- Career Center
|The POSTDOCket, June 2020|
Preparing a Growing Postdoctoral Workforce for a Diverse Job Market
By Murielle Ålund, Nathan Emery, Eben Gering, and 10 current or former Michigan State University postdocs
A group of postdoctoral scholars from Michigan State University recently published an article in Nature Ecology and Evolution that summarizes current issues surrounding postdoc training and support, and outlines feasible solutions. The idea for this article started with casual discussions at bi-weekly meetings among postdocs of Integrative Biology, Plant Biology and Entomology departments. The postdocs had been meeting to help each other out on various job searches and application packages. Thirteen postdocs, guided by collective impressions of the current professional challenges for postdocs, decided to dig into the data available on postdocs career prospects, specific needs for training, and the different forms of support and benefits at local, national and international levels.
A postdoc is defined by the NPA as “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 number of U.S. postdocs in science has doubled since 1990, but the number of academic faculty positions has not changed much, and as a result, the majority of STEM doctorate holders, both in the United States and in Europe, turn to a wide variety of non-academic positions. Postdoc positions, that were originally designed as a temporary path to a faculty position, are not aligned with the reality of the job market anymore. Instead, the average number of years a researcher spends as a postdoc is steadily increasing, and the need for professional development opportunities better adapted to a diverse array of careers is acute.
Drawing from the results of their research, the Michigan State University postdocs compiled advice for concrete enhancements to postdoc-centered policies and practices, outlined in five main goals:
Align Career Development with Job Markets
Because of the contributions postdocs make to their labs and institutions’ research, and time spent teaching and mentoring, implementing the changes presented will likely benefit the larger academic community. While the postdocs acknowledge the importance of workshops and skill-based training to prepare for a diverse job market, they also note that training must be accompanied by explicit encouragement from supervisors and departments to invest the time needed for professional development.
Sustain wellness and work-life balance
Understanding the many disparities in postdoc salary and benefits across countries and institutions, and sometimes even within departments (depending on funding sources) is disheartening. To support both wellness and mental health, and to mitigate the stress associated with short term contracts and frequent relocations, it is vital that institutions move towards increased transparent and fair compensation. In addition, no postdoc should lack access to health care, sick leave or parental leave.
Mentoring is important for successful professional development, however current mentoring practices are not uniform. Training in mentoring practices benefits both advisors and postdocs and has been shown to increase overall productivity.
Develop administrative support
Similarly, both scientific societies and departmental and institutional postdoctoral associations play an essential role in supporting postdocs and need more recognition for the service they provide. Despite the quality of support provided by both volunteer-led postdoctoral associations (PDA) and members of offices of postdoctoral affairs (OPA), many of the 50 highly ranked institutions surveyed worldwide did notmention either OPAs or PDAs on their websites.
Increase broader support
Our paper includes a table highlighting three versions of postdoctoral handbooks: one containing the “minimum essentials,” consolidating relevant information typically already existing at home institutions, a “better-case scenario,” appending resources that many programs do not yet provide, and a “best-case scenario” handbook outlining active and comprehensive efforts to support postdoctoral productivity. We are hoping that these examples of items to include in handbooks will be useful to local PDAs and OPAs putting together such resources for postdocs, but also to postdocs that are themselves advocating for better support at their own departments.
An integrated perspective
As ecologists and evolutionary scientists, the Michigan State University postdoc group understands how integrated systems function. For example, international research systems are playing crucial roles in understanding and mitigating the current pandemic; this momentum is strongly dependent on the talent and tireless efforts of postdocs worldwide. It is important to understand how academic ecosystems can better function by supporting and training postdocs. Perhaps ecologists and evolutionary scientists are particularly well equipped to adopt methods commonly used to study life around us back to their own societies.
We, the authors, the postdocs at Michigan State University, are very thankful for how our ideas were received by handling editor Luíseach Nic Eion, who, together with two reviewers, gave us valuable input on how to keep the content actionable, succinct, and persuasive. Of course, this applies to a wider range of fields observing similar growth in their postdoctoral workforce, and we are looking forward to keeping this conversation open with various stakeholders in postdoc success.
Effective Self-Management for Early Career Researchers in the Natural and Life Sciences
By Adriana Bankston
The academic environment can be fertile ground for producing knowledge, engaging in innovative research, and training the next generation of scientists for research careers. Therefore, early career researchers (ECRs) who aspire to become tenure-track faculty have ample opportunities to gain the skills necessary for conducting research, presenting their work, and attending conferences. Often, they gain skills in scientific writing by working on publications and grants with their advisors.
However, academia can also be difficult to navigate, given many pressures placed on ECRs to publish papers, contribute to grant applications, and conduct experiments on a regular basis and in an ethical and rigorous manner. This leaves little time for their own professional development outside of engaging in research activities, as well as taking care of themselves both physically and mentally. Ultimately, these factors will have consequences for maintaining a sustainable research system and for developing a capable STEM workforce that is able to utilize their talents and skills more broadly in society.
This work was published in April 2020 in Neuron (published by Cell Press), one of the most influential journals in the field of neuroscience. It largely focuses on the work of the Human Brain Mapping (OHBM) Student and Postdoc Special Interest Group (SP-SIG), together with collaborators at different career stages who advocate for ECRs in academia.
The publication discusses several aspects of the academic environment for ECRs, including career guidance, self-care, networking, and mentoring. Recommendations presented in this publication are drawn from personal experiences of ECRs, in addition to published studies on this topic. Although many of the authors are in neuroscience and psychology fields, these recommendations apply broadly to ECRs across academic disciplines, as well as outside of academia.
A few key points from this publication for ECRs, categorized by area, include:
In conclusion, effective self-management, which encompasses several aspects as outlined above, is critical for ECRs in academia, as well as for transitioning into non-academic careers. Placing a focus on this issue is not only critical for the productivity and well-being of ECRs, but also for sustaining a healthy and successful research enterprise.
Adriana Bankston is a principal legislative analyst at the University of California Office of Federal Governmental Relations, as well as vice-president of Future of Research, and chief outreach officer at the Journal of Science Policy and Governance. This post represents the writer's personal views and not the views of their employer, the University of California.This post represents the writer's personal views and not the views of their employer, the University of California.
Remote Mentoring in Times of Crisis
By Kristen Davenport
Among the changes forced on the research community by COVID-19, mentors are learning to mentor remotely. Postdoctoral scholars are learning to be remote mentees, but many also find themselves learning to be remote mentors. The crisis requires supervisors to pay more deliberate attention to the well-being of their mentees and serve as a support system, all while taking care of themselves and their families. Whenever possible, postdocs should view virtual mentoring as an opportunity to be more thorough and intentional in their mentoring practices, which will benefit both mentees and postdocs’ long-term career objectives.
Postdoc supervisors should strive to provide all mentees (students and technicians) with:
Mentoring laboratory technicians
Laboratory technicians, by definition, rely on technical lab work to fill their days, which is impossible when working remotely. Postdoc supervisors should provide:
Mentoring graduate students and advanced undergraduates
Graduate students and independent undergraduates feel the same pressures as postdocs, watching the clock tick while projects sit in the freezer. However, postdocs can mentor earlier-stage scientists by:
Of course, postdocs will not be able to support their mentees if they are not taking care of themselves. Postdocs should use their resources (others in the lab and in their network) for support and ideas to improve mentoring. Postdocs do not have to be perfect mentors, but the efforts they make are meaningful. This era of remote mentoring may turn a whole generation of postdocs into stronger mentors.
Kristen Davenport, DVM, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, and a mentor of two laboratory technicians.
New Diversity Officers Plan Discussions on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
By Matthew Aguirre and Vipul Sharma
We want to begin by introducing ourselves as the new NPA Diversity Officers, Matthew Aguirre and Vipul Sharma. Aguirre is the director of postdoctoral affairs, graduate recruitment and diversity initiatives at the University of Nevada, Reno. Sharma is a staff research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Medicine.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion have and continue to be prevalent in our society today even more so during these challenging times. For this very reason, roles such as Diversity Officers that bring these topics to the forefront are essential to ensure that in challenging times all voices are heard. We are glad to have been appointed as the new Diversity Officers for the NPA for the very reasons mentioned along with many others.
We have become more familiar with our new roles with NPA by meeting with various individuals and groups to get a better understanding of what postdocs are currently facing concerning diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also have reviewed multiple data sets and inquiries to understand better what initiatives to implement in our new roles.
Representation, Recruitment, and Retention
Some of the critical elements we have seen are the representation of postdocs, which coincides with recruitment and retention of postdocs. We plan to explore further hiring practices of postdocs across various institutions to ensure equitable hiring processes are utilized. Which has also led us to the topic of retention in that many postdocs do not feel included or feel they have adequate support either from the institution or supervisors.
We plan to add to the excellent work NPA is currently doing by highlighting the voices of those unheard and using NPA as a platform to serve the postdoc population and its members. The NPA is a great resource and support system with various groups and individuals that will assist us to push our initiatives forward. The NPA’s current data set has been an excellent resource for us in regards to understanding the members we are serving in our roles.
Unique Voices; Unique Fit
Both of us have faced our own challenges because of the underrepresented backgrounds we come from, either by intentional or unintentional remarks or behaviors of others. For example, those who may not be a “fit” in an environment have extra hurdles to address in addition to their inherent duties. Instances such as this are only one of the reasons that we are appreciative and fortunate to be serving as NPA Diversity Officers. We feel that it is vital to amplify the voices of underrepresented individuals and groups to empower and encourage them to advocate for others through equitable and inclusive policy changes.
We want to promote discussions surrounding diversity, equity, and inclusion. We have seen firsthand how privileges that we do not have to bring added barriers in society, but at the same time, we possess privileges that we utilize to advocate for others. We will work with postdocs and postdoctoral administrators at various institutions to further collaborate on best practices to support the postdoc community.
As we know, many individuals are doing great things to support postdocs at their institutions but may not be known, and we want to be able to highlight these practices to help others who wish to do the same. We are always welcome to assist in any way we can and collaborate to support our communities further. Please do not hesitate to reach out to any of us, as we are always available.
Matthew Aguirre, PhD, is the director of postdoctoral affairs, graduate recruitment and diversity initiatives at the University of Nevada, Reno and Diversity Officer at the NPA.
Vipul Sharma, PhD, is a staff research scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, School of Medicine and a Diversity Officer at the NPA.
Open Data Resources for the Life and Health Sciences and Beyond
By Crystal Marrie Austin
For many postdoctoral scholars, the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted us to be more flexible and innovative with working remotely. This could be an excellent time to take advantage of open data resources that can help while working outside of the lab. Large data sets are useful for gaining a better understanding of a topic or problem, generating new project ideas, and adding value to current projects.
Postdocs, like other researchers, recognize the importance of access to open data. We routinely use large, interconnected resources that help us design and perform better research. Examples of these widely used databases are the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) and the European Bioinformatics Institute (EMBL-EBI), which provide us with PubMed, NCBI Bookshelf, BLAST, and UniProt, among other resources.
Here are a few additional resources in open data that postdocs may want to explore:
Want to explore more open data resources? Check out this Awesome Public Datasets list.
Do you have an open resource that you’d like to share? Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your source and tell us how you use it in your research.
Crystal Marrie Austin, PhD, is a Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA postdoctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Medical Center, Kansas City, KS.
Dealing with Uncertainty in the Academic Job Market
By Chris Smith
Many in the NPA community are rightly concerned about the future of the academic job market. Perspective postdocs wonder: Will institutions be hiring postdocs? Current postdocs wonder: Will there be faculty positions open in Fall 2020 or 2021? There is much uncertainty with the current job landscape for so many. And while this commentary will not diminish the reality of that uncertainty, hopefully it will offer some facts and perspective on several of these matters.
Employment at U.S. Universities in Response to COVID-19
Recent data from The Chronicle of Higher Education indicate most (58 percent) university employment changes in response to COVID-19 have been furloughs, where the hope is to rehire staff once it is deemed possible; only 17 percent of positions have been categorized as being a “permanent layoff.” Those on renewable contracts at universities appear most at-risk at public institutions where nearly two-thirds of reported academic contract non-renewals have taken place. Unfortunately, the number of individuals on renewable contracts is large and consist of a wide range of employees from postdocs to lecturers and adjunct faculty (i.e., contingent faculty). There are concerns with how the current COVID-19-related cutbacks disproportionately affect non-tenure faculty and postdoctoral scholars who are already in more vulnerable employment positions.
We should first acknowledge that the modern United States research enterprise will require postdoc labor for the foreseeable future. Postdocs bring valuable skills to many academic research groups and are the main driver of efforts toward accomplishing the goals of many grant-funded projects and spearheading innovative research that leads to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.
As many postdoctoral scholars in the sciences are funded via federal research dollars from the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, their job security could be considered more stable compared to other academic employees. These grants are multi-year endeavors and many postdoc office administrators have noted that even if their institution currently has a hiring freeze, that often does not apply to grant-funded postdoctoral positions.
With this in mind, prospective postdocs should seek out research groups with current federal grant funding to ensure their postdoc position will be relatively stable for the next few years. Find labs with funding via: NIH Reporter, NSF Award Search, DOE Award Search, & USDA Awards
In addition, a recent survey on postdoctoral hiring trends through the Professional Development and Career Office at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found 35 percent of responding institutions have not changed their postdoc hiring practices, 62 percent have modified their hiring strategy for postdocs (i.e., added new processes/procedures to hire), and only 3 percent have stopped hiring postdocs. Therefore, on the whole, postdoctoral hiring trends appear intact, though those requiring international travel to reach their employer are subject to current visa policies and regulations, and as such may experience temporary difficulties obtaining a position in the United States.
Many universities have issued faculty and staff hiring freezes (see crowdsourced list of current hiring practices). How will these freezes affect faculty hiring in 2020–2021? Chemjobber has predicted fewer than 100 chemistry faculty positions will be open across the United States. and Canada in fall 2020 compared to an average number of openings of 550—a drop of over 80 percent. However, there is still relatively little data to indicate the extent to which faculty hiring will be affected in fall 2020.
Most university staff assume a decrease in available funds to hire new faculty will occur, though how large of a decrease remains uncertain at the moment. It is this uncertainty, though, that has led many universities to act conservatively and pause new faculty hiring for fiscal year 2021 (beginning July 2020). If university finances are not impacted as severely as predicted this coming academic year, perhaps hiring in fiscal year 2022 might be more robust than anticipated.The future is uncertain and all available data is being analyzed to help provide the clarity as to when to make strategic increases in faculty over time.
Collecting insights from those on the faculty job market
Together with colleagues who met via Future PI Slack, I and others are working to gain a better understanding of the qualifications needed to obtain a faculty position and how competition for one may shift as a result of COVID-19. Recently, our 2018–2019 job market survey was published in eLife and a current survey running for those on the faculty job market in 2019–2020 will begin to shed light on how COVID-19 affected faculty offers this spring.
Consider Career Alternatives
Given the expectation of a challenging faculty job market over the next few years, all postdoctoral scholars should consider career alternatives to faculty. It is always advisable to have options for your career and indeed the current climate makes having a Plan B even more important.
While it is important to be realistic about job opportunities, if your Plan A is to become a professor, don’t abandon all hope. There will always be a need for good, dedicated people in faculty positions. One point that is often overlooked is that most faculty positions are not at large, research-intensive universities. Reach out to faculty working at a variety of institutions of higher education to learn more about your options and what a faculty position may look like outside an R1 university.
Budgetary Concerns & New Investments in Science
Clearly, university budgets will be affected by potential decreases in enrollments if students don’t feel comfortable returning, or are not given the opportunity to return, to campus in the fall. However, new data suggest enrollment drops may not be as severe as originally anticipated. Decreases in sales tax revenue from closed economies will also strain state funding for many institutions (see also). Federal funding currently remains intact, though, and may increase as policymakers appreciate the value of scientific discovery and innovation and how such work is crucial to solving the complex problems we face as a society in a timely and effective manner.
There are bi-partisan calls for more support of the United States scientific workforce during the current COVID-19 crisis. In fact, 31 senators have signed on to this letter from Edward Markey (Democate-MA) and Thom Tillis (Republican-NC) which calls for, among other things, emergency relief to sustain research support personnel and additional funds for graduate student and postdoc fellowships for up to two years. In addition, another recent bill outlined a plan to add a technology directorate within the National Science Foundation in order to accelerate the translation of fundamental research into useful and effective processes and products for the public good (see Endless Frontier Act).
In Europe, the United Kingdom has pledged a 15 percent increase in R&D funding for 2021 fiscal year, representing its largest year-on-year increase ever. Last year, Germany announced a three percent annual increase in science funding to continue for nearly a decade. The silver lining of the current situation could be increased investment in the research enterprise which will more than likely benefit the postdoctoral community in the long-term.
Despite the fact that the current postdoctoral and academic job market is uncertain, the world undoubtedly needs the talents and skills of postdocs in academia and in higher education more broadly; working in higher education remains a great career where one can have a tremendous positive impact on society. The anticipated new national investments in scientific funding may ultimately improve the job prospects of many for years to come.
It is well-known that higher education unlocks economic opportunities for students as well as communities. Some have called for an Academic New Deal with increased investment in and access to higher education and other advanced training needed in the 21st century. Perhaps one positive effect of the global pandemic will be that the public will appreciate and support the need for scientific research, innovation, and robust institutions of higher education that allow for us all to grow and prosper into the future.
Chris Smith, PhD, is the postdoc program manager at North Carolina State University and a member of the NPA Board of Directors.
Thank you to new and renewing Sustaining Members of the NPA!
Sustaining Members are a vital part of the NPA. Sustaining Members represent a range of professional societies, postdoc associations, postdoc offices, and other organizations that serve the postdoctoral community. Students, postdocs, faculty, and staff at NPA Sustaining Member institutions are eligible to join the NPA, at no cost, as Affiliate Members. Check to see if your institution is an NPA Sustaining Member.
Welcome to the NPA!
Thank you renewed members for your continued support!
Please consider joining the NPA in forwarding the interests of postdocs on a national level!
Thank you to our associate editors for June!