scientists on the hunt for a tenure-track university position,
postdocs aren't just a good idea; they're the law. To compete
for the limited number of academic slots, chemists almost always
need to list a postdoctoral experience on their résumés,
and those in the biological and biomedical fields often require
multiple positions spanning five or six years.
UP Many of the organizers of the Academic Employment
Initiative turned up at AEI's Sci-Mix poster session: ACS staffers
Ena E. Castro (from left), Chris P. Pruitt, and Bell; Casey;
consultant Marjorie Caserio; and ACS staffers Jura N. Viesulas
and Marta Gmurczyk.
But there's a continuing crisis in the postdoctoral enterprise:
Many postdocs are underpaid and overworked, with little prestige
or status to show for their efforts; often, they are treated simply
as extra workers, with few opportunities to be mentored or to
expand their skills; and, in a job market that continues to remain
tight, they are having less success landing those coveted academic
positions. Such concerns can even drive undergraduates away from
science and into more lucrative fields such as law or medicine.
Postdocs facing these issues have a number of places to turn
for advice, including university associations and online resources
such as Science Next Wave's Postdoc Network (http://nextwave.sciencemag.org/pdn/index.shtml).
However, for the creators of the National
Postdoctoral Association (NPA), those resources weren't enough.
"It became apparent that there was a need not just for an online
network but for a full-fledged association for addressing the
needs and concerns of postdocs," says Alyson Reed, NPA's executive
director. Founded in January 2003 with seed money from the Alfred
P. Sloan Foundation, the fledging organization now includes 50
institutional members representing 27,000 postdocs, and 300 independent
postdocs. NPA is housed at the headquarters of the American
Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington,
According to Reed, there are two main issues that NPA addresses:
first, the quality of life during the postdoc training period,
and second, career outcomes and the extent to which these outcomes
match expectations. "We find there's a pretty significant gap
there; a lot of postdocs want tenure-track positions, and few
get them," Reed says.
Many postdocs have long-standing gripes about deficiencies
in their salary packages. Institutions employing postdocs often
have no clear guidelines on how postdocs should be paid and what
level of benefits they should receive.
But some institutions, such as the University
of California, are instituting broad reforms designed to make
the postdoc experience more consistent and enjoyable. "The UC
system was the first to institute a policy across all campuses
in its system," says Raymond J. Clark, a former chair of UC's
Council of Postdoctoral Scholars. APM 390, a new UC policy on
postdoctoral scholars, was implemented in July 2003, and its standards
are scheduled to be completed sometime next year.
APM 390 "addresses personnel and benefit issues, for example,
formal rules for appointment and reappointment, a formal system
for handling complaints, and changes in the title-code system,"
Clark adds. "There was also a systemwide change in the benefits
structure. Now, the same offers will be given to all postdocs,
regardless of who pays them."
In addition, the policy includes a new minimum wage guideline
for the UC system. "Before, people were hiring at whatever level
they wanted, such as 85%" (meaning that a postdoc would receive
85% of a full postdoc's salary, ostensibly for working 85% of
the time, though he or she was generally expected to work full-time
hours). "This was frequently being done unethically," Clark says.
"People were just being cheap."
Salary and benefits are also on NPA's radar; the association
has submitted a white paper to the National
Institutes of Health asking for the establishment of a special
career-transition award program. "We would like to standardize
compensation and benefits at the level of NIH's National Research
Service Awards," Reed says. "NIH is the major funding source for
most postdocs, so we hope this will carry over to other fields
NPA will hold its 3rd Annual Meeting on March 1112, 2005,
in San Diego just prior to the American Chemical Society national
meeting there. In addition, it is supporting an effort by Sigma
Xi, the scientific research society, to conduct a large comprehensive
survey of postdocs in a number of fields. And the National Academies
continue to follow up their 2000 report "Enhancing the Postdoctoral
Experience for Scientists and Engineers" with additional meetings.
Sponsors for the meetings include ACS, AAAS, NPA, and other organizations.
THE SALARY ISSUE is just part of the reason
that many postdocs are dissatisfied; often, they are faced with
a frustrating lack of mentoring or opportunities to expand their
scientific knowledge and skills. Instead of being treated as scientists
furthering their education, postdocs often serve the role of skilled
"A postdoc position is supposed to be a mentorship type of
experience, a learning type of environment." Reed says. "But most
people are finding it much more of a working type of environment.
They are tied to their lab and their bench, and they have few
opportunities to develop additional skills or get outside of that
context. They essentially function as an extra pair of hands.
There's a gap between how the postdoc experience is characterized
In response to such concerns, a number of schools have reformed
their postdoc hiring and employment process. Reed points out that
the University of Pittsburgh,
for example, has responded to postdoc issues with a "revolutionary"
series of reforms designed to address a number of hiring and mentorship
"There was a convergence of issues from postdocs, faculty,
and administrators," says Joan M. Lakoski, assistant vice chancellor
for academic career development of health sciences and a professor
of pharmacology at Pitt. "Faculty were absolutely discouraged
with their inability to recruit and retain top-notch postdocs,
and both faculty and administration were eager to improve the
environment for postdoctoral education. And the postdocs themselves
were very active on the need to address these issues."
Pitt therefore developed a comprehensive academic career development
center for its six health sciences schools that Lakoski directs.
"One of my charges is to improve the lives of postdocs and to
work with them to address their issues," she says. By cooperating
closely with the school's postdoc association, Pitt has instituted
a number of initiatives designed to improve the postdoc experience
at the school.
Like the University of California, Pitt's changes include standardizing
employment classifications for postdocs. Postdocs at Pitt now
receive health benefits, and guidelines will soon be issued that
will address salary concerns. The school has also put on a large
postdoc networking event designed "for postdocs to get to know
each other and to enhance their skill sets, whether technical,
leadership, or communication."
In addition, the school holds career symposia that bring scientists
working in a number of fields to help postdocs assess their future
career plans and develop their skills accordingly. "We are looking
at what are the professional skill sets needed for the future,"
Lakoski says. "We want to prepare our postdocs to be successful
in an academic and industrial and cultural world that is continuing
to change. The range of scientific jobs is much more diverse now
than it ever was before."
Still, for many aspiring faculty members, postdocs are the
last requirement to landing a tenure-track faculty position, and
they are willing to tough out even the most miserable of experiences
if it helps them achieve their career goals. "A postdoctoral appointment
is the de facto terminal degree in many scientific fields, but
not all," Clark says. "Even in industry, companies are often not
going to hire people fresh out of college unless they do phenomenal
work, and even if companies do, they will hire them as postdocs."
The problem, however, is that even after completing a postdoc,
aspiring academics are having difficulty landing the kind of job
they want. "Career aspirations are the most glaring example of
a mismatch between expectation and outcome," Reed says. "Postdocs
work a lot, and they don't have a lot of status. You're making
that sacrifice to enhance your career and achieve your career
goals. You kind of feel frustrated that the rewards you expect
at the end of the experience are not there. I think that postdocs
would not be so frustrated if they felt like their sacrifices
were having some sort of positive effect."
A recent program started by ACS might provide some relief.
Employment Initiative (AEI) is designed to make the academic
recruiting process easier by bringing candidates and recruiters
together to interact and network in an informal setting. Because
most schools are able to interview only a few candidates in person
for a given position, the hope is that AEI will expand the selection
pool for recruiters by bringing them into contact with dozens
of candidates, many from less visible schools or groups.
The idea for AEI was planted in March 2003 after ACS President
Charles P. Casey held a series of meetings with ACS staff to discuss
ways to improve and streamline the academic hiring process. The
group recognized that many top schools tend to hire graduates
only from other top schools, so the idea came about "to broaden
the pool of applicants looked at by academic institutions," says
Jerry A. Bell, senior scientist in the ACS Education Division.
"We wanted to be able to have interviewers and prospective academic
candidates meet. Many other professional societies have done this
for years." ACS wrote a proposal to the National Science Foundation
and received $75,000 to institute a two-year pilot program to
address the issue.
AEI programming was featured at both of this year's ACS national
meetings. The initiative debuted at the spring national meeting
in Anaheim with the panel discussion "Recruiting Faculty: How
Is It Done? Who Gets the Job, and Why?" which featured advice
from both senior faculty and recently hired professors on how
to prepare for and execute a successful academic job search (C&EN,
April 19, page 45).
AEI continued the theme with a workshop titled "How Do I Get
That First Academic Position?" at the fall national meeting in
Philadelphia. Moderators discussed a variety of topics: the requirements
for a research or teaching position, including publishing expectations;
the actual application process and how to write a CV; and the
grants that are available to junior faculty and how to apply for
BUT THE HEART
of the initiative is the actual candidate-recruiter
interaction, which took place at a poster session at Philadelphia's
Sci-Mix event. The session was held in anticipation of the fall
recruiting season, which generally begins in October.
Sci-Mix is perhaps the most distinctive of all regular programming
at ACS national meetings; designed as much for social networking
as for scientific presentations, the large poster session includes
hundreds of graduate students mingling and discussing their research,
often with beer in hand. AEI's organizers hoped that Sci-Mix's
informal nature would be the ideal setting for fostering low-stress
interaction between candidates and recruiters.
About 120 aspiring academics and more than 60 recruiters attended
the poster session, where candidates displayed posters of their
research, expounded on their teaching philosophies, distributed
CVs, and networked for future opportunities. Though the majority
of candidates were postdocs, the poster session also featured
some candidates looking for positions at four-year colleges or
community colleges, where postdocs are sometimes not necessary;
graduate students looking for postdoc opportunities; and attendees
there solely for networking opportunities. The number of participants
significantly exceeded ACS's expectations.
Reactions from participating recruiters were enthusiastic.
"Things went very well for a first-time effort. It seemed very
successful, given the number of people involved in it," says Conrad
Stanitski, a professor of chemistry and chairman of the chemistry
department at the University of
Central Arkansas who is looking for candidates for a single
position in his department. "When you conduct an academic job
search, you never know who is going to apply. Some promising candidates
might slip through the cracks--candidates who might be interested
but might not think your school is the right fit. This allowed
us to get some immediate feedback on who the person is and what
that person is like."
Laurence J. Boucher, a professor of chemistry at Towson
University, Towson, Md., and a member of his university faculty
search committee, was looking for chemists to fill two positions.
"For the forensic chemistry position, we didn't find anyone close
to our interests," he says, "but then again, there aren't a lot
of forensic chemists out there." However, for the more traditional
organic chemistry position, he found 12 people whom "we have sent
correspondence to and hope will apply to our school," he says.
"It was very valuable time spent. It's almost a reason just to
send someone to the meeting."
AEI PLANS to repeat this round of programming
in 2005: a symposium and series of workshops at the spring meeting
in San Diego, followed by a workshop and poster session at the
fall meeting in Washington, D.C. After that, ACS will evaluate
whether AEI should continue as a permanent fixture of ACS national
meetings. The final measure of success won't come until spring,
when AEI will tally the number of interviews and jobs offered
AEI may still be a pilot program, but the initiative's organizers
are optimistic about its chances of continuing. "Even when they
announced that Sci-Mix was ending, the aisles for AEI were still
filled," Bell says. "The fact that people really wanted to keep
going shows that this was a successful approach at bringing people
Programs like AEI and university reforms are just the first
steps. "I think postdocs now are like graduate education was right
after World War II," Lakoski says. "We're still in the middle
of a transition of understanding what postdoc appointments and
positions are all about."
In the right environment, though, being a postdoc, she says,
"can be the best time of your scientific career. You have the
freedom to focus on discovery and the scientific process without
the constraint of working on teaching, grants, et cetera. It's
an absolutely stimulating time that can shape the rest of your