Groundhog Day: the plight of postdoctoral researchers

By Ronin Institute Research Scholar Laure Haak

The original version of this post first appeared in An Idea on Medium

Let’s drive innovation by re-envisioning postdoctoral research as a fixed term “Tour of Duty”, with embedded offboarding, alumni services, and access to “Veteran’s benefits” for all who participate.

Postdoctoral researchers are a critical component of global innovation capacity. Yet, after more than two decades of sustained advocacy, there remain amorphous and contradictory policies and practices around the postdoctoral experience, leaving many isolated and demoralized. If we are serious about recruiting talented people into research teams to address global challenges, we need to reboot the postdoc as a fixed term Tour of Duty with clear offboarding processes and benefits.

The experience

Twenty years ago, the US National Academies published Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, a seminal report on the institutional and personal environments in which research driving the US scientific enterprise is performed. A primary finding was that “employment conditions for postdocs, especially in universities, need to be significantly improved if the United States is to develop the human capital needed to assure a healthy research enterprise and global leadership in science and technology.”

Having been a postdoc myself, I remember clearly moving to my first “real job” — where on my first day I had several completely novel experiences. My first scheduled stop was Human Resources (a group I had never interacted with during my years as a graduate student and postdoc). There, I signed up for health benefits (I hadn’t seen a dentist in over 10 years) and a retirement savings plan (never had one) and reviewed personnel and leave policies (never had those as a researcher, either — including no sanctioned break after having my first child). My new boss escorted me to my office, decked out with a work-provided desk, chair, door, and computer (previously office space had been seen as a luxury accorded to few, and most of us eked out space on a lab bench next to our experiments). We also talked about expectations, the performance review process, and the term of my position.

This first job was at Science’s Next Wave/AAAS (now Science Careers), where I was hired in 2001 to helm the Postdoc Network. In addition to fostering an online community of university administrators and organizing national meetings to showcase effective practices and policies, I collaborated with my NextWave colleagues to develop monthly features on careers for science and engineering graduates and postdocs.

It’s been a minute. But through subsequent positions at 4 organizations, everything “new” I experienced at AAAS has been repeated: clear personnel policies, benefits, and review processes.

What has changed for postdocs?

While at the Postdoc Network, I helped to mentor a group of committed postdocs in their goal to create a national advocacy association for postdoctoral researchers. The leadership and community support came together during the 2002 Postdoc Network meeting, held in Washington D.C. With an initial start-up grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the National Postdoctoral Association was officially launched in 2003.

Since then, the NPA has been instrumental in promoting effective postdoctoral policies and communities of practice among institutions where postdocs work. It has advocated for improved transparency in postdoctoral contracts, and improved coordination between US agencies and institutions regarding postdoctoral compensation.

Other advocacy organizations have joined these efforts. The Future of Research, formed in 2014, directly advocates for graduate students and postdocs, specifically around transparency in career outcomes. The Coalition for Next Generation Life Science, a group of US Universities, formed to collect and publish institution-level career outcome statistics for graduate students and postdocs.

But, what really has changed? Listening to Paula Stephan at the 19 March 2021 NBER Conference on Investments in Early Career Scientists: Data and Research Gaps, I felt a severe sense of deja vu. Paula Stephan is a Professor of Economics at Georgia State University who specializes in the economics of science and the careers of scientists and engineers. In addition to her seminal work on the topic, she has served on workforce panels since the 1998 National Academies panel, Trends in the Early Careers of Life Scientists. She observed that, “almost all recommendations [to improve the postdoctoral experience] have been ignored to date by academe and most by funders.” The biggest change, that of increased compensation, was a response to changes in US Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) coverage; not because of panel recommendations or postdoc advocacy efforts.

What has stayed the same?

Even with progress on compensation, the main problems for postdocs remain the same: profound isolation and lack of perspective on career opportunities. These are constant themes in surveys, reports, and policy recommendations over the last 20 years. In turn, profound dissatisfaction with the postdoctoral experience is stymying efforts to recruit and retain a diverse talent pool to address global challenges.“It is a bit absurd that the most productive members of the laboratory workforce are relegated to second-class status: Obtaining benefits is often difficult, and retirement plans [are] impossible.”

Nearly 70% of postdocs are very or extremely concerned about job prospects.

[NPA Postdoc Needs Assessment Survey, 2020]

A vision for the future

In addition to compensation, recommendations to improve the postdoctoral experience have focused on improved job information flows, creating more permanent positions, and allocating more independent funding for postdoctoral researchers.

However, why not take a different approach? Managing the exit has been the problem all along, so why not refashion the postdoctoral experience as a “tour of duty” appointment, with a predefined term limit, expectations for personal and organizational growth, and an alumni program? Because postdoctoral scholars are so critical for US R&D, let’s also add in a sweetener: long-lasting access to discounted federal health insurance benefits and an initial contribution to a retirement plan for all who complete the tour of duty?

A Postdoc Tour of Duty is not so far from reality. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, average job tenure in the US is now about 4 years. Most people know they are going to change jobs several times in their career. In “Turn Departing Employees into Loyal Alumni” (Harvard Business Review, March 2021), Alison Dachner and Erin Makarius put forward convincing evidence that planning ahead for exits benefits the individual and the organization. Successful programs acknowledge employee contributions, provide training and resources for the transition, and capture feedback on the experience.

Managing the exit up front for postdocs means embedding career succession planning in the postdoc contract. The NPA just released their new strategic plan, in which one pillar is focused on career development. According to Tom Kimbis, NPA Executive Director, “a key objective is to change the perception that anything other than an academic career is a failure.” To this end, the NPA is contemplating launching PDAlum, a pilot program aimed at tracking postdoctoral alumni and providing career mentoring resources.

With a successful alumni network, one can imagine a world where, as researchers are building teams for their next project, the alumni database becomes an integral tool to both search for and mentor team members, whether in academia, industry, government, or the growing number of peer-to-peer organizations such as the Ronin Institute. A strong alumni program engenders respect for postdoctoral contributions. By reducing isolation it improves morale.

By managing the exit up front for postdocs, we can better recruit a diverse research workforce motivated to address global challenges.

Laurel Haak
External website | + more Ronin Institute blog posts

Laure Haak (she/they) is an entrepreneur, strategist, researcher, and author who enjoys working with communities to weave compelling stories and create collaborative spaces that inspire sharing, trust, and transparency.

This post is a perspective of the author, and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Ronin Institute.

One Comment

  1. Gareth Coombs

    At what point do you call this treatment illegal?

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