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In Praise of Postdoctoral Scientists

Sept. 24 is declared the first annual 'National Postdoc Appreciation Day'

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The large stone fireplace at the Captain Kidd bar in Woods Hole, Mass., provided a warm haven last March for a group of young scientists gathered after a long day in the lab. They were all postdocs, short for postdoctoral scholar, fellow, or investigator—a little known stage in scientists’ careers. Who are these postdocs and how do they fit into the research enterprise? To find out, I sat in on the impromptu meeting.

“People still don’t understand how a science career works,” said Ernst Galutschek, president of the Postdoctoral Association at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “All my friends outside of science don’t understand what a postdoc is.”

Postdocs have an official organization, the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), and even a new official day. The NPA declared Sept. 24 the first annual "National Postdoc Appreciation Day” to celebrate and increase awareness of “the significant contribution that postdoctoral scholars make to the U.S. scientific research enterprise.”

The NPA also has an official definition of a postdoc: “an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” But that tells just part of the story.

A brief, intense phase

Postdocs average about two years at the institutions they are visiting, compared to five or six years in graduate school. In the best-case scenarios, the arrangement energizes both the postdocs and their host institutions in a mutually beneficial exchange of skills and ideas.

But the postdoc period has its distinct challenges. In that brief, temporary window of opportunity, postdocs must demonstrate their scientific “street cred,” so they can attain the next step on the career ladder, as Chris Reddy, a former WHOI postdoc turned associate scientist, put it.

Adding to the intensity, postdoctoral positions often come at a time when scientists also have to balance the needs of their young families, and many postdocs come from other countries and must hit the ground running in foreign territory.

Maybe that’s why the group at the bar is small.

“Postdocs are looking for jobs,” said Julie O’Leary, sitting at the round table at the Captain Kidd. “They are thinking of where they are going next. It leads to a feeling of impermanence.” O’Leary, a postdoc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department, investigates how magma forms deep in Earth’s mantle to create volcanoes and new seafloor crust.

“My wife says that there is just one more move [for our family]—that’s it,” said Matt First, a postodc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department, who earned his Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. He studies so-called “Trojan horses” in the sea, single-celled animals that harbor disease-causing bacteria inside them.

“With a Ph.D. dissertation you have time to formulate ideas and have some failures and still get three or four publications out,” First said, but postdocs must achieve research results at an “accelerated pace.”  Meanwhile, First has two children. “I have to leave [the lab] by 5:30 pm. If not, I am dead.”

Going abroad

Bibiana Crespo, a postdoctoral scholar in biology from Spain, had to learn a new culture. ‘The first six months here I was trying to understand the country. I had a lot of questions about the way of life here,” she said.

About 60 percent of the postdocs at WHOI come from foreign countries.

“I speculate that there are so many foreign applications because receiving a science or engineering position in other countries is more prestigious than in the U.S.,” said James Yoder, vice president for academic programs at WHOI. “Americans are missing an opportunity here.”

Galutschek, for example, is a physicist from Austria. He has spent his time at WHOI building a new “ion source” instrument that dramatically speeds up the process of dating and identifying carbon isotopes in the National Ocean Sciences Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Facility at WHOI.

Many of WHOI's foreign postdocs also come with their own funding. Coming to the U.S. can be an important step in receiving a permanent position in a postdoc’s home country.

“It’s sort of a prerequisite to go abroad to another institution,” said Crespo’s fellow countryman, Kais Jacob Mohamed Falcon, a postdoc in the WHOI Geology and Geophysics Department who studies sediments to reconstruct past climate changes. “The U.S. is attractive because it is one of the places where breakthrough science occurs.”

The postdoc experience is not universal

Postdocs arrive via different routes and funding sources, and they are treated differently at different institutions.

“Every institution can establish its own standards,” said Cathee Johnson, executive director of the NPA. “That would make things easier if it was standardized, but it would go against academic freedom.”

“At WHOI, we treat postdocs more like junior faculty, rather than lumping them with students,” said Janet Fields, postdoctoral coordinator for the WHOI Academic Programs Office. WHOI has about 65 to 90 postdocs at a time, she said.

WHOI defines its three types of postdocs by how they are funded. Postdoctoral scholars are funded by internal WHOI funds. This year, 117Ph.D.s applied for seven to eight spots.

Postdoctoral investigators usually receive funding through grants won by WHOI scientists from federal agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF). Postdoctoral fellows also receive funding from outside of WHOI through special fellowship awards, many from U.S. agencies or, in the case of international fellows, from their own home country's government.

Post-postdoctoral life

“A postdoc can complement the skills in a lab (and) also bring something new,” said Ann Tarrant, assistant scientist in the WHOI Biology Department. “It’s ideal if we both can be learning something from each other.“

During her Ph.D. work, Tarrant studied how the hormone estrogen affected the reproduction of corals. She came to WHOI as a postdoctoral scholar to learn molecular biology techniques to study how estrogen from the environment collects in these animals and disrupts their spawning and growth.

Now she is teaching her postdoc, Adam Reitzel, these techniques so he can apply them in his studies on sea anemones. In turn, “Adam brought experience working with the anemone population and genomics, helping me to take my lab in a new direction,” Tarrant said.

What is life after a postdoc like? Jason Chaytor, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Geology and Geophysics, developed a database listing where WHOI postdocs have ended up since 1993. It showed that about 70 percent of WHOI postdocs continue in academia.

This is higher than the national average. A 2006 report b ythe NSF found that about 49 percent continue in academia, which includes professorships, while the other 41 percent go into other areas such as industry and business.

Hard times and good times

The current economic crisis has affected the number of postdocs at WHOI, which cut its number of postdoctoral scholars from 12 to eight this year.

“I don’t see us going up to 12 anytime soon,” said Yoder.

New government stimulus packages, however, are funneling funds into postdoc positions and providing more grant funds to scientists. The National Institutes of Health, for example, said it will channel $1 billion into supplemental grants for postdocs in NIH labs.

On the other hand, economic difficulties have made permanent positions after the postdoc more competitive. Both state and private universities are canceling jobs because of a lack of funding.

Many WHOI postdocs, however, remain optimistic.

“Even though it looks scary, people I know have all landed places where they are happy,” Reitzel said. “It may take a few years.”

Some of the postdocs could end up at WHOI. About 25 percent of the scientific staff at WHOI were also postdocs here. 

Michael Neubert, an associate scientist in the WHOI Biology Department, looked back on his WHOI postdoc time fondly. “It was the best intellectual experience I had,” he said. “I had all this freedom to do what I wanted to do without the administrative duties that come with a permanent position.”

Learn more by visiting WHOI's Postdoctoral Programs Web site and the National
Postdoctoral Association



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