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NPA Recommendations for Postdoctoral Policies and Practices Print Email

 

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The NPA believes that appropriate training of the next generation of independent scientists requires that institutions set policies to encourage individual responsibility, foster effective mentoring, and recognize the value and contributions of postdoctoral scholars. This commitment to better preparation must be made at the highest levels, with institutional leaders providing: incentives and programs that promote good mentoring, an atmosphere that fosters diversity of ideas and experiences, professional development opportunities, including education on the myriad career options available to them upon graduation, appropriate recognition and compensation for postdoctoral fellows.

After considering the recommendations of stakeholders, most notably the Committee for Science, Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP)[1] , and collecting data from over 100 institutions, the NPA recommends implementation of the following institutional policies and practices for postdoctoral training.

1) Establish a postdoctoral office that actively engages postdoctoral scholars


The presence of both a postdoctoral office (staffed by permanent employees) and an association (of and run by the postdocs themselves) provides an excellent mechanism to facilitate open lines of communication with the administration and gives postdocs an independent and accessible avenue to provide input to the administration. The NPA provides online toolkits developed in collaboration with AAMC/GREAT to assist in the formation of PDAs, and PDOs (please visit the NPA website at http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/publications/toolkits for more information). If creating a postdoctoral office is not feasible (i.e., if your institution has too few postdocs to warrant such an office), an existing academic department should be given the responsibility of overseeing postdoctoral researchers, i.e. Vice-Provost for Research or Division of Graduate Studies. If the establishment of a postdoctoral association is not feasible, the appropriate office should establish defined policies to keep postdoctoral scholars engaged in planning and executing programs designed for their benefit.

The Postdoctoral Office should establish a mailing list to communicate important information to the postdocs within each institution. Additionally, the Postdoctoral Office and the Postdoctoral Association should strive to accomplish the goal of implementing the recommendations outlined in this document.

2) Establish postdoctoral policies


An institution must recognize that its postdoctoral population has unique needs and concerns that differ substantially from those of other subsets of the university/institute population and create and implement policies that pertain specifically to postdoctoral scholars. An important first step is to adopt a clear definition of "postdoc" and to ascribe to each postdoc the employment niche that they occupy--whether that is fellow, employee, or scholar. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) have agreed to the following definition of a postdoc:

A postdoctoral scholar ("postdoc") is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.

The institution should have straightforward policies detailing whether postdocs are treated as employees in all cases or only in certain cases (based, e.g. on source of funding). The appointment process should be uniform and ensure that postdocs are aware of the terms of their employment and that sufficient funds are available to provide financial support for the duration of their appointments. It is not necessary to create new policies for every circumstance, but institutions should clearly define which existing policies apply or do not apply to postdocs.

Postdoc-specific policies that should be clearly delineated include:

A) Administrative Policies

Establish policies that give postdocs access to such university facilities as the fitness center and library and also to career and professional development resources and events.

Providing such access is a low- to no-cost way of making postdocs feel part of the community and thereby increasing their productivity. If possible, involve the human resources office in tracking and supporting postdocs. Holding orientations for new postdocs is also advisable.

Utilize a centralized appointment process

A specific process for appointing postdocs should be adopted. This process will enable an institution to accurately know how many postdocs work at their institution and to evaluate the working conditions of their postdoctoral scholars. An appointment letter detailing terms of the appointment, verifying the existence of sufficient funds for the duration of employment, delineating conditions for re-appointment, detailing stipend information, and explaining benefits should be part of this process. The letter should be filed with the postdoctoral affairs office, if such an office exists, in addition to the department chair or dean.

Conduct an entry/exit interview

Interviewing new postdocs within three months of starting allows an institution to get a better understanding of the demographics of the postdocs and to understand their expectations. An exit questionnaire provides feedback regarding the success of the postdoctoral program at the institution and enables the institution to track the career pursuits of the postdocs. Maintaining such outcomes data over time would inform institutions about the effectiveness of their training programs, help establish an alumni network, and enable policy decisions to be driven by data, especially with regards to fostering diversity. Additionally, information from several institutions would provide valuable data regarding the scientific workforce. These interviews would ideally be conducted by the administrative body overseeing postdoctoral research at an institution but, regardless, should be conducted by an impartial entity and in such a way as to encourage honest feedback without fear of reprisal.

Conduct an annual survey of postdocs

Utilization of an annual survey provides PDAs and PDOs with valuable information regarding the needs and concerns of their postdoctoral population. The information obtained from such a survey should be used to aid in determining the specific issues that are important to postdocs on an institution-specific basis.

Establish policies to deal with issues concerning postdocs

It is important for procedures to be in place to deal with postdoctoral issues as they arise. For this reason, institutions should have policies outlined in the event of misconduct, grievances, authorship disputes, and concerns with regards to intellectual property. Policies should incorporate international Postdoc issues and be easily accessible.

Create and disseminate a postdoctoral handbook

A handbook that includes important policy information, as well as local information, is an indispensable reference and resource for postdocs. Ideally, this handbook would be produced as a collaborative effort among the postdoctoral office, the postdoctoral association, the international scholars office, and the human resources office. Among other resources, the handbook should contain information on the implications of funding support from training grants (individual and institutional) versus research grants, authorship and intellectual property policies, and an overview of conflict resolution and misconduct policies, with contact information for the appropriate ombudsman office. Postdocs should be provided with a hardcopy of this document at the start of their training. Additionally, this document should be easily accessible online for future reference.

B) Training policies

Establish resources and/or a curriculum for postdoctoral training

Given that the expressed purpose of the postdoctoral position is to receive additional advanced training in preparation for an independent career, institutions should provide guidelines and standards for this training and resources to support this training.

The institution should consider that, in an era of increasing complexity for the research enterprise, postdoctoral scholars pursue professional opportunities not only in academia but also in industry, government, nonprofits, and entrepreneurship. The variety of career options available today demands a diverse array of skills, such as writing grant proposals and CVs or mastering the principles of effective resource management, that are often neglected during doctoral study and postdoctoral research. The postdoctoral experience will be more relevant to career and professional development if the scholar seeks or is offered opportunities to acquire, maintain, or improve such skills.[1]

The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) has established six core competencies (http://www.nationalpostdoc.org/competencies) to offer guidance to individual postdoctoral scholars who must seek out relevant training experiences, in collaboration with mentors, institutions, and other advisors who provide this training. These competencies are meant to serve primarily as: (1) a basis for self-evaluation by postdoctoral scholars and (2) a basis for developing training opportunities that can be evaluated by mentors, institutions, and other advisors.

Establish time frame for postdoctoral transition to independence

Institutions should define the maximum length of time an individual may be classified as a postdoc, after which they should be moved into a permanent employee position. This total should take into account the number of years previously spent at other institutions in a postdoctoral position. In cases involving family leave and other extenuating circumstances, extensions to this limit may become appropriate.

Facilitate effective mentoring and personal responsibility through career planning with an annual review

Establishing good communication between postdocs and mentors is critical for a successful relationship. The NPA recommends the use of the individual development plan (IDP), adapted as appropriate for different fields of study and to reflect any institutional guidelines. (Seehttp://www.faseb.org/portals/0/pdfs/opa/idp.pdf for more information.) The IDP opens communication, identifies expectations, establishes objective criteria for success, recognizes the importance of training and service, and should be flexible to allow new opportunities to be pursued when they appear. The IDP should include defined time and resources devoted to research and career development activities independent of the mentor's research. The entrance questionnaire is an excellent opportunity to introduce the IDP and discuss particular aspects that should be included, and the exit questionnaire could be used to determine perceived and actual benefits of an IDP. An annual review of the plan and the progress made is needed to ensure that the expectations of both parties are being met and that appropriate modifications of the plan or the approach to the plan are made.

Offer career development/transition services

Postdocs today face enormous competition and diverse career options. Mentors are unlikely to be able to provide all the necessary information and tools to facilitate transition to independence without institutional assistance. Institutions that provide career development programs and resources recognize their role and responsibility to their postdocs and help them make the most of their time at the institution. Professional development resources could include mentoring, lab management resources, teaching opportunities, grant writing classes, access to relevant Web-based resources and small, competitive career-enhancement awards.

C) Benefits Policies

Establish a minimum baseline salary/stipend, plus a salary/stipend scale

Many institutions adopt the NIH National Research Service Award (NRSA) stipend scale as a minimum for departments funded through the NIH. The NRSA scale provides a baseline stipend for postdocs who have recently graduated and adjusts upwards based on the number of years of experience. While adopting this scale may be a realistic starting point for many institutions, the NPA strongly recommends a minimum baseline salary/stipend of $45,000 for a postdoc who is less than 1 year from receiving her/his Ph.D. Equal salaries should be paid to national and international Postdocs.

Institutions should also provide some mechanism to ensure that guidelines recognize regional cost of living and are followed, whether through department heads, postdoctoral offices, or offices of grants and contracts administration. Provide a comprehensive, fair, and equitable benefits package to postdocs, comparable to that which is received by standard employees whether national or international at the same institution.

Institutions should provide postdocs with a benefits package that is equitable when compared with other full-time employees at the institution. This benefits package should minimally include health and dental insurance plans for postdocs. Additionally, institutions should provide policies for vacation and sick days allowed for postdocs, as well as for family leave benefits.

Extend family-friendly benefits to all postdocs

Institutions should recognize that many postdocs are at a stage of life when establishing a family is as important as their professional development and extend benefits to all postdocs that are reflective of the institution's commitment to other employees. These benefits should include: adherence to the family and medical leave act for non-employees, maternity/paternity leave, access to on-site child care and/or subsidies, access to dependent coverage for health insurance, support programs for foreign spouses, and part-time status for postdocs.

Allow matched contributions to a retirement program

Given the increasing age of postdocs and length of time spent as a postdoc, the opportunity to contribute to retirement accounts is an important resource. Recognizing the temporary nature of the postdoctoral position, institutions may establish special rules for vesting by postdocs and for allowing employer-matched contributions.

3) Maintain an office for international scholar services


Postdocs who are non-U.S. citizens face unique challenges that their mentors may not be able to meet without additional assistance from elsewhere in the institution. A dedicated office for international scholars is a critical resource for both prospective scholars and those who are already at the institution, and should work closely with the postdoctoral office or other appropriate body to ensure that the particular needs of international postdocs are being addressed.

4) Address diversity concerns


Institutions should seek to promote diversity and ensure equal opportunity and inclusion for all postdocs in the membership, leadership and activities of the Institution regardless of race, ethnicity, sex, disability, country of origin, field of research, socio-economic status, religion, age, marital status, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

Specifically, institutions should:

  • Have minority-specific recruitment mechanisms in place
  • Have minority-specific support systems in place to ensure the retention and success of this population of postdocs at your institution.


Acknowledgements


The recommendations have been revised and include significant changes made by members of the NPA Advocacy Committee and the Executive Director in August 2011 and October 2012.

NPA ADVOCACY COMMITTEE

  • Juliet Moncaster, Ph.D., Chair
  • Rashada Alexander, Ph.D.
  • Marlene Winkelbauer, Ph.D.
  • Lu-Ann Pozzi, Ph.D.

Cathee Johnson Philips, M.A.
Former Executive Director

The original recommendations were developed by the NPA Policy Committee and approved by the NPA Executive Board, February, 2005.

NPA EXECUTIVE BOARD*
Keith J. Micoli, Ph.D.
Chair
University of Alabama at Birmingham

Derek T. Scholes, Ph.D.
Vice Chair
Wadsworth Center

Douglas J. Rowland, Ph.D.
Treasurer
Washington University in St. Louis

Chris Blagden, Ph.D.
New York University

Amber Budden, Ph.D.
University of California, Berkeley

Raymond Clark, Ph.D.
Science Professionals Consulting Group

John R. LeViathan, M.A.
The J. David Gladstone Institutes

Arti Patel, Ph.D., M.P.H.
National Cancer Institute, NIH

Jayne Reuben, Ph.D.
University of Michigan

Claudina A. Stevenson, Ph.D.
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute

J. Lille Tidwell, Ph.D.
National Institutes of Health

Steven K. Wendell, Ph.D.
University of Pittsburgh

Alyson Reed, M.A.
Executive Director
*Institutional affiliations included for identification purposes only

NPA POLICY COMMITTEE

  • Samuel J. Howerton, Ph.D., Chair
  • Raymond Clark, Ph.D., Vice Chair
  • Keith J. Micoli, Ph.D.
  • Brian Bailey, Ph.D.
  • Elsa Strotmeyer, Ph.D.
  • Diane Klotz, Ph.D.
  • Derek Scholes, Ph.D.

References


[1] "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies". National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, 2000. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=9831

 

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