July 2010

The Current Postdoctoral Experience

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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