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The Sigma Xi Postdoctoral Survey

January and February of 2004 bring an exciting Sigma Xi project to the attention of the research community. Funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Sigma Xi Postdoctoral Survey seeks to improve the training and research experiences of postdoctoral researchers by enabling institutions to benchmark their postdoctoral policies and practices against those of their peer institutions. The central works of this important project are a survey package and the coordination of a set of surveys conducted by postdoc associations, postdoc offices and deans of postdocs in the sciences. The Principal Investigator on this project is Sigma Xi Visiting Scholar, Dr. Geoff Davis.

Postdoctoral scholars are a cornerstone of the U.S. science and engineering research enterprise. Postdocs perform a substantial fraction of skilled work in research labs and are responsible for a disproportionate share of new discoveries. Despite the institutionalization of the postdoctoral fellowship and the large number of postdocs, in many institutions policies have not yet adapted to meet the needs of postdocs.

In some institutions postdocs are not classified as students or faculty/staff and, as a result, end up with the benefits and protections of neither. Postdocs are often poorly remunerated, and at many institutions there is no "minimum wage" for them. Health insurance is not routinely provided, and retirement benefits are the exception rather than the rule. Non-monetary aspects of work are addressed only on an ad hoc basis. There are often no standard expectations for the supervision and mentorship of postdocs. Grievance resolution procedures are often ill-defined. Campus career services are usually geared exclusively toward undergraduates, occasionally graduate students and only rarely postdocs.

Educational leaders, funding agencies and postdocs all agree on the need for improvements in postdoctoral working conditions. The Association of American Universities and the National Academies have each written reports that outline needed reforms and recommend policies and practices for universities to adopt, and in recent years promising initiatives have begun to address the issues raised in these reports. Postdocs have started forming institution-level organizations to advocate for improvements in their working environments, often with support from their institutions' administrations.

This project aims to engage these administrators, postdoc offices and local postdoc associations in gathering information to speed and support the adoption of postdoc policy reforms. Sigma Xi is uniquely positioned to implement this project. It is a multi-disciplinary society with 516 chapters and 70,000 individual members, including thousands of postdoctoral fellows, researchers who hire and supervise postdocs, and administrators who help shape the culture and environment in which postdocs work and learn. This project offers Sigma Xi an opportunity to provide a valuable service to each of these constituencies in the context of one of the Society's purposes, "to support the health of the research enterprise" by promoting, among other things, ethics and education.

Peter H. Raven
President, Sigma Xi

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