News: News Archives
A Dream Deferred or Realized?
Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience
for Scientists & Engineers
Dr. Shirley Malcom of AAAS addresses the National Postdoctoral Association
I am pleased to have been invited to present at this convocation focused on enhancing the postdoctoral experience for scientists and engineers.
A group of postdoctoral scholars came to AAAS because of their prior association with the Postdoc Network (PDN). They had met in those sessions and decided that they wanted to organize themselves into an independent organization. We offered to assist in similar fashion as we had in the past worked with organizations of women, minority and disabled scientists as they sought to establish their professional groups. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation generously provided support for their organizational planning and subsequent start up efforts.
- Practical advice: (the things one needs to know to start an organization) Issues such as: Governance, membership models, services, meetings, organizational structures, policy, hiring, data
- Encouragement and support
- A home for their grants and their staff (since they did not yet have non-profit status)
- An opportunity to connect with and send a clear message to the S/E community by associating with an established organization.
NPA wanted to make it clear they were not a union. Their connection to AAAS made it clear that they were a professional society dedicated to improving S/E by addressing the situation of post-docs.
Why did AAAS sign on to this task of "incubating" NPA?
We are committed to advancing science.
We are committed young scholars.
It is consistent with the mission of AAAS and with that of the AAAS Center on Careers in Science and Technology, which I chair.
I personally added this to an already overloaded portfolio of activity because
- I saw young professionals who did not have a full opportunity to contribute to S/E.
- I saw unfairness, inequity, inattention to and invisibility of their issues
- I saw young people with adult responsibilities but without adult resources. These young scholars are an essential part of the scientific enterprise; in a way we take for granted their work and contributions which have been critical to the advances in science we have enjoyed.
But the situation with postdocs does not reflect well on our community of scientists and engineers.
Long periods of training are not rewarded with jobs that have compensation levels significant enough to overcome the opportunity costs.
Since postdocs likely spend more time and attention in the lab with grad students, undergrads and even high school students in summer programs, we must ask ourselves if our failure to attend to this part of the talent pool ripples throughout the other parts. Are undergrads taking their cues from postdocs and voting with their feet? There is some evidence that this may be happening.
A study by Richard Freeman, et al. examined "Careers and Rewards in Bio Sciences." Their findings are revealed in the subtitle of their paper, "the disconnect between scientific progress and career progression." In this document they report on a survey of Harvard students enrolled in the course taken by bioscience majors. Interestingly, these students had a pretty good feel for the job markettheir chances of getting a tenure track job after completing a Ph.D., what people make at different levels of preparation as a biologist compared with someone with an MBA and comparable years of study.
The students revealed that they are put off by the potential difficulties of a biosciences career: low salary, concerns about job security and delayed independence.
Students were asked what would make these careers more appealing. Their answers ranged from "some way of lowering chances of being stuck in lab doing someone else's project for long, long time."
"If I knew my career would progress with timein terms of salary, (and) independence."
"More money " (lots of times)
More secure job prospects"
"Make postdoc/grad students less like indentured servitude"
The source of their information about the job market varied. Most students said that they received little or no info from the department. The few that did reported positive impressions about job prospects. Those receiving information from faculty had more positive impressions than negative about the job market but not as positive as those getting information from the department. The report goes on to say,
"But most students said that they got impressions about the job market from graduate students and post-doctorate fellows and they reported predominantly negative impressions."
We can likely all agree that new policies are needed from the funders as well as the institutions.
But I have lived in Washington long enough to know that the policy apparatus is slow. While we wait for those wheels to grind we don't have to wait to make a difference. We can do something about the personal interactions that affect postdocsthe mentoring.
Questions without Answers
Several weeks ago when I began to prepare for this presentation I asked Alyson Reed, Executive Director NPA, to include a request from me in the next communique she sent to the Executive Board of the National Postdoctoral Association.
I asked for suggestions as to what I should include in my remarks. Interestingly and predictably, most of the comments centered around mentoring and the structure of postdoctoral experiences.
One suggestion, sadly, in another reminder of our post 9-11 environment, was that I mention the visa difficulties faced by international postdocs. Whether they want go home to visit a sick parent or present a paper at an international conference, returning to the U.S. becomes a problem. It was a reminder in stark terms that the open door noted by Emma Lazarus has become a gated community, where even those who have once been allowed inside can be denied re-entry. I know that COSEPUP is deeply concerned about this and is committed, along with many in the S/E communities, to expressing these concerns about the chilling effect these policies are having on our institutions, on the free and open expression of ideas and freedom of movement by scientist & engineers.
But the big issue that appeared over and over again was mentoring
Q. "What are my real career prospects and options?" And what should we tell them?
- It is unlikely that these scholars will become their professors?
- Most faculty positions are not in Research I institutions?
- Senior faculty are delaying retirement?
- The tenure lines are being left unfilled and replaced with instructors and adjuncts?
- The decline of state budgets and loss of endowment buying power have affected universities' ability to fill positions?
There is a need to inform grad students and postdocs of the job possibilities that do exist and then to help them gain experiences needed for those jobs.
There is hiring underway in many kinds of institutions. Faculty positions in comprehensive universities and liberal arts colleges can carry heavy teaching requirements. Most of these institutions allow faculty to buy out of some of these requirements with research and grant project funding. Some even provide set up packages and promote collaboration with nearby research universities. But the postdoc is generally not structured in such a way that there is an opportunity to acquire the array of skills that make a scholar attractive to predominantly teaching institutions. Contrary to what may have been conventional wisdom, a Ph.D. is not in and of itself sufficient preparation for teaching.
The teaching requirement can be overwhelming if one is not prepared.
It is not just a matter of having ever taught before but one of assuming the full responsibility for a course. Where is there the opportunity to learn how to do all of the other things that are a part of teaching: developing a syllabus; selecting a text and supplementary materials; working with lab techs to organize an undergrad laboratory (Knowing what is appropriate for such a lab); managing teaching assistants and/or graders; developing a pedagogical style; creating assessments and grading rubrics; assigning grades.
Then there are all the things that SHOULD be included in preparation for teaching but often are not:
- Learning how to be an adviser
- Learning about how young adults learn and what may be barriers to their understanding.
- How to figure out what students know when they come in
- Gauging the level at which one should teach.
And teaching in such institutions also often means research that involves one's undergraduate students.
Q. How clearly are the non-research aspects of a faculty career articulated? How much of this is addressed in graduate and/or postdoctoral preparation? There are few incentives in the current system for scholars to work on anything often than their research and lots of disincentives in place.
Q. What careers beyond the faculty do grad students and postdocs have a chance to experience or even see? How much preparation and what available resources do faculty have to introduce them to the other things that people do with a Ph.D in the sciences and engineering. Are they aware, for example, of resources such as Science's Next Wave to which these young scholars can be referred or that can be used to guide them?
The Research Career
Q. Even in research, the area of emphasis for the graduate and postdoctoral years, the question remains of whether postdocs are given the range of experiences that prepares them to become independent investigators?
To understand the RFP, to write the grant proposal, to develop the budget, to estimate the likely level of effort, to understand the equipment purchasing procedures of the institution and so on.
Are graduate students and postdocs helped to think about what they like to do and how they might be able to turn this into a life's work.
Is there anyone who can help them with patents (the judging of what is patentable and the process of doing it). What about business development?
Q. Should we think of "restructuring" the entire post-baccalaureate period to divide the time across coursework, skills development, research and career exploration? One of the suggestions that came to me was to address "How we should think about restructuring training starting from graduate school, such that we are not spending so much time only to become "over trained" because of the current "holding pattern." To this I say "over trained in some ways and under trained in others." I like the image of holding pattern. Since I fly a lot I imagine circling O'Hare or Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta. But I'm not sure why. Is there bad weather on the ground, a backed up runway or no empty gates? And will I get to land before I run out of fuel or have to divert to a different airport?
Q. What, my postdoc informants ask us, is the next step? Am I waiting to get the job for which I prepared, or do I have preparation for the jobs that are available now? What about management, policy, business? Is there anyone who can /will talk to me about this?
Q. While scholars are in a postdoctoral position how much feedback do they receive, positive or critical? One informant talked about how much time is spent in waiting, for decisions about grants, a paper finally published, a job that comes through. When the gratification is delayed and occasional it is hard to keep oneself motivated. Regular and honest feedback is essential.
Postdocs are socialized to value what the community values. Unless we expand our own vision of what is important and valued, are they being set up to be dissatisfied? It's really hard to keep oneself psyched up when the gratification is delayed AND the pay and working conditions are substandard.
Q. What does the PI expect of the postdoc? What does the postdoc expect of the PI? What are reasonable expectations on both sides? Should these just be understood or made explicit? Almost everyone agrees on the need for regular communication and feedback. Should it also be possible to re-negotiate the terms of the relationship? Especially to move the postdoc toward independence.
Legitimizing the Alternatives
Perhaps it is unfortunate that we began to refer to non-faculty jobs as alternative. As my informants rightly point out, so-called alternative careers are the rule rather than the exception. And how often do these jobs require a postdoc? They want us to make these other careers more legitimate and more well known to counter the impression that being a scientist means impossible hours and poverty, little job success or job security. Great recruiting slogans!
Rather than thinking that we just have to repair the postdoctoral experience, my colleagues seem to be arguing for re-thinking the entire process of which the postdoc is one component.
Since that is unlikely to happen in the near term we can at least begin to:
- Examine the policies (federal and institutional) that govern postdocs.
- Require a minimum base salary and provisions for benefits for postdocs.
- Include a professional work plan for post docs supported by federal funds with agreed upon benchmarks for both PI and postdoc.
- Begin to base considerations for subsequent training support (as part of traineeships or research grants) to the PIs on the training and outcome records of their students.
It is critical that we make clear to all the expectation that the postdoc is a period of continued training; that research is one, but not the only, aspect of that training.
Since 1992 AAAS has offered prestigious awards for mentoring. We also conducted an NSF-funded conference focused on developing a research agenda around mentoring. In reviewing some of the supporting materials from persons nominated and selected for the mentor awards each year and participating in the mentoring conference I have gained some deeper insights about what a mentor does and the role that such a person plays in the life of a developing scholar.
Mentoring goes beyond guiding one to the right courses, research topics or funding. It means taking a deeper interest in a person's development, as a scholar and as a citizen of the S/E community. This means that a mentor is involved in:
- Socialization to the discipline and to larger concerns about the place of science in society.
- Assistance in job search and placement as well as before, in helping postdocs understand the job search process; helping them aim at the right level and so on.
- Providing direction as to realistic career options that are available.
- Helping scholars understand the values and value of the career they are choosing.
- Assisting scholars where the personal parts of their lives affect the scholarly parts, such as when they might be confronted with illness, disability or family crisis.
- Following the progression of their graduate students', and postdocs' careers, taking pride and offering encouragement as well as colleagueship.
- Providing a touchstone for clarifying values as well as being a model for professional behavior and responsibilities.
- Using one's networks and insights to support a scholar's career beyond the tenure of the position. A mentor keeps you as part of the family as you transition from apprentice to colleague.
I look around today and see, for example, declining membership across many of our scientific professional societies even as the size of the S/E communities increases. Who is there to tell the student, as I was told, that membership is not just about access to the publications. Being able to read the library or online copy of the journal is not the same as supporting organizations that support the overall health of the disciplines, the place of science in society and the conditions under which scientists and engineers do their work.
Resources for Mentoring
I do not believe that faculty set out intentionally to do a less than adequate job of guiding the career development of postdoctoral scholars. I believe that the resource materials from COSEPUP can go a long way toward clarifying what faculty can do to do a better job. But there are additional pieces of information that they likely need and don't have. We are intent through the AAAS Center on Careers in Science & Technology to begin to provide some of these.
Our planned Careers portal would offer a suite of information that would be available to faculty. In collaboration with partnering Careers Center participants, the Commission on Professionals in Science & Technology and the National Postdoctoral Association, we will be able to guide faculty toward real data on employment outlook and salaries, to research on career development and to information on careers beyond the professoriate.
At the end of the day all of this discussion is about respect, for those who become our colleagues. It is also about understanding the long term payoff to the larger community on investments in young people made today. This is the legacy from our mentors that we are obliged to pass on.
16 April 2004