The Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey
Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Society
A list of additional media contacts appears at the end of this release. The 14th letter of the Greek alphabet, "Xi" is pronounced with a "Z" sound—"Zi"—as in xylophone.
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 about 70,000 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:
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 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
Additional Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey Media Contacts:
Amber E. Budden
Philip S. Clifford
Adam P. Fagen
Richard B. Freeman
Alberto I. Roca
Lewis M. Siegel
Leslie B. Sims
Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey: Participating Institutions
Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University