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John Harvard's Journal

The "Invisible University"

5.1.01

Postdocs Tristan Darland (left) and Pamela Kainz at HarvardÕs Biological Laboratories.
Postdocs Tristan Darland (left) and Pamela Kainz at Harvard's Biological Laboratories.
Photograph by Jim Harrison
They have been called the "invisible university," because "postdocs"--postdoctoral fellows--are an elusive presence. They are neither faculty nor students. Nor do many of them qualify as employees. Postdocs are Ph.D.s engaged in a wide range of research, but their biggest presence is in the biological and medical laboratories. Without them, science would come to a screeching halt.

Consider sheer numbers. Harvard Medical School and its 17 affiliated hospitals and institutions probably have the world's greatest concentration of postdocs. There, 2,900 such fellows populate the research labs, 600 at the medical school quad alone. There are five times as many postdocs as full professors, and they outnumber medical students four to one. The Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) is home to about 550 postdocs, and two departments dominate: molecular and cellular biology (MCB) and chemistry and chemical biology (CCB), with about 150 apiece.

Within FAS, dean for research and information technology Paul Martin '52, Ph.D. '54, is working with executive dean Nancy Maull and her special assistant, Lee McIntyre, to explore some of the issues facing Harvard's "invisible university." "The term 'post-doctoral fellow' covers a variety of characters," explains Maull, "from quasi or real employees, to student-like trainees, to visiting scholars. We have the clearest institutional obligations to the first two categories, and owe courtesy and collegiality to the third. We just need to be sure that we're fulfilling our obligations to all." Martin adds a qualifying note: "When people talk about the 'postdoc problem,' they are primarily addressing a life science and medical science problem."

The invisibility of postdocs consigns them to a kind of academic limbo, but their time in the shadows is gradually ending, partly because their population has exploded. In 1960, American universities awarded roughly equal numbers of doctorates in physical sciences (1,900) and life sciences (1,700). But by 1980, the life sciences had zoomed ahead, and were producing more than 50 percent more doctorates than the physical sciences (4,700 to 3,100). The gap has continued; in 1998 there were 8,500 new doctorates in life sciences and 6,700 in physical sciences.

"Postdocs are a growing group, largely because funding for the life sciences has more than doubled in the last 10 years," says Martin. But the surge in life science Ph.D.s occurred without any parallel growth in faculty jobs. The result is "terrific competition," says MCB postdoc Tristan Darland. Even allowing for the new jobs created in biotechnology--a risky bet in any case, given companies' high failure rate--there is a doctoral surfeit. Hence, simple supply-and-demand economics has turned postdocs into a highly educated, cheap labor pool--academic braceros caught in a holding pattern. Postdoctoral work is now required for virtually all choice faculty jobs. "Even going into biotechnology requires three to four years of postdoctoral experience," says Kim Tremblay, a fourth-year postdoc in MCB.

Nationally, this has meant longer postdoctoral appointments and sequential appointments, with some scientists renewing their postdoctoral status two or three times and spending up to 10 years in that role. This pattern is common among foreign nationals, whose visa situation adds to their vulnerability. (Young scientists from abroad--from the former Soviet Union, for example--are heavily overrepresented in the postdoctoral population.) Some scientists see their fortieth birthday looming while they are still hoping for their first "real" job. For those who are starting families, the delayed career track can mean conflicts. Maternity leave may not be available, and family and career compete for time. One Harvard postdoc recalls a peer at another institution who became a mother in her third postdoctoral year. Her mentor later told her, "I wish you had waited until after your postdoc to get pregnant."

At Harvard, sequential appointments are less common, but the timespans have lengthened. "There used to be a three-year limit on postdoctoral fellowships in all fields," says Martin. "but in the last decade that limit has extended, so that it's not uncommon for people to remain postdocs for five years or even longer."

They aren't in it for the money. The National Institutes of Health specifies a minimum salary of $28,260 on their training grants, an extremely lean stipend in the costly Boston-Cambridge area. (Even that is an increase from the $21,000 rate of only three years ago.) Pay rises a bit with seniority--to $29,832 in one's second year, $35,196 in the third. In contrast, people with college biology degrees can get $30,000 starting salaries at biotech companies. Jessica Pisano, an MCB postdoc, says, "I could earn more without my Ph.D."

"We barely get medical benefits," she adds. Health insurance for postdocs, like so much of their lives, depends on the mentor who runs the laboratory. Mentors can, for example, decide to fund postdocs' health insurance with discretionary "supply money" in a grant. Yet, "There can even be differences within a lab," says another MCB postdoc, Brian Link, noting that benefits often vary with the grant. Asked about fringe benefits, Deb Stull, a third-year postdoc in MCB, has a quick rejoinder: "There aren't any."

Fringe benefits are problematic because "the government asks us to treat them [postdocs] as trainees," says associate dean for faculty affairs Mary Clark, who has worked on postdoctoral issues for several years at the medical school. "The federal government wants postdocs to be 'unfettered,' so it does not allow us to treat these people as employees. This cuts them out of participation in Harvard employee benefits."

Perhaps the right classification is "journeyman," since scientific careers depend on a guild system in which young researchers are apprenticed to faculty mentors. Modern science is supported by research grants focused on specific proposals. "The professor goes out and sells the proposal to the funding agency or foundation," says Baird professor of science Dudley Herschbach. "Then you have a short fuse of three years to get the next proposal funded--which depends on delivering the goods from the last one. Postdocs are on the firing line. They have to make sure the lab research gets done. You can't count on graduate students for this; they have to focus on their dissertations."

Under these conditions, professors often depend on postdocs to run their labs, which might include 20 graduate students and as many as eight or nine postdoctoral fellows. (Situations vary widely, however: in physics and physical chemistry, the typical lab has only one or two postdocs and three or four graduate students.) The faculty mentor flies around the world, giving talks and raising funds, while the postdocs carry out the daily hands-on work of science. "Many grad students have been basically trained by postdocs," says Pisano. "We know where the reagents are!" In the best case, this can make the postdoctoral experience "a great playground for a person to come in and say, 'Do I want to be an academic scientist?' " says Pam Kainz, a third-year MCB postdoc. Yet there are also sad stories. Consider the underemployment of one postdoc in the lab of the late Harvard chemist and Nobel laureate, Robert B. Woodward; the budding scientist spent an entire year purifying a solvent for a step in a synthesis of vitamin B-12.

Solvents and reagents are very much to the point, since they are a form of intellectual property, which is murky terrain in laboratories. Postdocs can write proposals and win research funding, but they cannot be listed as principal investigators (PIs) on a grant proposal. The PI is the faculty mentor, on whom the postdoc is utterly dependent for recommendations and most other aspects of professional life. Many postdocs quoted herein work under Cabot professor of the natural sciences John Dowling, who has a long-established reputation for integrity and fair play. But in many labs, disputes can arise over who is entitled to what.

"You come to work in a lab that is well-established already. What is yours, and what is pre-existing?" is Tristan Darland's rhetorical question. In highly collaborative work like biological research, identifying exactly who is responsible for creating a certain conceptual model, or inventing a new laboratory procedure, is far from straightforward. And mentors can be proprietary, to the point of forbidding postdocs to take anything--solvents, reagents, mutant DNA strains--from the lab to their next job. But what postdocs "take" from the lab is precisely what they can bring to their next position. "You are supposed to be getting a leg up, developing a fundable project of your own," says Darland. Brian Link has heard of postdocs developing reagents secretly within labs, and says, "That's not how science is supposed to be done."

Such tensions are pushing postdocs toward visibility, after about a hundred years in the academy. Postdoctoral education today, some feel, is where Ph.D. education was in the 1890s--very ad hoc. Improving the postdoctoral lot may begin by stemming the doctoral flood. "There's a need for more 'birth control' in Ph.D. production in the life sciences," says Paul Martin. A Guide to the Postdoctoral Experience issued last fall by the National Academies of Science and Engineering recommended capping postdoc tenures at five years, raising salaries, and strengthening the mentoring system (www4.nationalacademies.org/pd/cosepup.nsf). The Harvard Medical School faculty council recently voted unanimously to recommend that the school work toward bringing equitable salary and benefits to the entire postdoctoral population.

And access to services like career counseling and job placement--whose stated clientele is students, not postdocs--would make a difference. Kim Tremblay once asked a career-services staff member to comment on a résumé she was planning to send out; the counselor was sympathetic, but did say, "I'm not supposed to look at that." Moments like this highlight the postdoc's outsider status. "As a graduate student, the whole institution has a stake in your career and will stand up for you," says Darland. "But as a postdoc, you're expected to suck it up and take care of yourself."