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Shining a Light on the ‘Invisible Scholars’

A new book takes an in-depth look at a group that’s often overlooked in the academic world: postdoctoral fellows. Tens of thousands of recent doctoral graduates run labs, manage projects and assist with university and industry research across the U.S. These postdoc jobs are seen as stepping stones to full-time positions, but that’s often not the case, given the difficulty of breaking into the academic job market.

Audrey Jaeger

Co-authors of The Postdoc Landscape: The Invisible Scholars are NC State’s Audrey Jaeger, a professor of higher education and executive director of the National Initiative for Leadership and Institutional Effectiveness (NILIE); and Alessandra Dinin, a research analyst for the Office of Assessment, Trinity College at Duke University.

Jaeger, who has studied and written extensively about graduate-student experiences, has expanded her work to include postdocs with National Science Foundation (NSF) funding. She’s seen growing interest and work from an international audience over the past few years, but limited empirical research on postdoc experiences. In fact, it’s difficult even to get an accurate estimate of how many people work in these roles. While NSF estimates the number of postdocs at 30,800 to 63,400, a 2007 National Postdoctoral Association survey of members identified 79,000.

Jaeger answered questions about what’s behind the increase in postdoctoral positions and what could be done to improve the situation.

What are the risks and rewards of being a postdoc? Have the expectations changed over time?

The original purpose of the postdoc role was intended to be a temporary period of training, a sort of apprenticeship to become a professor. However, faculty members often stay in their roles for decades, leaving fewer opportunities. New Ph.D. earners are remaining in postdoc roles much longer or seeking more than one postdoc role as they work toward an academic position. While they are in these roles, postdocs are paid less than faculty and in many cases don’t have full benefits. We’ve referred to this as “postdoc purgatory” where people are stuck between roles – no longer a graduate student and not quite a professor, where they have the education and training to be a professor but they are still often treated more like a graduate student. Increasingly, professors and some industry positions require a postdoc position as a requirement for hire. So as for rewards, the additional training, mentorship and research affords a select few a professorship or competitive industry position.

Is it more accurate to consider postdocs employees, trainees or a combination of both?

The National Postdoc Association and many who support postdocs would encourage us to think about postdocs as trainees. By definition these are temporary positions whereby individuals gain skills and knowledge. The debate, for us, is for what purpose is the training? If we are training postdocs for academic positions then it should look quite different and include training on all realms of the faculty position. If we are training postdocs for other types of positions, then the training would be different. Since postdocs are hired to perform a certain role that may not be perfectly aligned with their career path, perhaps “trainee” isn’t the best term. The term “employee” doesn’t capture the nuances we would hope for a postdoc, particularly if we make assumptions that full-time employees should all receive benefits, vacation time, professional development and sustainable living wages. Many postdocs are struggling to attain what full-time employees at universities and government agencies assume is a given.

Given the contributions postdocs make, what steps can mentors take to provide more support?

Supervisors must realize they are mentors. A large component of this work is managing expectations and formalizing those expectations between a mentor and a postdoc. These expectations extend beyond work hours or assignments to topics like research conduct, team interactions, collaboration, communication, work style, authorship and acknowledgements of scholarly contributions, proposal writing, evaluation and feedback, career and professional development, or resources.

What institutional changes would improve the situation for postdocs? Are systemic changes needed?

Several institutional changes would improve postdoc situations. Campus postdoc offices are an important step in acknowledging the value of postdocs at various institutions. Postdoc associations led by students and supported by the institution are also vital. At the same time, we know that postdocs spend the majority of their time within academic departments. Immediate change should occur at the department level with training for postdoc mentors, performance reviews, professional development and access to resources for postdocs. Academic departments with more students going into postdocs will likely be more aware of how to support postdocs, but still not be equipped to provide the resources necessary to support individual postdocs.

Can you share an experience about working with postdocs that has influenced your thinking?

One postdoc, who is not dissimilar from many others, shared expectations about what having a Ph.D. would be like and what work would be like three to four years after finishing a doctorate. The plans weren’t unrealistic. This person envisioned a research role in a company or perhaps at a university and talked about having a decent wage to support a family and working on important research that was making a contribution. Then, as in discussions like this one, there was a pause. People talk about not picturing themselves in a postdoc role, making less than 40K, working in someone’s else lab and not being certain of the contribution they were making, having few benefits, not contributing to retirement, not having the means to cover childcare, not certain if the situation was going to get any better. This purgatory was not in their plan.