In January, APS Executive Officer Judy Franz asked physics department chairs in research universities for information about an important but sometimes overlooked segment of their community: postdocs. In her letter, Franz pointed out that postdocs often face problems both with their present working conditions, and as they plan for their future careers.
“Physicists in their postdoc years are especially vulnerable–their future careers depend critically on the success of their research during this rather brief period,” the letter said, “yet we hear of concerns from post-docs about their isolation, poor health benefits and maternity leave policies, lack of travel funds, and being tied too closely to one advisor or one project. APS would like to learn how your department deals with such concerns, as well as any other ideas you have that would help post-docs be more productive.”
A variety of responses was received, from which APS extracted quotes describing what the departments do for postdocs, and what issues are considered to be most important. These were posted on the APS website under “Postdoc Best Practices.” They are grouped into various subjects, such as “Benefits”, “Combating Isolation”, and “Career Development”, with the hope that they will be useful to other departments in finding ways to help their own postdocs.
Many departments offer full benefits to postdocs. Others offer everything but retirement; one covers everything except maternity leave. To combat postdoc isolation, departments listed such items as a postdoc handbook, an annual social event, and an active seminar program in which postdocs were invited to participate.
Career development is an important issue for postdocs. Many departments stress mentoring, and at one department, the mentor is deliberately chosen to be someone other than the postdoc’s research supervisor, to provide an alternative voice should a conflict arise. One chair had a global solution to career development: “Work to increase the number of tenure-track faculty positions! Everything else is just window-dressing.”
As reported by the chairs, postdocs are often involved in teaching, which is viewed as a benefit both in combating isolation and in career development. Opinions varied as to whether postdocs should expect travel funds, or whether that should be left to the discretion of the principal investigators.
The full list of best practices can be found at http://www.aps.org/careers/guidance/postdoc-best-practices.cfm
. Interested readers, especially postdocs, are invited to provide their own comments in a box at the bottom of the page. The most useful of these will be posted on the site.