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The Postdoc Experience Revisited

The University of Washington, along with many peer institutions, is working to integrate the recommendations for revisiting the postdoctoral experience made by the National Academies of Sciences in 2014. We will keep you posted on progress as we move forward, and we invite you — postdocs, leaders within your units, faculty champions — to advocate for and adopt these changes locally. The following are excerpts from the primary recommendations of the report:

1. Limited Period of Service: The committee endorses the recommended practice, put forward by the NIH, the NSF, and the National Postdoctoral Association in 2007, that postdoctoral research training is and should be a “temporary and defined period.” Postdoctoral appointments for a given researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances.

2. Title and Role: In many instances, positions currently occupied by postdoctoral researchers are more appropriately filled by permanent staff scientists (e.g., technicians, research assistant professors, staff scientists, laboratory managers). The title of “postdoctoral researcher” should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with appropriate…salary.

3. Career Development: Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. Career guidance should include, where feasible, the provision of internships and other practical experiences. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.

3.3 Mentors, in addition to providing guidance based on their own experience, should become familiar with and disseminate information about all forms of career development opportunities available either at the host institution or through their professional society.

4. Mentoring: Mentoring is an essential component of the postdoctoral experience and entails more than simply supervision. Mentoring should not be solely a responsibility of the principal investigator, although he or she should be actively engaged in mentoring. Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.

5. Data Collection: Current data on the postdoctoral population, in terms of demographics, career aspirations, and career outcomes are neither adequate nor timely. Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available.