Professional Development for Postdocs

New federal law and agency guidelines aim to prod scientists and universities to ensure that fellows get career training.
August 20, 2007

Postdoctoral researchers are an essential part of the scientific work force, pulling long hours in the lab and doing much of the hands-on, day-to-day work of the research enterprise. But since the positions are supposed to be a way station, not an ultimate destination, most postdocs have their eye on what might come next: a faculty job, a position in industry, a research lab of their own.

Too often, though, postdocs receive little in the way of professional development or career advice. The scientists (principal investigators, or P.I.s) who run the labs to which they are tethered may not think of it or believe that it's important. Their colleges and universities may not offer specialized training or mentoring for postdocs or include them in their general offerings for graduate students. Or the postdocs themselves may have too much lab work on their plates to be able to make it to the events the institutions do put on for grad students. Bottom line, the research always comes first.

“Sometimes they’re treated as basically just a staff scientist cranking out data, and then why should they only be earning $35,000?” says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association, an advocacy group. “If the postdoctoral phase of a person's career is truly a temporary period of mentoring apprenticeship, then P.I.s need to treat it that way,” and take career training for their charges seriously.

Advocates for postdoctoral researchers have sought to attack the problem from several angles. They’ve encouraged individual P.I.s to pay more attention to their postdocs’ professional development. They’ve encouraged universities to take responsibility for ensuring that postdocs get career-related training even when their bosses give it short shrift. And given that most postdocs are supported primarily through research grants, Reed’s group and others have urged the federal agencies that sponsor research to take the issue seriously, too, by trying to change the incentives for institutions.

Recent weeks have seen two significant developments on that latter front, both of which may undercut explanations (or in some cases excuses) that academic scientists have offered for why they may not spend the time postdocs would like them to on professional development.

A sweeping law on science and math education that President Bush signed this month contained a provision that requires applications for National Science Foundation grants that include funds for postdocs to describe the mentorship and professional development activities provided through the research projects, and requires the NSF to evaluate those activities as a factor in its grant review process.

“Mentoring activities may include career counseling, training in preparing grant applications, guidance on ways to improve teaching skills, and training in research ethics,” the new law says.

In addition, the National Institutes of Health has clarified that under the guidelines for its research grants, scientists can count much of the time they spend providing advice and professional guidance to postdocs as an acceptable “research” activity under government grant accounting rules.

Getting federal agencies to pay attention to the issue has been important, Reed says, because about 60 percent of postdocs are financially supported through research grants earned by their principal investigators, according to a survey last year by Sigma Xi, a scientific research society.

Although college and university officials have increasingly embraced the idea that postdocs need professional development, they and many principal investigators often say there are limits on how much they can do because federal agencies assess their performance based heavily on their research productivity. And “when we have pointed out to officials at both the NSF and NIH that … mentoring and professional development and other elements of training get short shrift because the primary focus is research, they say, “Well, that's what Congress has told us,’ “ says Reed.

Now, “Congress has come back and said, ‘Yes, you can ensure that postdocs on research grants are getting the training and mentoring they need, and are not just there to be part of the research work force,’ “ Reed adds.

Bobbie Mixon, an NSF spokesman, said the foundation supports the idea that "institutions will also be responsible for building into their project proposals a mentoring component," and said the NSF and its reviewers will "verify that they are meeting the mentoring provision."

Keith Micoli, a postdoctoral fellow and instructor in molecular and cellular pathology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham who participated in an NSF task force on postdocs as a member of the National Postdoctoral Association's board, said there has already been a "real beginning of a shift" in terms of P.I.s and institutions taking more responsibility for the career development of their postdocs.

But too many postdocs remain too dependent on their P.I.s for that kind of help, and too often the advice they get is, "Work hard, work on this grant, and good things will happen," Micoli says. "But often that does not happen, and you're just several years older at the end."

The extra encouragement from the federal agencies will help, but ultimately, it is up to individual scientists and their universities to ensure that their postdocs get the training they need. It's important for postdocs, individual researchers and universities to work together, "so you're not sneaking around behind the P.I.'s back, and can get help elsewhere."

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