Practice Points


●The postdoctoral years are a time to match one’s education, training,
and interests with the changing world of employment options and to
acquire the skills necessary to enter that world.

●A good postdoctoral experience is educational in the sense that it
significantly advances one’s professional capabilities and increases
one’s technical abilities.

●The postdoctoral experience differs widely according to discipline,
sector, and source of funding.

●Most postdocs are paid from the grant of a principal investigator and
are frequently called research associates. In such situations, they are
often treated as employees.

●A smaller number of postdocs are paid by external, independent
mechanisms (e.g., US fellowships and training grants, foreign government
grants). In such cases, they may be classified as students or
receive no institutional classification and are called fellows.

●“Research associates,” “fellows,” and postdocs with other titles may
all perform the same functions in the same laboratories, and yet their
institutional title, tax status, compensation, and benefits may differ
in significant and often unintended ways.

●The greatest uncertainties and inequities occur in universities, where
most postdocs work. In national and industrial facilities, postdocs
are usually treated like other temporary or contract employees and
receive similar classification, compensation, and benefits.

●About half the total US postdoctoral population consists of foreign
citizens, half of whom choose to remain in the US after their

●Foreign postdocs face extra challenges in mastering English, adapting
to American culture and style of work, achieving equitable compensation,
and dealing with visa requirements.

●Support mechanisms at host institutions to provide help for foreign
postdocs (e.g., with visas, tax laws, and language instruction) are not
uniform across the country.

●Additional information is needed about postdocs who are members
of underrepresented minorities; less is known about these groups
than is known about foreign postdocs.

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●Postdocs should have the opportunity to enhance their research
experience, become independent researchers, become known through
publishing and presenting their results at professional meetings, and
advance their careers by networking with colleagues.

●They have the right to clear terms of appointment, appropriate compensation
and benefits, serious mentoring, and support in career planning
and finding a regular position.

●Postdocs have dual responsibilities: 1) to acquire the experiences
they need to advance their careers, and 2) to contribute to the program
through research accomplishments, personal growth, and interaction
with others.

●Postdocs share the responsibility with their adviser of communicating
well regarding their progress and expectations.

●In planning careers, more postdocs are finding opportunities in nonacademic
positions, but they must take the initiative to learn about
acquiring the skills needed to qualify for entrance to growing employment
areas, often outside their specialty.

●Some women postdocs face special problems because of their gender,
and have great difficulty in taking time to start a family.

●Gaining the right skills can make a large difference in finding rewarding
positions and expanding career choices. These include general
abilities such as clear writing, public speaking, leadership, teamwork,
computer skills, teaching, and mentoring.

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●At the outset, advisers need to make clear their expectations of the
postdoc and learn about the postdoc’s own expectations.

●In return for the postdoc’s contributions, the adviser should both
provide scientific and technical training and help the postdoc acquire
other necessary “career” skills, such as those that contribute to effective
communication, publication, grant writing, and management.

●Frequent communication between postdoc and adviser helps prevent
problems from growing into grievances.

●Attending professional meetings is one of the most important ways a
postdoc can enhance professional visibility, gain confidence, and
build a network of contacts.

●Postdocs need regular feedback on the quality and direction of their
work, including written evaluations at least annually.

●The adviser should take the lead early and often in discussing ethical
standards, including issues of authorship, credit, conflicts of interest,
and other ethical dilemmas.

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●In many institutions, the administration may have only an approximate
picture of the postdoctoral population and no policy to standardize
institutional status or benefits.

●An important step is to establish postdoctoral policies on such matters
as titles, expected terms, and institutional status. This status may
strongly affect benefits and other financial issues.

●Some institutions have established a postdoctoral office or officer to
serve as an information resource for postdocs and to organize programs
for postdoc orientation, professional development, and career
services. Such an office can also encourage good mentoring, act as
liaison between postdocs, advisers, and administrators, and track the
postdoctoral population.

●Many institutions offer financial and logistical support for postdoctoral
associations, which constitute a vehicle for discussing issues
of concern to postdocs, building a social network, and communicating
with the administration.

●Some institutions are experimenting with the use of “mentoring
committees” to provide additional perspective and guidance to the

●Institutions can help resolve grievances by establishing mechanisms,
including an ombudsperson, to work toward conflict resolution.

●Each institution should ensure that foreign postdocs have a resource
person or office to advise them on such issues as acculturation, visa
compliance, income taxes, and language skills.

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●Funding organizations can play an important role in promoting the
educational component of the research they fund. This role includes
the support of career development and guidance to supplement scientific
and technical training.

●One of the most frequent complaints from postdocs is the low level
of compensation provided by funding organizations relative to the
skills and experience of the postdoc.

●Many funding levels, especially in the life sciences, reflect the model
pay scale used by the NIH for its NRSAs, which provide a stipend
for first-year trainees of $26,256. The NIH and NSF should recognize
that they have a de facto role in setting stipend levels that are
followed by others and develop criteria by which to adjust these
●The underlying assumption of most traineeships or fellowships is
that the postdoctoral scholar receives, in addition to the stipend, both
technical instruction and career guidance that can lead to improved
abilities and career satisfaction in the future. Funding organizations
can work toward ensuring that the acquisition of career skills and
career development is indeed part of the postdoctoral experience.

●Most postdocs are paid directly as employees on a PIs research grant.
The NIH and other funding organizations have few mechanisms to
monitor the experience of these postdocs, and they tend to regard the
administration of research grants as the institution’s responsibility.

●Funding organizations can promote good oversight and guidance of
postdocs through requests for mentoring information on proposal
forms, promotion of mentoring committees, limits on the length of
appointments, support for health care benefits, and support of teaching
activities by postdocs.

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