The postdoctoral community is an essential component of the academic and scientific workforce. As economic and political pressures impacting these enterprises continue to change, the postdoc experience has evolved from short, focused periods of training into often multidisciplinary, extended positions with less clear outcomes. As efforts are underway to amend U.S. federally funded research policies, the paucity of postdoc data has made evaluating the impact of policy recommendations challenging. Here we present comprehensive survey results from over 7,600 postdocs based at 351 academic and non-academic U.S. institutions in 2016. In addition to demographic and salary information, we present multivariate analyses on the factors that influence postdoc career plans and mentorship satisfaction in this population. We further analyze gender dynamics and expose wage disparities and career choice differences. Academic research positions remain the predominant career choice of postdocs in the U.S., although unequally between postdocs based on gender and residency status. Receiving mentorship training during the postdoctoral period has a large, positive effect on postdoc mentorship satisfaction. Strikingly, the quality of and satisfaction with postdoc mentorship appears to also heavily influence career choice. The data presented here are the most comprehensive data on the U.S. postdoc population to date. These results provide an evidence basis for informing government and institutional policies, and establish a critical cornerstone for quantifying the effects of future legislation aimed at the academic and scientific workforce.
As academia’s most exalted qualification, the PhD is still widely regarded as solid proof of elevated intellectual power. It can also evoke loftier ideas of “brilliance”, “excellence” and, on some occasions, even “genius”.
The perception of the PhD is rather different within academia, it seems. According to a new paper published in Teaching in Higher Education, many academics and doctoral students see the PhD process not so much as an intellectual feat but as a test of character – or, in the words of one PhD supervisor interviewed for the report, a “matter of personality rather than abilities”.
Early on in my career as a headhunter, I became interested in the dozens of qualities that make top scientists stand out. Then, a conversation with one of my contacts shifted my thinking. “Success in the biotech industry, like any pursuit, seems to boil down to no more than about a half-dozen things,” Leo Kim told me more than 2 decades ago. He was the vice president of a biotech company at the time, and I frantically wrote down his words as he piled great advice on top of great advice. After our discussion, I began to think about the topic in a different way. I had been looking for dozens of different factors, but is it really just a handful of core traits that make the difference?
My first week in the lab, my boss plopped a book with the bold title Ignorance: How it Drives Science. And now, as I wrap up writing my dissertation, she has given me its sequel, Failure: Why Science Is So Successful. Preternatural optimist that she is, she did not gift these books out of pessimism or wry passive aggression. Rather, she believed they contained important lessons. Lessons that perfectly bookend my Ph.D. career.
My time in the lab began with ignorance—not the wide-eyed, first-year graduate student variety, but the rigorous brand that embraces an open question. A great conundrum in modern biology is how life’s great diversity stems from four letters—A, C, G, and T—arranged in a near-infinite array to compose life’s blueprint molecule: DNA. Now, consider that every cell in your body contains the exact same complement of DNA. Yet a heart cell looks and acts completely different from a brain cell which looks and acts completely different from a skin cell. So how did a heart cell, a brain cell, and a skin cell arrive at such different biological fates when given the exact same set of molecular blueprints?
As universities around the world award science PhDs at an ever-increasing rate, some doctoral students might wonder whether the degree is still worth all the time, effort and sacrifice.
But two recent projects tracking the journeys of PhD holders in the United Kingdom and Canada offer reason for optimism: graduates in the sciences and other fields are highly employable, even if they don’t always end up where they expected. “There’s a lot of pessimism about an oversupply of PhDs,” says Sally Hancock, an education researcher at the University of York, UK, who led the study in her nation — one of only a few of its kind worldwide. “These data can help demystify what happens next.”