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What Do We Know About Postdocs? No “Reserve Army” in Sociology

by Roberta Spalter-Roth, Director
Research on the Discipline and the Profession

Are postdoctoral fellows an industrial or academic “reserve army” of unemployed PhDs? Are they apprentices learning to master their trade? Or, is the academic postdoctoral system simply an awkward way to accommodate modern science’s need for hierarchical research teams within universities?

These provocative questions were posed by Mark Regets, a sociologist and Senior Analyst at the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics (SRS) and the first speaker during a well-attended workshop, titled Postdocs: What Do We Know and What Would We Like to Know?, held last month. Addressing the meeting, which was held in Washington, DC, and was jointly sponsored by the Commission on Professionals in Science and Technology (CPST) and SRS, Regets also asked whether postdocs are the “best of the best” or whether the postdoctoral fellowship is a way to drive people out of science.

Another speaker, Deborah Stine, Associate Director of the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP) of the National Research Council, asked additional questions, including whether having a postdoc experience enhances one’s scientific career or whether it is a waste of human capital.

These questions arose from increasing dissatisfaction among postdoctoral fellows, especially those in the life sciences. Some have complained bitterly about a wide range of issues including working conditions, lack of recognition, lack of mentoring, and the lack of career mobility that they experienced. In response, a recent report from COSEPUP, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers: A Guide for Postdoctoral Scholars, Advisers, Institutions, Funding Organizations, and Disciplinary Societies, suggests that postdoctoral fellowships should be time-limited apprenticeships that broaden and deepen the research experience. COSEPUP further suggests that institutions develop guidelines as to years spent mentoring, career guidance, transitions to regular career positions, salaries, and resources

Basic Facts on Postdocs

The purpose of the joint CPST/SRS meeting was to find out what SRS and the disciplinary societies have learned and what they want to know about the postdoctoral experience across the sciences generally as well as within specific disciplines. Using data from SRS surveys, Regets and his colleagues recently found that about 40 percent of new PhDs in the sciences (including the social sciences) hold a postdoctoral fellowship. They also found that an increase in numbers of postdocs over the 1990s was a result of increases in non-residents holding these positions. Because these PhDs cannot remain in the United States permanently, this finding may suggest that these postdoctoral fellows serve as a kind of “reserve army” for U.S. institutions. PhDs in the life sciences are the most likely to hold postdocs and appear to hold them for longer than do PhDs in other disciplines. The more years since the PhD, however, the less likely postdocs will obtain a tenure track job, again suggesting the reserve army theory, at least in the life sciences.

A Sociological Perspective

In contrast, data collected about sociology do not suggest a reserve army or a negative outcome to holding a postdoctoral fellowship. Compared to the physical and life sciences, the proportion of postdocs among new PhDs hovers around 20 percent in the social sciences (with the exception of psychology), with sociology having the greatest share (Figure 1). Since the mid-1990s, the share of sociology PhDs holding postdocs declined to 15 percent. During some of the period since the 1990s, women became more likely to hold postdocs than were men, and sometimes the reverse, although there is currently no gender difference. The proportion of sociology postdocs who are temporary residents has steadily declined since the early 1990s, in contrast to the physical and life sciences.

Are postdoctoral fellows the “best of the best”? Data on a 1996-97 cohort of PhDs from the American Sociological Association’s 1998 Survey of Recent PhDs in Sociology (updated in 1999 and 2001) suggest that postdoctoral fellows are more likely to have received both their BA and PhDs from high or moderately high prestige universities than are their peers who did not participate in postdocs (53 percent compared to 37 percent). This finding leads to the question as to whether those from high prestige universities need these fellowships in order to obtain tenure track jobs at research universities? The answer appears to be that a postdoctoral fellowship is regarded as a useful step toward desirable employment in sociology, according to 8 out of 10 survey respondents who held postdocs. What’s the second largest response? A postdoctoral fellowship is perceived as a placeholder until a desirable position turns up.

Expectations and Satisfaction

Does the postdoctoral fellowship fulfill respondents’ expectations in terms of scholarly productivity, mentoring, and career guidance? The 1998 survey provides information on the level of satisfaction with the employment that new PhDs obtained after graduating. Those holding postdocs were significantly more satisfied than those otherwise employed in terms of whether they were satisfied with institutional resources (4.1 versus 3.1 on a scale of 1 to 5), whether they were satisfied with guidance for professional development (3.7 versus 3.1), and whether they were satisfied with support for professional productivity (4.1 versus 3.5).

Does the postdoctoral fellowship appear to enhance sociological careers, at least in the early stages? By 2001, the 1996-97 PhDs who had held postdoctoral fellowships were significantly more likely to have tenure track positions at Research I universities (38 percent compared to 32 percent) and significantly less likely to have tenure track positions at other types of universities/schools than their peers who did not hold postdoctoral fellowships (39 percent compared to 49 percent). They were, somewhat more likely than non-postdocs to be in a non-tenured position (the difference was not significant, however). When other factors are controlled (e.g., whether the postdoctoral fellows obtained their degree from a “top 10” sociology department or had published two or more peer-reviewed journal articles), the value of the fellowship appears to be enhanced.

To better understand the value of postdocs in sociology, more research would be useful if it controls for additional processes and statuses and gathers additional information on working conditions and relationships. But this preliminary research suggests that in sociology, postdoctoral fellows do not appear to be a reserve labor army, do experience satisfaction with the position, and may experience additional career benefits beyond the benefits they would experience based on the prestige of their PhD department and their publication record.