“Standards for Postdoc Training”

April 25th, 2012 by Erwin Gianchandani Post a comment »

An interesting editorial (subscription required) in this week’s Science magazine, authored by Alan I. Leshner, the Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and Executive Publisher of Science:

Alan I. Leshner, AAAS [image courtesy Colella Photography via AAAS/Science].Postdoctoral (Postdoc) training has become virtually institutionalized in many parts of the world as a discrete stage in the career progression in most science and engineering fields. However, there is far too much variability in what such training involves, across institutions and among the laboratories within them. Given its importance and pervasiveness — there are over 50,000 postdocs in the United States alone — we need to establish and enforce standards, norms, and expectations for mentors, mentees, and their institutions that are analogous to those for undergraduate and graduate education [more after the jump].

 

The original rationale for postdoc training was to acquire additional skills that were not included in one’s graduate program. That motivation has persisted, but an extended postdoc period has also become a way to establish one’s credentials, or a source of temporary employment when regular jobs are scarce. In many fields it is almost impossible to get a permanent job directly out of graduate school, and it is not unusual for researchers in some fields to have had two or more postdoc experiences. In addition, postdocs have become nearly indispensable members of many research groups, because they provide novel ideas and do much of the hands-on experimentation.

 

The U.S. National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) did an in-depth analysis of the postdoc experience in 2000 and is revisiting the issues with another study committee now. The 2000 report concluded that postdoc training is far too variable and recommended a set of remedial steps. Examples include the development of distinct goals, policies, and standards for postdoc experiences; institutional recognition, status, and compensation in keeping with the important roles postdocs play in the research enterprise; and career guidance to prepare postdocs for regular employment.

 

Unfortunately, none of these recommendations has been implemented on a broad scale. To convert them into reality requires oversight bodies both within and across research institutions that train postdocs. A critical COSEPUP recommendation was that every university should have a designated high-level office that oversees postdoc training across the entire institution. Although some institutions have established such offices, many lack the standing and influence needed to enforce adherence to standards and policies, and therefore the nature of postdoc training remains idiosyncratic from laboratory to laboratory…

 

Every institution that trains postdocs should have a high-level office responsible for ensuring the quality and consistency of its training programs. And all such institutions should join together and either strengthen the NPA or form an alternative organization that will have the standing to recommend in detail best practices and standards and offer technical assistance to its institutional members. For any such efforts to succeed requires the full endorsement and participation of all elements of the scientific community — faculty, students, administrators, and funders. Today’s postdocs are the future of the science and engineering enterprise. Let’s commit to ensuring that all of them get the quality postdoc experiences they need and deserve.

 

From Standards for Postdoc Training, by Alan I. Leshner, Science 20 April 2012: 336 (6079), 276. [DOI:10.1126/science.1222476]. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.

Read the entire editorial here (subscription required).

And remember to check out CRA’s consensus statement on the issue — “a statement by the community to all those concerned about the issue of postdoctoral positions in computing.”

(Contributed by Erwin Gianchandani, CCC Director)