Postdocs as Intellectual Entrepreneurs

"Postdocs should be given space to discover their potential value to a wide array of audiences (and employers), encouragement to make career choices reflecting their passion and expertise, and the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in their chosen profession."

Richard Cherwitz and Teresa Sullivan
by Richard A. Cherwitz and Teresa A. Sullivan
University of Texas at Austin
Science's Next Wave
30 AUGUST 2002

The challenges confronting postdocs and institutions that produce them are well documented, ranging from classification to compensation to marketability. At most universities, recent, rapid growth in the number of postdoctoral fellows was unplanned, and their status within the university has been poorly institutionalized. Changes in federal funding patterns and distributed hiring have created badly regulated positions as well as extremely variable working conditions. Two labs in the same building at the same university might employ postdocs under entirely different conditions and with entirely different results. University administrations are struggling to develop policies that catch up to these realities. Much of the controversy has been framed with questions such as "Is a postdoc a student or an employee?" These questions, although important, sidestep the central issue: the quality of the postdoctoral experience.

For universities, postdoc population control isn't a practical alternative, because engines beyond the control of university administrations drive the numbers. There are, however, some things that universities can do or at least help with. One very important thing we can do is to change the way universities, professors, graduate students, and postdocs themselves think about what it means to be a postdoc. Furthermore, our conception of what a postdoc is has implications, in turn, for how universities--and postdocs--conduct the postdoctoral experience.

In the current climate, the postdoc is widely thought of as a credential, comparable to a doctoral degree, necessary and sufficient to assure a rewarding career in science. This "apprenticeship-certification-entitlement" model is at the core of the current postdoc controversy. This model must be replaced with a new one, "discovery-ownership-accountability," in which postdocs have greater agency in their own intellectual and professional development. Postdocs should be given space to discover their potential value to a wide array of audiences (and employers), encouragement to make career choices reflecting their passion and expertise, and the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in their chosen profession. Essentially, postdocs should think of themselves as intellectual entrepreneurs: scholars with a vision, a plan to carry out that vision, and the resources to bring it to fruition. Postdocs must learn to take responsibility for the development of their own professional potential and marketability. Principal investigators (PIs) should be encouraged to think of their postdocs in a similar light--and to help postdocs develop these skills. University administrators can play an important role in this transformation of how postdocs are conceived of and conceive of themselves.

PIs by themselves, however, are unlikely to have the means or ability to expand the postdoc's opportunities beyond the immediately available resources of the PI's grant and own career. Currently, postdocs and Ph.D.s are rigorously educated to be stewards of their disciplines. Often they are trained for only one outcome--a career in academic research--with only a narrow range of professional knowledge and skills and little marketing savvy. Regrettably, their expertise is likely to be squandered, their career options needlessly restricted, and their potential for contributing to society--and having a rewarding career--substantially reduced.

For this reason, PIs and postdocs should have other resources upon which to draw. Universities should pursue policies that avoid the all-or-nothing choice between population control and cavalier disregard for the grim employment prospects of many postdocs. There needs to be a middle ground.

One answer lies in providing postdocs and Ph.D. students with empowering experiences as an integral part of their intellectual development: to think boldly and imaginatively, to discover the enormous value of their discipline and to recognize the many audiences and outlets for their expertise. In addition, postdocs and Ph.D. students need the skills, resources, and knowledge to enable them to contribute their expertise in their chosen venue--whether corporations, government, nonprofits, or education. These experiences should not be limited to the employer's laboratory; they can be developed better if they draw upon the resources of the entire institution.

The Graduate School's Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program ( IE ) at the University of Texas, Austin, is a good example of this approach to education. Through courses, workshops, and several other activities on- and off-campus, IE students learn about teambuilding, collaboration, communication, ethics, writing, entrepreneurship, and a wide array of other professional skills. They are encouraged to ask themselves, "How can I take full advantage of opportunities to use my expertise in making a meaningful and lasting difference in my discipline and community?" IE students view their education as a way to discover and own their professional identity. Their degree program becomes a catalyst for creating possibilities rather than a factory for obtaining credentials entitling them only to a narrow set of predetermined jobs.

This same approach could be incorporated into the postdoctoral experience. In addition to serving as apprentices, postdocs should be offered the same training and opportunities provided doctoral students in programs such as IE. In this way, the postdoctoral experience would be more than certification of research readiness for the first academic job; it would also be a site for exploring career options and acquiring the resources needed to be successful, resilient, well-employed professionals.

There are at least two ways to help these changes along. First, major funding agencies can offer incentives to develop grant proposals that build opportunities into the Ph.D. and postdoctoral experience, like the ones discussed above. Funding agencies can have a major impact if they instruct reviewers to consider postdoctoral fellows not merely as a means to achieving the knowledge objectives of the proposal but also as young professionals whose development has a wider impact on national capacity. The National Science Foundation, for example, asks proposal writers to specify the "broader impacts" of their research program. Expanded preparation of postdoctoral fellows employed by the grant should be considered a favored approach to meeting this criterion. Programs and institutions that take entrepreneurial spirit seriously would more easily procure extramural funding.

Even without such incentives, however, the market itself might propel these changes. Just as faculty members want to recruit the best doctoral students, so, too, do PIs seek blue-chip postdocs. As the process of choosing among graduate schools and postdoctoral programs becomes increasingly transparent, institutions will inevitably provide whatever it takes to maintain a competitive edge. At the University of Texas, the IE Program is an advantage in recruiting students, reflecting student preferences to locate at institutions where they can own their education and where professional development opportunities abound.

Postdocs and Ph.D. students must be active agents, taking responsibility for and assuming ownership of their education. They and their educators/employers must perceive them as more than "worker bees" for carrying out the research agendas of veteran scholars. If metaphors for describing the postdoctoral experience change, and if the experience is framed in entrepreneurial terms, then perhaps questions involving classification and compensation will be easier to answer. If nothing else, changing these dimensions will enhance the marketability of postdocs, avoiding the unpleasant choice between student and postdoctoral population control or an arrogant disregard for postdocs' employment prospects.

Richard Cherwitz is Associate Dean of Graduate Studies and Director of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program (IE) at the University of Texas, Austin.

Teresa Sullivan is Vice President and Dean of Graduate Studies at the University of Texas, Austin.

Copyright © 2004 by the American Association for the Advancement of Science.