UW Graduate School

May 3, 2018

The postdoc experience continues to receive national attention.

In our last newsletter, we shared some take-home messages from the annual National Postdoc Association (NPA) meeting. Here at UW, we hope you were able to join the UWPA for their 14th annual research symposium last week. In addition to the wonderful talks and posters from UW postdocs, the UWPA welcomed postdoc-advocate and national leader Dr. Gary McDowell as the keynote speaker. Dr. McDowell became the first Executive Director of The Future for Research after completing two postdocs in research. Among his other national publications and activities, Dr. McDowell most recently served on the National Academies of Science (NAS) task force that, just two weeks ago, presented their recommendations to support postdocs entitled The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through.

In his plenary talk, Gary summarized the historical perspective that framed the charge to the NAS task force:

  • The attention to the postdoc experience is not new. A 50-year-old book, entitled The Invisible University: Postdoctoral Education in the United States, highlights many of the same issues that still affect postdoc training and mentorship today.
  • Postdocs should be encouraged to spend more time as independent researchers and thinkers, not simply data-generating factories!
  • While 80% of US biomedical PhDs transition to postdocs, only ~8% eventually move on to tenure-track jobs in academia (though many more secure academic positions that are “without tenure for reasons of funding, or WOT”).
  • Where do postdocs turn for guidance in non-academic careers, be it in industry, foundations, government, or public policy?

With this background, the NAS task force met throughout 2017 with the goal of influencing funders and institutions to step up and take responsibility for the gaps that persist. In particular, they emphasized shared responsibility for postdoc experience and early career researchers, transparency in postdoc pathways and alumni outcomes, accountability for mentorship and a clear separation between the employee and trainee components of the dual-role postdocs hold.

  • Training and mentorship for postdocs is the responsibility of funders (NIH, NSF) and employers (universities and companies), and it should be transparent and sustainable. The NAS has specific recommendations to ensure the growing biomedical workforce is properly trained and supported.
  • Similar to increasing the diversity at the graduate level, research institutions should be more intentional and proactive to recruit and retain more underserved and underrepresented postdoc fellows.
  • Emphasis should be placed on the successful transition to independence, with a particular focus on quality mentorship (including formal training of mentors) and a coordinated increase salary, in the number of fellowship opportunities (F- and K-awards), and partnerships with businesses (via the NIH SBIR/STTR programs).
  • Postdoc training should be term-limited at five years, facilitating the ability to transition successfully to better-paying positions in a timely way.
  • Research institutions and the NIH should expand the number of staff scientist positions to accommodate the growing number of postdocs who transition from mentored training career stage to research positions.

As we often say here at the OPA, the national reports recognize postdocs as part of the essential research and learning ecosystem at our research institutions. We could not do this work without you, and we look forward to continuing to partner as we work toward tangible improvements to the postdoc experience.