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  September 20,  2004
Volume 82, Number 38
pp. 62-63

Being a postdoc isn't easy, but new programs and organizations are here to help


For 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.

MIXING IT 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, D.C.

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 as well."

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 workers.

"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 and reality."

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 concerns.

"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. The Academic 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 such grants.

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 to candidates.

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 together."

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 career."

  Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2004

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