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April 6, 2005

Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey Offers Surprising Insights

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC - The Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey, the most comprehensive of its kind, has provided some surprising insights into this essential tier of the scientific workforce, now occupied by more than 50,000 apprentice scientists nationwide.

Scientific advances in the nation's laboratories have become increasingly dependent on this army of Ph.D. researchers-in-training, to the extent that the difficulties and disappointments they encounter could have profound implications for productivity and the future of science.

A summary of national highlights from the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey, based on information provided by 7,600 postdoctoral scientists at 46 American research institutions, will appear in a special 16-page insert called "Doctors Without Orders" in the May-June issue of American Scientist, the magazine of Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society. A full survey report for publication in a peer-reviewed journal will be produced later this year.

Sigma Xi, which conducted the survey, is the international honor society of research scientists and engineers, with nearly 65,000 members and more than 500 chapters in North America and around the world. The society's administrative offices are in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

Among other findings, postdocs who reported having the greatest amount of structured administrative oversight and formal training were much more likely to say they were satisfied with their experience and to be more productive.

"The postdoctoral experience appears to be at its best when the rules are well defined and spelled out in advance," said Geoff Davis, Sigma Xi Visiting Scholar and principal investigator for the survey.

This was surprising, he said, because one of the primary attractions of a postdoctoral appointment is the freedom it provides to pursue research without teaching or other academic obligations.

"The freedom of the postdoctoral experience appears to be most effective when it is structured," Davis elaborated. "Such simple measures as writing research and career plans, conducting regular reviews and having clear-cut institutional policies that define expectations for both postdocs and their supervisors make a big difference in the quality of the experience."

"Postdocs in positions with this kind of structure," he continued, "give their advisors higher ratings, experience fewer conflicts with their advisors and are more productive in terms of numbers of publications than those with less administrative oversight."

Davis said this suggests that the fastest and most effective way to bring about positive changes would be for funding organizations to require a minimum amount of administrative oversight for postdocs, 69 percent of whom are federally funded.

With funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey was designed to improve the training and research environments for postdocs by providing a better understanding of their experiences. Survey results are ultimately expected to enable research institutions to benchmark their policies and practices against those at peer institutions.

The survey comes in the wake of a number of studies suggesting widespread dissatisfaction among postdocs over such things as low pay, long hours and minimal job benefits. Survey questions addressed these and other factors related to postdocs' research activities, career goals and perceptions of the policies and practices at their institutions.

The 46 participating research institutions employ roughly 40 percent of all postdocs working in the U.S. The institutions include 18 of the 20 largest academic employers of postdocs and the largest government employer, the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The summary of survey highlights in the May-June American Scientist considers the career ups and downs of two fictitious postdocs named Bob and Alice, who represent composite sketches drawn from survey data.

Among highlights from the survey:

  • The median salary for postdocs in the study was $38,000, up 10 percent (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from 1995.
  • A majority (54 percent) of postdocs are citizens of other countries who are in the U.S. on temporary visas. Most (79 percent) of these international postdocs earned their Ph.D.s outside the U.S. Postdocs on temporary visas earned on average approximately $2,000 less than their U.S. citizen counterparts, even after controlling for institution, field of research and funding mechanism.

Despite the obvious attraction of such positions, postdoctoral appointments were relatively rare before the 1950s. Postdocs enjoyed moderate growth in their numbers from the 1950s to 1970s, followed by a rapid rise in the 1980s and 1990s.

But that expansion was not deliberate. Rather, it was driven by economic factors--in particular, the burgeoning number of new Ph.D. scientists at a time when there was only a modest increase in the number of faculty positions.

A National Science Foundation (NSF) study found that only 35 percent of the science and engineering postdocs from the 1960s through the 1980s were in tenure-track or tenured positions in academia in 1995. NSF data also suggest that many of these people are at liberal arts colleges or comprehensive colleges, not research universities.

"If there is any overarching cause for the troubling undercurrent of malaise," Davis observed, "it may be the mismatch between expectations and likely outcomes, which often proves to be the root cause of job dissatisfaction in other spheres."

Partners for the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey included the National Postdoctoral Association, Science's Next Wave (an online publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and the National Bureau of Economic Research (under the auspices of its Science and Engineering Workforce Project).

Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey Advisory Committee

  • Eleanor Babco, Executive Director, Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology
  • Daniel Besser, Max-Delbruck-Center in Berlin
  • Enriqueta C. Bond, President, The Burroughs Wellcome Fund
  • Orfeu M. Buxton, Instructor, Division of Sleep Medicine, Harvard Medical School;
    National Postdoctoral Association Executive Board
  • Lynda Carlson, Division Director, Social, Behavioral & Economic Sciences/Science Resources Statistics, National Science Foundation
  • Joseph Cerny, Professor of Chemistry, University of California, Berkeley
  • Karen S. Christopherson, Department of Neurobiology, Stanford University School of Medicine; National Postdoctoral Association Executive Board
  • Daryl Chubin, Director, AAAS Center for Advancing Science & Engineering Capacity
  • Philip S. Clifford, Director of Postdoctoral Education, Medical College of Wisconsin
  • Marye Anne Fox, Chancellor, University of California, San Diego; 2001-2002 President of Sigma Xi
  • W. Franklin Gilmore, Chancellor and Campus CEO, Montana Tech of the University of Montana; 2002-2003 President of Sigma Xi
  • Richard B. Freeman, Herbert Ascherman Professor of Economics, Harvard University; Program Director for Labor Studies, National Bureau of Economic Research
  • Chris Golde, Senior Scholar, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • Neal F. Lane, University Professor, Rice University; former Presidential Science Adviser; former Director, National Science Foundation; 1993 President of Sigma Xi
  • James Lightbourne, Division Director, Education & Human Resources/Graduate Education, National Science Foundation
  • Sharon L. Milgram, Director, Interdisciplinary Biomedical Science Graduate Program, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • Maresi Nerad, Director, National Research Center for Graduate Education, University of Washington
  • Paula Park, Profession Editor, The Scientist
  • Graham F. Peaslee, Chemistry Department, Hope College; Chair, Sigma Xi Committee on Membership
  • Peter H. Raven, Director, Missouri Botanical Garden; 2003-2004 President of Sigma Xi
  • Nancy B. Schwartz, Dean for Graduate Affairs, Division of Biological Sciences, University of Chicago
  • Lewis M. Siegel, Dean of the Graduate School, Duke University
  • Leslie B. Sims, Dean in Residence, Council of Graduate Schools
  • Avi D. Spier, Genomics Institute of the Novartis Foundation
  • Peter D. Syverson, Vice President for Research and Information Services, Council of Graduate Schools

Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey: Participating Institutions

Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University
Argonne National Laboratory
Arizona State University
Boston University
California Institute of Technology
City of Hope National Medical Center/Beckman Research Institute
Dana-Farber Cancer Institute
Duke University
Emory University
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center
Georgetown University
Harvard Medical School
Joan and Sanford I. Weill Medical College
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
Lehigh University
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Medical College of Wisconsin
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences
National Institutes of Health
National Institute of Standards and Technology
North Carolina State University
Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
Pennington Biomedical Research Center
Rutgers University, New Brunswick
Scripps Research Institute
Stanford University
Thomas Jefferson University
University of California, Berkeley
University of California, Davis
University of California, Los Angeles
University of California, San Diego
University of Colorado at Boulder
University of Georgia
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
University of Michigan
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
University of Notre Dame
University of Pennsylvania
University of Pittsburgh
Univ. of Rochester School of Medicine & Dentistry
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Vanderbilt University
Wake Forest University
Washington University in St. Louis
Yale University


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