise.

  • Develop distinct policies and standards for postdocs modeled on those available for graduate students and faculty.

  • Develop mechanisms for frequent and regular communication between postdocs and their advisers, institutions, funding organizations and disciplinary societies.

  • Monitor and at least annually provide formal evaluations of performance.

  • Ensure that all postdocs have access to health insurance and to institutional services, regardless of funding source.

  • Set limits for total time as a postdoc, with clearly described exceptions as appropriate.

  • Invite the participation of postdocs when creating standards, definitions and conditions for appointments.

  • Provide substantive career guidance to improve the postdoc's ability to prepare for regular employment.

  • Improve the quality of data on both postdoctoral working conditions and employment prospects in research.

  • Take steps to improve the transition of postdocs to regular career positions.

COSEPUP, informed by the discussions at the convocation, will gauge how well these points continue to address the needs of postdocs, says Paul D. Nelson, PhD, deputy executive director of APA's Education Directorate. If needed, changes will be made at COSEPUP's spring meeting.

Encouragingly for postdocs, "many of the recommendations made in the first report have been implemented at least by some institutions," Nelson says. "Among the more significant developments, I believe, is the establishment of postdoc offices on certain university campuses or other nonacademic sites where there are numerous postdocs to facilitate communication and local coordination of postdoc policies and practices. Another significant development, facilitated by the Sloan Foundation, was the establishment of a national organization of postdocs."

Concern continues, however, about the need for better quality mentoring--a main focus of the recent meeting and of the convocation's keynote speaker, ecologist Shirley Malcom, PhD, director for education and human resources at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Elaborating on the specifics under consideration, Nelson says: "We're looking at what the mentor's role is in the socialization and career development of postdocs, not only in their development as scientists, but also in thinking about career path options and learning the importance of other skills that various options might require, like their roles as teachers, as lab managers, as grant writers and as multidisciplinary applied problem-solving team members."

Further Reading

For more information, go to www.nationalacademies.org/postdoc.