NextGen postdocs

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Science  18 May 2018:
Vol. 360, Issue 6390, pp. 689
DOI: 10.1126/science.aau1303

Postdoctoral scholars have been in the public eye of late. Less than a week after the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) annual meeting last month, the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) released its report, “The Next Generation of Biomedical and Behavioral Sciences Researchers: Breaking Through.” The NPA's meeting agenda covered major challenges for improving the postdoc experience. The NASEM report introduced bold recommendations that address challenges inherent in the postdoc experience. There is obviously more to be done to ensure the transition of postdocs to successful careers.

The NASEM report examines U.S. programs and policies that could support the next generation of researchers in the biomedical and behavioral sciences. It accurately identifies the nexus of career development, effective mentoring, and adequate funding as key components to improving postdoctoral training. Notably, several NASEM recommendations discuss career development training, emphasizing how essential it is to ensure that postdocs receive training beyond technical skills—what the NPA calls “core competencies.” The good news is that over 200 U.S. academic institutions have dedicated staff for this purpose. And like the NASEM report, the NPA supports increased collection of outcomes data to determine the impact of career exploration, coaching, and professional development programs.


“There is obviously more to be done to ensure the transition of postdocs to successful careers.”

To support the NASEM recommendation for a mechanism to facilitate career counseling, the NPA encourages partnerships among federal funding agencies, private foundations, institutions, and professional societies. Successful examples include diverse experiential learning opportunities offered though the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) BEST Award pilot programs and postdoctoral scholarships funded by professional societies. However, the 2017 NPA Institutional Policy Report showed wide variances in personnel, programmatic funding, and training offered across 102 institutions, which correlate with NIH funding and the number of postdocs at a given institution. Thus, the NPA continues to advocate for funding to provide career exploration services, in addition to professional development training, to ensure that postdocs are prepared for their chosen career track.

What about funding? The NASEM report and the NPA support more fellowships for early career researchers. This potentially requires an additional $1.1 billion dollars in NIH funding for these awards. Albeit at a lower capacity, a phased shift of funding toward early career researchers, who will sustain the research enterprise as senior researchers retire, could help in the meantime.

The NASEM report's recommendation that the NIH phase in a cap (3 years) on salary support for postdocs funded by NIH research project grants (RPGs) is controversial. Two major assumptions regarding that time frame are made: All postdocs have access to sufficient resources to facilitate career exploration and professional development, and all postdocs have access to sufficient fellowship funding to support an academic career track. This recommendation poses a major challenge because pursuing a tenure track faculty appointment often requires high-impact publications, early career funding, and sufficient preliminary data for immediate RPG applications, which are historically difficult to achieve within 3 years. The NPA advocates adopting a 5-year term limit for an individual's postdoctoral training support; currently, 54% of NPA member institutions adhere to this policy.

Recommendations from the NIH's Advisory Committee to the Director Working Group are imminent, providing another chance to contemplate the future of postdocs in science. Let's maximize these opportunities for progress.

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