The views in this piece are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the National Postdoctoral Association or Virginia Tech.
As someone who was a postdoctoral scholar and now works as an administrator to support postdocs, I know the value they provide to their institutions. However, many people - including those working at our institutions - either don't understand what a postdoc is or the impact they make through their research, mentorship, and teaching efforts.
"An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path."
Writing takes up another large portion of postdocs' time (~16%) with manuscript writing being the largest area of focus outside research/scholarship. Finally, mentoring junior colleagues (7%) and teaching (6%) were tasks most postdocs reported doing as part of their roles, although there was large variation in the distribution of effort on these tasks based on the disciplinary background of the postdoc.
Clearly, then, postdocs do report focusing largely on research/scholarship but are also doing work beyond that, including mentoring others. There is data to emphasize that postdocs play a critical role in the development of research skills in Ph.D. students working in their groups. The authors of the PNAS study that investigated postdoc mentoring of graduate students discussed a "cascading mentorship model" where faculty supervisors' mentoring of postdocs allows for postdocs to then mentor their more junior colleagues. So, postdocs are both mentoring and are being mentored.
Many postdocs do not ultimately land faculty positions and move on to a variety of careers, post-postdoc. Additionally, while postdocs are at their institutions, they contribute importantly in a variety of ways from mentoring students (as discussed previously) to teaching and assisting in the management of their research groups. Perhaps their most important contribution to their institutions, however, is driving research and innovation forward.
So, I set out to do a crude analysis myself.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) publishes a wealth of information on research expenditures and snapshots of the graduate student and postdoctoral scholar population at institutions across the United States. Specifically for this analysis, I leveraged data from the Fall 2020 NSF Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (most recent data available) and NSF Higher Education Research and Development (HERD) Survey data from fiscal year 2020 (released in December 2021 and the most recent data available). So, we will be comparing research expenditures from the HERD Survey (both overall and federally-funded) to postdoctorate and graduate student population size in 2020.
In addition, I removed three institutional data points as they vastly skewed the postdoc data in particular: Johns Hopkins (1,723 postdocs in 2020), Harvard (5,787 postdocs), and Stanford (2,446 postdocs) all had postdoc populations >2.5 standard deviations of the mean postdoc count of all reporting institutions in 2020 (mean postdoc count: 260, Std Dev: 520). In addition, Johns Hopkins research expenditures are nearly double that of the next largest institution (University of Michigan), making its data an outlier on both metrics - postdoc counts and research expenditures. With those outliers removed we are left with 200 institutions who reported postdoc counts in 2020.
Let's look at the correlation between the number of postdocs at an institution and its overall research expenditures in 2020.
Plotting the same 200 institution's fulltime Ph.D. student populations against research expenditures we see a strong but weaker correlation.
The trendline equations for the relationships plotted above can be used to "measure" how research expenditures associate with either the number of postdocs or Ph.D. students.
REMINDER: This is an overly simplistic interpretation of the data as there are many factors we aren't looking at here but for sake of argument, let's run the math.
Where x=postdoc number & y=research expenditure (in $1000).
If x=1; y=82,936.4
So, based on these overly simplified (and not to be taken literally) data, 1 postdoc equates to $82,936,400 in research expenditures & 1,000 postdocs to $1,120,298,000 or $1.12 billion in research expenditures.
If we do the same math for Ph.D. students, 1 Ph.D. student equates to $48,629,790 in research expenditures & 1,000 Ph.D. students to $331,137,000 or $330 million in research expenditures.
So, while this is a very crude analysis, hopefully it emphasizes the very strong relationship between postdocs and research "output" (ie, expenditures of funds on research) at institutions AND that this relationship is stronger than for Ph.D. students who also lead research will making progress towards their degree.
I discussed the need to better measure the impact of postdocs in a prior blog post from 2020 and there is still much to do in that regard.
While it is difficult to fully capture the impact postdocs make, those of us who work in this space know it is large and often underappreciated. We must do better to measure and report on postdoc impact moving forward. Why? Because if institutions don't find a better way to understand postdoc impact, they will not invest in supporting them. This in turn, will make the postdoc path less desirable. In fact, that is already happening, with many faculty reporting difficulties in recruiting postdocs. Granted, some institutions - St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and the Van Andel Institute in particular - are working hard to increase compensation for their postdocs but systemic barriers (grant budgets, organizational classification of postdocs as non-employees, etc...) make it challenging for compensation and benefits to be increased for many postdocs. Add these challenges to the opportunity cost in pursuing a postdoc and one should not be surprised to see Ph.D.s pursuing different paths post-degree.
It is my belief that we must think of creative ways to reimagine the postdoc experience to make it a more holistic training experience that sets those who pursue it up for success. The innovation postdoc fellowship programs I mentioned earlier are one example but I think a variety of creative solutions could be proposed. To begin with, though, we must all do better in collecting and reporting on data that allows us to advocate for postdocs and the critical roles they play at our institutions and beyond.
From the Blog
- Measuring Postdoc Impact
- Reimagining the Postdoc Experience
- Factors That Affect Career Choice and Diversity in Science
- Ph.D. Recipients' Employment Trends: Insights from National Science Foundation (NSF) Data
- Ph.D. Employment Trends: Insights from NSF Survey of Doctorate Recipients
Papers and Programs of Potential Interest
United States National Postdoc Survey results and the interaction of gender, career choice and mentor impact
Career choices of underrepresented and female postdocs in the biomedical sciences
Surveying the experience of postdocs in the United States before and during the COVID-19 pandemic
A startup postdoc program as a channel for university technology transfer: the case of the Runway Startup Postdoc Program at the Jacobs Technion–Cornell Institute at Cornell Tech
Postdocs to Innovators program (consortium of European universities and partners)
Virginia Tech Presidential Postdoctoral Fellowship Program