July 2010

The Current Postdoctoral Experience


An overview of current postdoctoral demographics and the challenges faced by many of today’s postdocs. (Titled "Uphill, Both Ways, In the Snow" in print version.)


Table 1. Purchasing power of $37,740 in 2010 dollars in 5-year decrements.

The current generation of postdoctoral fellows is often reminded what it used to be like “back in the day.” Just as postdocs tell graduate students how it was when they were in their shoes, mentors and principal investigators like to remind postdocs how things were when they were postdocs. These discussions bring up several questions about the demographics and the current challenges for today’s postdocs.

Postdoc Salaries — For Love of Science, not for Love of the Benjamins

The number of postdoctoral positions has expanded greatly over the past few decades— before 1972, 31 percent of people who graduated with science and engineering degrees did a postdoctoral fellowship, while 46 percent of 2002— 2005 graduates did one (1). The number is especially high for postdoctoral fellowships in the life and physical sciences, with approximately 60 percent of graduates in these areas doing a fellowship. The number of postdocs in the biomedical sciences has grown from approximately 7,000 in 1972 to over 30,000 in 2002 (2).

Organizations such as the National Science FoundationSigma Xi and the National Postdoctoral Association constantly are compiling data on the postdoctoral population. In its 1995 survey, the NSF found postdocs had a median salary of $28,000. In 2005, a Sigma Xi survey found a median salary of $38,000 (3). Similarly, the most recent data from the NSF lists median salaries for academic postdocs at $40,000. Currently, the National Institutes of Health’s minimum guideline for entry-level postdoctoral stipends is $37,740. To put this in perspective, we can evaluate purchasing power using the consumer price index. Table 1 shows what the estimated purchasing power of $37,740 in 2010 dollars would have been in 5-year decrements, back to 1975.

The current stipend level is too low. It is refreshing that the Obama administration has recognized this disparity, and the NPA and other organizations are pleased to support the current proposed 6 percent increase in NIH postdoctoral stipend levels. However, even with these changes, the postdoc is underpaid, one-third less than equivalent recent doctoral degree holders (1), compared to any workforce with a similar level of education.

The Aged Postdoc — My Glucosamine Costs What?

In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Science, Engineering and Public Policy published its “Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers” study, which said the median time spent in a postdoctoral position was approximately 3.5 years (4). The time spent in a postdoctoral fellowship had been steadily rising until 2005 (1). That trend may be turning around, but time to independent funding is still increasing. The average age at which a doctoral degree-holding researcher received his or her first NIH R01 funding increased from 34 in 1970 to over 42 in 2005 (5).

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The increased time spent in a postdoctoral position and/or waiting for independent funding has led to an older population of postdocs, many of whom are starting families. While benefits such as health insurance for postdocs have improved at many institutions, there still is a lack of benefits such as retirement and paid paternity/maternity leave. The 2010 NSF “Science and Engineering Indicators” study showed that 90.1 percent or more of postdocs were receiving health benefits, but only 48.9 percent had retirement benefits (1). Furthermore, in the 2005 Sigma Xi study, only 42 percent of postdocs had disability insurance, only 36 percent had family leave and only 26 percent had childcare benefits. Part of the cause for this is the fact that a subset of postdocs are not considered employees, due to a tax code that does not allow postdocs who are paid through Federal training grants or individual training fellowships to be classified as employees. Therefore, any benefits tied into having earned income, or being an employee, are unavailable to this group, including pre-tax retirement savings and childcare credits. Changes to the established mechanism literally would require an act of Congress.

A Changing International Workforce — Nihao, Namo namah, Guten Tag

The number of international postdocs has grown from 27 percent in 1972 to 55 percent in 2002 (2). Sigma Xi reports that in 2005, 54 percent of postdocs were non-U.S. citizens (3). This increase has affected the dynamics of the postdoctoral experience for both mentors and postdoctoral fellows, as international postdocs must not only adjust to a new country and culture but also learn about U.S. research protocol, procedures and ethics. As a side note, even though there are a large percentage of international postdocs, the number of international faculty members is much lower. A recent Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs study found that non-U.S. citizens made up only 10 percent of neuroscience faculty (6).

Diversifying the Workforce— the Pipeline Not Only Leaks, It’s Sluggish at the Top

There remains a serious need to increase the amount of diversity in the postdoctorate. The 2005 Sigma Xi survey found that only 4 percent of postdocs identified themselves as Black/African American and only 4 percent identified themselves as Hispanic/Latino (3). Women were fairly well represented overall, at 51 percent; however, in the physical sciences and engineering, only 23 percent were women. Unfortunately, the percentage of women in faculty positions (approximately 28 percent (7)) is not anywhere near their representation at the postdoctoral level, suggesting the need for better retention programs and incentives for women to pursue these positions.

The Snow Has Melted, but There Is Still That Hill

The postdoctorate and the postdoctoral experience are changing. The number of postdocs, the awareness of what a postdoc is and access to more training and mentoring opportunities have all increased. Postdocs are raising their voices, and the contributions of postdocs to the scientific enterprise are more highly recognized. Parents and grandparents talk about how they had to walk to school, uphill, both ways, in the snow. Institutions, governmental organizations and nonprofit organizations, such as the NPA, are recognizing the challenges that postdocs are facing and are responding to the changing environment. There is still a ways to go in improving the experience, but by recognizing where postdocs have come from, along with the current challenges and demographics, leaders in the U.S. scientific research enterprise can set a trajectory that enhances the postdoctoral experience for all.


1. National Science Board (2010) National Science Foundation Science and Engineering Indicators, 2010.
2. Garrison, H. H., Stith, A. L., and Gerbi, S. A. (2005) Foreign Postdocs: the Changing face of Biomedical Science in the U.S. FASEB J. 19, 1938 – 1942.
3. Sigma Xi (2005) Doctors without Orders. Highlights of the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey. Special Supplement to American Scientist.
4. Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (2000) Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies. National Academies Press.
5. National Institutes of Health (2008) Statement of Commitment to New and Early Stage Investigators.
6. Society for Neuroscience Association of Neuroscience Departments and Programs (2009) ANDP Survey. Neuroscience Quarterly.
7. Burrelli, J. (2008) Thirty-three Years of Women in S&E Faculty Positions. National Science Foundation InfoBrief. 

Anthony J. Baucum II (anthony.baucum@Vanderbilt.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He also is on the board of directors of the National Postdoctoral Association.


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