GCC Responds to NIH Biomed Postdoc Request for Information

The Graduate Career Consortium responded to NIH's request for information on Re-envisioning U.S. Postdoctoral Research Training and Career Progression within the Biomedical Research Enterprise with comments on behalf of our members, graduate and postdoc-level career and professional development professionals. Lisa Kozlowski (Associate Dean for student and postdoctoral affairs at Thomas Jefferson University), Diane Safer (Director for career and professional development for graduate students and postdocs at Albert Einstein College of Medicine), and Sonali Majumdar (Assistant Dean for professional development at Princeton University’s Graduate School, represented GCC’s executive committee) formed the working group. They conducted a survey and focus group to gather GCC member perspectives. Further, they leveraged data from GCC’s individual member survey in 2021 and at the institutional level in 2022, which was curated by  Braden Krien, co-chair of GCC’s Benchmarking Program for the RFI. The executive committee reviewed and finalized GCC’s comments. The GCC submitted following responses to NIH’s prompts on Apr 14, 2023.

Perspectives on the roles and responsibilities of the academic postdoc (e.g., what the postdoctoral position means to you, how you view it).
The Graduate Career Consortium (GCC) is a professional organization representing professionals at over 185 institutions and/ organizations, and 74% of our members serve postdocs. The 2012 Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report and the NIH’s Broadening Experience in Scientific Training (BEST)  grant spurred  much investment and innovation in career and professional development (CPD) for graduate students and postdocs. Many GCC members led development of the BEST programs and other innovative CPD programs, since.   As a function of our jobs, we are intrinsically dedicated to supporting postdocs in achieving their career and professional development goals and advancing postdocs’ careers. We view the postdoc as a “temporary and intentional training” period that includes protected time for career and professional development (CPD), toward academic success during the postdoc and preparing for diverse future careers toward scientific workforce development. While it may pose a challenge for the biomedical research enterprise, we do not see a decrease in the number of PhDs pursuing postdoctoral research positions as a problem in and of itself. That decrease may result from increased clarity about employment options, a sense of greater agency among early career scientists, and an increased demand for a highly-trained scientific workforce.

Fundamental issues and challenges inhibiting recruitment, retention, and overall quality of life of postdoctoral trainees in academic research.
As postdoc affairs staff and CPD advisors to postdocs, we are keenly aware of the unique challenges academic postdocs face, as well as institutional challenges in recruitment and retention. Multiple career and professional development challenges affect recruitment, retention, and quality of life for postdocs, including uncertainty about the career benefit of postdoctoral training, salary discrepancies between postdoc and industry positions, limited support for exploration and pursuit of diverse careers, and more. Often CPD professionals serve as a touchpoint when issues beyond career preparation arise (e.g. wellbeing,termination of position, workplace misconduct). In fact, the National Postdoctoral Association's 2023 Postdoctoral Barriers to Success found that 81.7% of postdoc survey respondents are negatively affected by a lack of CPD opportunities. Therefore, lack of value and visibility around CPD negatively affects postdoc experience, wellbeing and future professional preparedness.

Existing NIH policies, programs, or resources that could be modified, expanded, or improved to enhance the postdoctoral training ecosystem and academic research career pathways.
Career and professional development (CPD) opportunities are a significant selling point for institutions and mutually reinforce the research endeavors of postdocs. Specifically, they enable skill building for professional success and exposure to diverse careers. First, we recommend establishing a minimum percentage of postdoc time (e.g., 15% of effort) to be devoted to CPD activities, and providing tools to assist institutions to adhere to these requirements and incentivize compliance beyond Individual Development Plans (e.g., require ongoing CPD, in order for postdocs to be eligible to be paid by an NIH grant). Second, we recommend funding postdoc CPD programs and offices through training/research grants: the impact of career and professional development  advising and programs is under-appreciated and not sufficiently supported. To address that, we recommend allocating a percentage of indirect costs on all NIH grants that support postdocs to contribute toward institutional support for postdoc and CPD offices and staff. Establishing a ratio of staff to postdocs served as a best practice (such as 1 FTE career advisor for 250 postdocs) would ensure that postdocs are educated and empowered in their career planning.

Proven or promising external resources or approaches that could inform NIH’s efforts to enhance the postdoctoral training ecosystem (e.g., improving postdoctoral recruitment, training, working environment, mentoring, job satisfaction).
Another proven strategy is data transparency around postdoc experience and career outcomes (e.g. Coalition for Next Generation Life Sciences) that influences recruitment, retention and academic success. We recommend systematic and consistent reporting on postdoc experience (e.g. number and length of postdocs) and career outcomes funded by NIH through a national database, administered and funded at the federal level. Further, grant applications should require information on postdoc length and career outcomes of former and current postdocs mentored by PIs. Making postdoc career outcomes an integral component of grant evaluations and faculty tenure processes will contribute to maintaining the training ethos of postdoc positions, as a step toward a successful career transition.

Graduate Career Consortium Executive Committee
Derek Attig, President
Robert Pearson, President-Elect
Melissa Bostrom, Professional Development Officer
Pallavi Eswara, Secretary
Devin Horton, Diversity & Member Engagement Officer
Sonali Majumdar, Communications Officer
Eric Vaughn, Treasurer
Annie Maxfield, Past President