Last February, the Computing Research Association (CRA) — the umbrella organization of the Computing Community Consortium (CCC) — launched an effort to engage the computing research community in a conversation about postdoctoral fellows, at a time when survey data were suggesting that a growing number of recent Ph.D.s in the field were pursuing postdoctoral fellowships — a trend that has continued. A white paper, the result of a CRA-commissioned committee, was posted to the web, presenting statistics about academic and industry hiring, and articulating relevant issues about postdoctoral fellows. The CRA sought input from the community, encouraging faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and graduate students to discuss the various issues and opine on the website.
Following months of discussions in departments and conversations by CRA’s Board of Directors, CRA today is releasing a consensus white paper — a statement by the community to all those concerned about the issue of postdoctoral positions in computing. The paper provides — to graduating doctoral students, to mentors, to hiring departments, and to funding agencies — guidelines on when a postdoctoral position is a positive experience as well as expectations of postdoctoral fellows, their mentors, and their supporting departments.
Among the guidelines in the white paper:
…It is the consensus of the community that unfettered growth in the number of postdoctoral fellow positions in computer science is not healthy for the field. The community notes that the Taulbee Survey since 2006 indicates 740 tenure-track academic positions taken, 886 postdoctoral fellowship positions taken, and 3567 industrial positions taken. The number of postdoctoral positions in 2010 was almost triple the number in 2006, and was roughly 2.5 times the number of academic positions taken in 2010.
A rapid growth in positions may lead to scenarios in which postdoctoral fellows are used as a holding pattern in career development, while waiting for a permanent position to appear. This holding pattern is particularly troubling if it leads to an expectation that most doctoral graduates will undertake one or more postdoctoral positions before accepting a permanent position, as has happened in some science fields. The computing community is concerned that if multi-year postdoctoral positions become the norm, this will have a negative impact on demographics of the field, as it will make early family years much more difficult for candidates. Moreover, the funding of postdoctoral positions may come at the expense of funding for other aspects of the research endeavor, such as graduate students, and the community is concerned that unfettered growth in postdoctoral fellows, while potentially satisfying short term research contract needs, will reduce support for earlier stages of the research pipeline. Furthermore if postdoctoral positions become viewed as a necessary stepping-stone on the way to a faculty position, the people who are already at the peak of their intellectual powers are delayed in attaining a position where they can independently pursue research and teaching.
For potential postdoctoral scholars, the consensus of the CS community is that such an experience is of value when:
- It is being used to expand the scholar’s experience base, such as entering a new research discipline, or gaining a distinctly different perspective on the scholar’s current research base;
- There is a specific and relevant opportunity for intellectual growth, such as working with a particular mentor or on a particular project; and
- The cumulative term of the position is, except in rare, extenuating circumstances, no more than two years in duration.
We note that a postdoctoral fellow position may be useful, but not optimal, for individuals who take the position for other than a main objective of training, such as synching two body situations. It is important to stress that a postdoctoral fellow position is not a career, but has value when it directly enhances career development…
As noted in the white paper, “the CRA believes that a broad community consensus on this topic, and thus careful attention by the community as the postdoctoral experience evolves, will ensure a healthy and productive growth for the entire community.”
I encourage you to review the entire white paper — just a few pages long — and to help disseminate it to your colleagues, postdoctoral fellows, students, and others in the field.
And if you have thoughts, please take a few minutes to comment in the space below about this important issue.
(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)