Postdoctorals: Why and How? R. Stephen Berry The University of Chicago
The “natural niche” • Some postdoctoral positions available prior to mid-1960’s, many of them prized fellowships conferring independence on holder. Some for learning a new field. • Sputnik and much bigger grants led to many more postdoctoral opportunities
The Postdoctoral Role Now: not necessary, but expected • Careers in science: the closest modern parallel to the apprentice-journeyman-master system-- • Apprentice = graduate student • Journeyman = postdoctoral and nontenure faculty member • Master = tenured faculty member
The evolution of that process • Average time from entry to Ph.D. roughly doubled in ~40 years, from ca. 3.5 to ca. 7 years, and with it, the dispersion in times • Average time as postdoctoral has increased by at least the same factor, and dispersion has grown even more--ca. 2 to ca. 8 years • Pre-tenure period’s duration ~ unchanged, but it comes at a later age
Another important variability: The amount of independence • Postdoctorals in the 1950-1975 period became near-peers of mentors, taking initiative and introducing major new ideas. • That’s still one model, but the spectrum extends to two other patterns: the postdoctoral as lieutenant for the senior mentor, and the postdoctoral as the highly skilled executor of the mentor’s ideas.
Frequent criticisms, and then... • Long duration • Little independence • Low pay • Lack of benefits • Ill-defined status • Susceptible to inducements to enter other fields
Some perspectives • The educational function of the role remains important in several ways: • Learning to initiate new research • Learning a new field • Learning to lead younger aspirants • Learning to teach undergraduates (particularly in Mathematics)
Let’s examine the criticisms... • Long duration: yes, and why? And who? Do people wanting non-academic careers spend the same times as postdoctorals as those aspiring to academia? We probably don’t know yet. • Is it due to the larger body of scientific knowledge to be mastered? Or to the distribution of available positions--many postdoc slots, few more permanent places?
Must new entrants to science learn more than their predecessors? • Is this a rationalization or a real justification? Do we know the answer? • How do we make mastery of previous knowledge a more efficient process? Can we skip much that the discoverers had to go through? • Bad (?) or at least extreme example: canned computer programs, such as Gaussian
Low pay? • Very, very field-dependent, with wide variation among grant-funded posts • The highest-payed: some fellowships • Computer science postdoctorals earn about twice as much as chemistry postdoctorals • NIH has raised its “floor” a few thousand $$ • Chemistry is notable as one of the lowest-paid fields; oceanography also
Lack of benefits, ill-defined status • Yes; many universities had (and may still have) no official niche for postdoctorals, especially for those holding honorific outside fellowships! The young people we presumably want most are the ones for whom we have no natural place. Why? • Inertia, lack of awareness; has the recent NRC study awakened the right people?
Inducements to enter other fields • YES! Hurrah! Our society desperately needs people who really understand science to take responsible roles in teaching, law, the courts, the legislatures, journalism. • Let those for whom science is a calling make their careers in science; encourage those who like science and other things equally bring their science to those other fields.
How should we look at this puzzle? • In terms of how changing the salaries or working conditions or numbers of available slots would affect the population of postdocs? No! This is too myopic to address real issues. • Much better: Ask first what flow of scientists and engineers would be the minimum to sustain our high-tech society, and then what flow would allow us to maintain the rate of technological advance of the past 30 years.
That would be our starting point! • With a clearer idea of the upper and lower “bounds” on what science manpower flows we might want, we can then fit that information together with concepts of what functions we want the postdoctoral role to achieve, and then ask what conditions are likely to make the role attractive to about as many people as we’d like in the pipeline.