US research enterprise powered by international postdocs

With Keith Micoli, New York University Langone Medical Center

BRAIN CIRCULATION | Volume 2, Issue 1 – 2012

The Academic Executive Brief interviews Keith Micoli, Postdoctoral Program Director at New York University Langone Medical Center and former chair of the National Postdoctoral Association. (Note: Within the article postdoctoral scholars are referred to as postdocs, while "international" refers to a non-US citizen.)

How many international postdocs are there currently in the US?

Micoli: One of the most frustrating things I’ve come across in my 10-year involvement in postdoc policy is the lack of uniformity in how data is collected on postdocs. Information on US versus international postdocs is gathered on two different surveys, and postdocs may be called different things at different places. In addition, the funding agencies have not placed a priority on finding out who are the people being supported on their research grants. This has left some gaping holes in our knowledge of who makes up our scientific workforce.

Consequently, it’s very difficult to come up with accurate numbers. Current estimates on number of postdocs come between 40,000 and 90,000 — a range that is unacceptable. A solid bet is that there are 60,000 postdocs and that more than half, if not two thirds or higher, are international.

What role do postdocs play in the US research enterprise?

As academic research has evolved as its own industry, the Principal Investigator (PI) has really turned into a CEO of a small company. As they become more successful, they spend less time in the lab and less time, if any, actually doing experiments at the bench. That research role belongs to the postdoc now. Day-to-day postdocs are doing the cutting edge research — training grad students and technicians, coming up with ideas based on the results, and interpreting the data. They then bring the data to the PI, who is functioning more as an executive in determining direction for the research. Postdocs are driving the discovery in the US.

It’s tough to generalize, but I believe that the US is still seen as a stepping stone in someone’s career, though the importance of a postdoctoral appointment here varies based on country of origin. Postdocs from India consider it essential to show success in the US, in terms of high impact papers and funding, if they are to land a tenure-track position back in India. Other countries like Germany and China are making a real effort to repatriate scholars, but they still seem to want their scholars to train here and then bring that expertise back home. If this outbound migration from countries like India and China changes so that postdocs are no longer coming here to complete their training, we will experience severe difficulty in staffing our labs.

How well do US and international postdocs work together?

For the most part, postdocs recognize they are all in this together and that policies put in place to help one group usually benefit the other — the idea that the rising tide raises all ships. Like in a lot of other industries, I do see labs that tend to be homogeneous. PIs will recruit from their home countries because that’s where their networks are. Problems can arise if there is a person of a different culture in a largely homogeneous lab.

I don’t think anyone would argue that the US research enterprise depends on this low-cost labor,1 and yet the next step for these researchers is often not clear. Faculty members may have 10 people working for them, but there aren’t going to be 10 tenure-track spots available. And with the lost value in retirement funds over the last few years, many faculty are not leaving academia. When spots do open, often universities are not replacing them with tenure track lines. The number of new tenure-track positions available annually has remained flat for the past 15-20 years, while the number of postdocs competing for those positions has tripled.

What are some of the critical milestones you’ve seen regarding international postdocs?

The defining event was 9-11, which nearly shut the tap of incoming postdocs. They’ve largely fixed the problems with visa approvals though I still see visa restrictions causing a lot of problems and delays. Many of the postdocs are brought here on a J-1 visa, which ties them to their PI. The bulk of faculty are terrific, but it’s the opportunity for abuse that troubles me.

People I know who were postdocs 25 years ago speak of it as the happiest, most productive time of their lives. The postdocs — international and American — now look with disbelief at people who say that. The nature of the postdoc has changed so much that we can’t continue to think of it as this happy, protected time that it was three decades ago.

I think we’ve lost so much ground to other fields by taking short-term advantage of these highly productive trainees, keeping them in traditionally low wage jobs with no security. We’re in danger of losing a whole generation of scientists who can’t be replaced. We need to think carefully about the training of and policies for Ph.D.s and postdocs.

Tell me about what you’re doing at NYU.

NYU has one of the first postdoc offices in the country. I report to Joel Oppenheim, Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Sciences and Director, Sackler Institute of Graduate Biomedical Sciences, who started this office in 1996 around the idea of proper training and treatment of postdocs. Taking care of the young scientist makes sense long term, and is the only way we can be sustainable.

My vision is that NYU is going to become a new model for training scientists from graduate school to junior faculty. A very small percentage of our grad students and postdocs are going to become tenure track professors. We’re taking career options seriously, saying we need to train people to do different things and encouraging postdocs to take responsibility for their career decisions. Every other year we are the lead organizer of a career symposium called “What can you be with a Ph.D.?” This past November we had 110 speakers in 35 sessions over two days and had more than 1,800 people register for that event from institutions in the area. It’s the largest career symposium for Ph.D.s that I’m aware of. We also host panels throughout the year with Ph.D.s who have careers outside academia.

What other steps can a university take to improve its postdocs’ working conditions?

At NYU, our International Office staff is outstanding at factoring the needs of the postdocs. We recommend postdocs come in on a J-1 visa and then support the transition to an H, which provides more mobility. We don’t support green card applications, but we do support the postdoc position as a permanent ongoing title here, which meets the criteria for the green card application.

Another huge consideration is the accompanying spouse. They often come with worse language skills than the postdoc and are not able to work. Many of them feel trapped in the apartment, which in New York City will be pretty tiny on a postdoc’s salary. Programs that support the accompanying spouse to better assimilate to life in the US will make for a happier postdoc.

Lastly, I work with faculty to demonstrate the importance of postdocs taking part in career development, networking and social activities. People with more balance in their lives are more productive workers. If we want to make science strong and attractive and truly bring in the best and the brightest, we need to make this an attractive career option for them. We need to treat people right throughout the entire pipeline and not just at the highest levels.

(1) Doctors Without Orders, Highlights of the Sigma Xi Postdoc Survey, Special Supplement to American Scientist, May–June 2005.
(2) Research Training in the Biomedical, Behavioral and Clinical Research Sciences, National Research Council of the National Academies, The National Academies Press, Washington, DC, 2011.

Comment on this article

We reserve the right to remove or edit comments due to language, length, or pertinence to the subject matter.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
Enter the characters shown in the image.