Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey
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Increasing Local Knowledge

One goal of this project is to enable institutions to create benchmarks of their postdoctoral policies and practices either for comparison with peer institutions, for gauging the internal impact of future improvements, or for assessing current conditions before considering reforms. A second goal is to develop a useful set of aggregated data that can inform future studies of postdocs and support improvements in institutions nationwide. The results will provide supporting documentation for advocates of improvements to the postdoctoral experience and recognition for institutions that craft and implement outstanding policies. For example, the postdoctoral association calling for better health benefits and placement services will be able to use cross-institutional data to show that existing benefits and services may be lagging behind those at peer institutions. The institutional postdoc coordinator who wants to build a better working environment for her postdocs will be able to learn which issues her postdocs consider most important, and she will be able to turn to peer institutions for ideas. The dean who ties compensation levels to NIH standards will know that his efforts are recognized and improve the profile of his institution to future postdocs. The new Ph.D. choosing between multiple postdoc offers can find the position that best balances career considerations with benefits that support the family he or she may be planning to start. Our project supports the system at every level because the focus is on improving the environment for research. The aim is not to create just a snapshot of the postdoctoral experience, but rather an easily repeatable process through which institutions can receive ongoing feedback.

Our project removes or reduces a number of important barriers faced by universities and departments that want to improve the postdoctoral experiences they offer. First, obtaining a measure of current conditions in which an institution?s postdocs work can be a difficult process. Many institutions do not systematically track their own postdocs and do not have ready data on such basic things as the number of postdocs they employ, let alone information about their salaries and benefits. Our survey package is designed to simplify and support the process of gathering local data on postdocs and to make local data more readily available.

Second, the three main sources of data on postdocs, while providing important information, each leave things to be desired from the point of view of an institution seeking to benchmark its postdoctoral experience. The NSF?s Survey of Doctorate Recipients (SDR) provides the most comprehensive information about the work histories of the postdoc population, but many of its results are not publicly available at present. Information about non-monetary compensation is only available in selected years, and the most recent data are now five years old. The NSF?s Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering provides only headcounts of academic postdocs. The Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) has coordinated data-gathering efforts by professional societies, but these data, while timely, are either not publicly available or presented at a level of aggregation that masks important details such as differences between academic and industrial salaries, between salary levels at public and private institutions, and between salaries for first year appointees and for more experienced postdocs. Apart from a set of unconnected local postdoc association surveys and the Postdoc Network?s database of postdoc offices and policies, there are no current sources that provide institution-level data. Our project will coordinate a set of surveys at a range of institutions and will make cross-institutional comparative data available to participating organizations.

A further difficulty in getting information about an institution?s postdocs is that postdoc offices are relatively uncommon (36% of institutions surveyed by the Postdoc Network reported having offices), and many institutions do not have an administrator tasked with addressing postdoc-related issues (28% have no such administrator according to a recent Postdoc Network survey). Even at institutions with postdoc administrators, data requests are not always a top priority. Low response rates from administrators to a survey on postdoc policies fielded by the National Academy?s Committee on Science and Engineering in Public Policy (COSEPUP) resulted in COSEPUP deciding not to publish the results. Our project creates the potential for reliable sources of data even at institutions without a postdoc administrator or office by making the ability to gather postdoc information available to those with the greatest incentive to do the gathering, the postdocs themselves.

Project Overview