Careful tending of a young plant, every gardener knows, is more likely to yield a bountiful harvest. The same is true for postdocs, according to a new study released today, which shows that a well-structured environment pays off in greater productivity, more so than do salary and benefits.
With support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, study leader Geoff Davis of the Sigma Xi scientific society and his colleagues e-mailed a questionnaire to roughly 40%--some 22,000--of the postdocs working at 46 U.S. institutions. The list included 18 of the top 20 U.S. academic employers and the largest government employer, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Administrative oversight included elements such as an office to manage postdoctoral affairs and formal review of postdocs' performance. Davis also asked about formal and informal avenues for honing postdocs' communication, management, and other professional skills.
The researchers then correlated these measures with the number of peer-reviewed publications and similar indices of success. The results showed that there was a stronger correlation between administrative oversight and productivity than there was between salary and productivity. "Having a comprehensive career plan, formal reviews, and good training produces an improvement in the postdoc's satisfaction level that is equivalent to a $20,000 raise," says Davis. Postdocs in well-structured positions also seem to report fewer conflicts with their advisers.
The findings reaffirm what postdocs have been saying for a decade, says Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association in Washington, D.C., one of Sigma Xi's partners in the study. "Postdocs make a financial sacrifice in the hope of advancing their career prospects," she says. "They have a greater chance of achieving that goal if they sit down with the PI [principal investigator] to develop a formal plan and then use that plan to review progress."
A handful of institutions already have policies to foster that kind of experience, and others are recognizing their value. "It's to everyone's advantage: the institution, the PI, and the postdoc," says Joan Lakoski, a senior administrator at the University of Pittsburgh Health Sciences Schools, which this fall will require its PIs to prepare an "Individual Development Plan" for their postdocs. PIs will also have to conduct an annual performance review. "The process could easily be viewed as another tiresome piece of paperwork mandated by the university," says Lakoski. "But it's really an opportunity to improve scientific productivity."