Postdoctoral scholars are a cornerstone of the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise. Postdocs perform a substantial fraction of skilled work in research labs and are responsible for a disproportionate share of new discoveries. A 1999 study found that 43% of first authors of research articles in Science were postdocs.
Over the last 20 years, the postdoc population has more than doubled, increasing from approximately 18,000 in 1981 to more than 50,000 today. At present, 12% of all science and engineering Ph.D.s employed at research universities and roughly 21% of life sciences Ph.D.s at research universities are postdocs. In many fields, particularly in the life sciences, a postdoctoral appointment has evolved from an optional educational enhancement to a required step in preparation for a faculty position. A 1998 Commission on Professionals in Science & Technology study found that 74% of biochemistry and molecular biology Ph.D.s, 76% of microbiology Ph.D.s and 68% of physiology Ph.D.s were employed in postdoctoral positions in the year after graduation.
Despite the institutionalization of the postdoctoral fellowship and the large number of postdocs, on many campuses university policies have not yet adapted to meet the needs of postdocs. "Postdoctoral education today is almost exactly where Ph.D. education was in the 1890's: very ad hoc, declares Steven B. Sample, president of the University of Southern California and chair of the Association of American Universities (AAU) Committee on Postdoctoral Education. In some institutions postdocs are not classified as students or faculty/staff and, as a result, end up with the benefits and protections of neither. Postdocs are often poorly remunerated, and at many institutions there is no "minimum wage" for them. Health insurance is not uniformly provided, and retirement benefits are the exception rather than the rule. Non-monetary aspects of work are only addressed on an ad hoc basis. There are often no standard expectations for the supervision and mentorship of postdocs. Grievance resolution procedures are often ill-defined. Campus career services are usually geared exclusively toward undergraduates, occasionally graduate students, and only rarely postdocs. As one researcher put it, "there are more formal measures in place to ensure the well-being of laboratory animals than there are for the postdoctoral researchers who work with them."
Educational leaders, funding agencies and postdocs all agree on the need for improvements in postdoctoral working conditions. The AAU and the National Academies (NAS) have each written reports that outline needed reforms and recommend policies and practices for universities to adopt, and in recent years promising initiatives have begun to address the issues raised in these reports. Postdocs have started forming institution-level organizations to advocate for improvements in their working environments, often with support from their institution's administration. At present there are roughly 30 such postdoc associations, and the National Postdoc Association is forming with the goal of coordinating local efforts and sharing resources. Twenty institutions have created postdoc offices tasked with ensuring the well-being of their postdocs, recognizing that, among other things, a positive postdoctoral experience reflects favorably on the institution as a whole. Disciplinary societies have started postdoc initiatives to enhance the postdoctoral experience, the largest being the Postdoc Network at Science's Next Wave, formed in November 2000. Our project's mission is to engage these administrators, postdoc offices, local postdoc associations, the National Postdoc Association, and the Postdoc Network in gathering information to speed and support the adoption of postdoc policy reforms.