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News from the National Academies

December 10, 2014

For Immediate Release


Report Urges Significant Reforms to Improve the Training and Salary of Postdoctoral Researchers 


WASHINGTON -- A new report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine urges significant changes to improve the postdoctoral training system in the United States. The postdoctoral experience should be refocused to have training and mentoring at its center, the report says. In addition, the salaries of postdoctoral researchers should be increased to reflect more accurately the value of their training and contribution to research.


The report also recommends that graduate students avoid viewing postdoctoral positions as the default next step, given that growth in the number of postdoctoral researchers far exceeds growth in the number of tenure-track jobs to which many of these researchers aspire. Instead, with the assistance of their institutions, graduate students should consider a broad range of scientific career paths, said the committee that wrote the report.


“The demand for junior research workers has boomed in recent decades, but the number of research faculty positions into which the junior researchers might hope to move has not kept pace,” said committee chair Gregory Petsko, Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College. “The result is a system that has created expectations for academic career advancement that in many – perhaps most -- cases cannot be met.”


Concern about the postdoctoral training system has been gnawing at the research community for decades, the report observes. The National Academies produced a report in 2000 that called for reforms to the system.  Some progress has been made since then, the new report notes. For example, many universities have created offices of postdoctoral affairs to provide better services to postdoctoral researchers, and postdoctoral researchers created the National Postdoctoral Association to provide a forum and unified voice for themselves.


Other aspects of postdoctoral training have seen little change. There is no convincing evidence that most postdoctoral researchers are receiving adequate mentoring, and little evidence that universities and mentors are providing adequate information about other types of careers. Salaries, always relatively low, have failed to even keep pace with inflation.


Meanwhile, the percentage of Ph.D.s who pursue postdoctoral training has been growing steadily and broadening from the biomedical and physical sciences to engineering and the social sciences. In the United States, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 postdoctoral researchers now work in various research fields. 


Although the data are not definitive, the average length of time researchers spend in postdoctoral positions seems to be increasing, the report says. Sources of funding have changed as well. The number of postdoctoral fellowships and trainee positions -- which provide postdoctoral researchers relative autonomy and recognition -- has remained nearly constant for decades, while the number of postdoctoral researchers hired as part of research grants or supported by nonfederal sources has grown dramatically.


Postdoctoral research positions are intended to give young scientists advanced research training with a fixed term of appointment. In reality, the practice of employing postdocs as long-term researchers, with little mentoring and little hope of moving into a career that requires advanced research training, unfortunately seems to be becoming more common, said the committee.


To address problems in the postdoctoral training system, the committee developed recommendations for best practices covering five areas -- period of service, title and role, career development, compensation and benefits, and mentoring – along with a sixth recommendation on data collection.


Period of service. Postdoctoral appointments for a researcher should total no more than five years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness). This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience. Host institutions should maintain a record of how long a postdoctoral researcher remains in a position and provide that information to funding agencies as part of grant proposals. And to facilitate tracking of postdoctoral researchers, funding agencies could assign each postdoctoral researcher an identifier and keep record of the total length of time any given individual is holding such a position.


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 significant advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position elsewhere or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary. Funding agencies should have a consistent designation for “postdoctoral researchers” and require evidence that advanced research training is a component of the postdoctoral experience.  Host institutions should create or identify professional positions for individuals who are conducting research but not receiving training, and they should receive appropriate remuneration, benefits, and privileges.


Career development. Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make 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. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.


“Training for the Ph.D. degree is an ideal preparation for many different careers, and this recommendation is not meant to suggest that the number of graduate students in the physical, life and social sciences is too great,” said Petsko. “It is vital, however, that information about the full range of such career opportunities be available to all graduate students, and that the institutional culture not imply that careers outside a traditional academic track are in any sense inferior options.” 


Compensation and benefits of employment. Current postdoctoral salaries are low, the report says. The study committee considered five different approaches for determining an appropriate minimum salary, and all of them suggest an amount of $50,000 or more. In addition, data reveal that the starting salary for NIH’s National Research Service Award (NRSA) postdoctoral award – currently set at $42,000 for 2014 -- has become the de facto standard for many disciplines and at many universities. The NIH should raise the NRSA postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars) and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries. (Two committee members did not support the recommendation for a prescriptive salary standard; see footnote on p. 6 of report.)


To implement this recommendation, federal agencies should require host institutions to provide documentation of the salary a postdoctoral researcher will receive with all grant proposals. Professional societies should collect data on salaries for all positions and make these publicly available.


Mentoring. The postdoctoral experience should have training and mentoring at its center, the report stresses. Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral scholars to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisers, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through training programs for the mentors and evaluation of their performance. Funding agencies should identify better ways of evaluating or rewarding mentoring as an essential component of research. Professional societies are in an ideal position to provide additional mentors to supplement those at host institutions.


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 completing their research training, and make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers.


The study was sponsored by the Presidents’ Committee of the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine; the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund. The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, independent nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter granted to NAS in 1863.  The National Research Council is the principal operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  For more information, visit http://national-academies.orgA committee roster follows.



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Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy


Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers


Gregory A. Petsko1,2 (chair)

Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience, and


Appel Alzheimer’s Disease Research Institute

Weill Cornell Medical College; and

Gyula and Katica Tauber Professor of Biochemistry and Chemistry Emeritus

Brandeis University

New York City


Sibby Anderson-Thompkins

Director of Postdoctoral Affairs

Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research

University of North Carolina

Chapel Hill


H. Russell Bernard2

Professor Emeritus

Department of Anthropology

University of Florida



Carol Greider1,2

Daniel Nathans Professor and Director

Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics

Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine



James Plummer3

Frederick Emmons Terman Dean

School of Engineering, and

John M. Fluke Professor of Electrical Engineering

Stanford University

Stanford, Calif.


E. Albert Reece1

Vice President for Medical Affair, ands

Bowers Distinguished Professor and Dean

School of Medicine

University of Maryland



Nancy Schwartz

Professor of Pediatrics and Biochemistry, and

Dean for Postdoctoral Affairs

University of Chicago



Paula Stephan

Professor of Economics

Andrew Young School for Policy Studies

Georgia State University



Lorraine Tracey

Medical Science Liaison

Teva Pharmaceuticals

Washington, D.C.


Michael Turner2

Bruce V. and Diana M. Rauner Distinguished Service Professor, and


Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics

University of Chicago



Allison Woodall

Deputy General Counsel

Labor, Employment, and Benefits Group

University of California System



Joan Woodard

Former Executive Vice President and Deputy Director

Sandia National Laboratories (retired)

Washington, D.C.




Kevin Finneran

Study Director



1Member, Institute of Medicine

2Member, National Academy of Sciences

3Member, National Academy of Engineering