Designing a career ladder for women postdocs in science

The National Postdoctoral Association examines best practices for at-risk talent pool (with free tutorials for #NPAW2014)

How to improve the leadership balance of women in science is a much debated area. Of the world's researchers, just 30 percent are women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, And even though a growing number of women attend university, many quit at the highest levels that are needed for a research career.

One of the organizations that is actively involved in this debate — and finding solutions — is the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA). Since 2009, the NPA has been working with institutions to support the advancement of postdoc women in academic careers through the NPA ADVANCE project funded by the National Science Foundation. The NPA focuses on adapting and dissemination promising institutional practices that help women postdocs successfully transition to faculty careers.

'A significant leakage in the pipeline'

Belinda Lee Huang, PhD, Executive Director, National Postdoctoral AssociationThe postdoctoral training period represents a critical transition point in the academic pipeline when the number of female scientists and engineers decline significantly.

"We have found significant leakage in the pipeline during the family formation years," said Dr. Belinda Lee Huang, Executive Director of the National Postdoctoral Association.

According to the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP), the postdoctoral position has become a required step for continuing into the professoriate, creating an additional career hurdle and lengthening the total elapsed time until a researcher's first permanent position.

An NPA project funded by the Elsevier Foundation examines promising practices found in professional societies and associations that aim to help postdoc women successfully transition into academic careers. Through a screening survey, NPA was able to identify the main challenges faced by postdoctoral women: career-life balance, lack of mentoring, lack of childcare and family obligations. Participants included individuals who worked at research institutions, postdocs, and tenure track-seekers.

These results formed the basis for two focus groups, held at the NPA Annual Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, last year. The aim was to identify primary areas in which professional societies and associations could play a role in advancing the careers of postdoc women. The focus groups called for mentor matching activities, fellowships for postdocs, career seminar, networking, and childcare at meetings.

Surveying societies: programs for postdoc women

Dr. Huang said her organization surveyed over 200 societies in the sciences, social sciences and humanities to explore the different resources and programs they offer to their postdoc women. "Though the initial response was slow and felt a bit like cold-calling, in the end, we got a good response," she said.

It's National Postdoc Appreciation Week

National Postdoc Appreciation WeekThe National Postdoctoral Association (@nationalpostdoc) is hosting its 5th National Postdoc Appreciation Week from September 15 to 19 across the United States to create awareness and recognize the contributions postdocs make to the US scientific research enterprise. NPA is a nonprofit organization for postdoctoral scholars in the US, with 2,800 individual members and 190 institutional members.

Training videos

Elsevier is proud to contribute to this important week through Publishing Connect by creating three prerecorded training videos to develop Postdocs' understanding of:

  • Successful grantsmanship
  • Author rights and responsibilities
  • Using research metrics to develop your career

These training videos are offered to NPA member institutes to run freely onsite as often as they wish. Watch them here.[divider]

Postdocs by the numbers

  • About 6 out of 10 postdoctoral scholars in the United States are international scholars here on temporary visas.
  • The median salary of postdocs, who have received their doctorate within the past five years, is $43,000 a year.
  • The average postdoctoral scholar works 53 hours a week; thus hourly postdoc wages are over $7 less than average full time US workers (regardless of education) and $20,000 less annually than those who did not pursue PhD training.
  • It is likely that the postdoc is in her/his early 30s, married, and has at least one child.

Source: National Postdoctoral Association

Many of the societies and associations surveyed did not have postdocs, but the 44 that responded were majority science organizations with a smaller proportion in the social sciences. Key findings showed that some disciplinary societies and associations have more than 200 postdocs in their organisation. However, they often don't have the data to say how many of them are woman. Additionally, disciplinary societies and associations offer a variety of programs, varying from seminars on obtaining grant funding to mentoring programs, but hardly any are solely for postdocs, let alone postdoc women.

So why does the leaky pipeline persist? Dr. Huang said she isn't surprised. "I don't think that women know about these resources because I didn't know about these resources; there is too little publicity about these opportunities."

The programs that are offered can roughly be divided into three categories: mentoring, professional development, and career development.

"In terms of mentoring there are a lot of creative programs including webinars, navigating academia, leadership training, cultural acclimation information and MentorNet," Huang said. Professional career events are often held at annual meetings, book clubs, networking mixers, and other venues. "The commonality here is: how do you network, how do you get funding?" she explained.

But many of the programs offered aren't focussing solely on postdoc women. There seems to be a high interest in graduate students who might have different interests than postdoc women.

Finally Huang stressed the importance of childcare services

"The age of most postdoc women is mid-30s, a prime time to start families. Younger and older age groups have a different need for this. What organizations are doing around childcare issues, does matter."

Fourteen out of 46 organizations answered the survey stating that they provide childcare awards, subsidized on-site dependent care and subsidized childcare costs to enable women to attend conferences. Results showed that 32 did not offer any childcare support to attend conferences.

The Postdoc Woman's Survival Guide

After distilling key survey results, the project team plans to create an online clearinghouse of promising institutional practices that could aid in the retention of postdoc women in the academic career pipeline. "Our best practice guide will be the last piece of this, where we will really discuss where we are now, what resources are being offered, which organizations are doing really well, and which areas still need more critical development," Dr. Huang said.

The Elsevier Foundation

Elsevier Foundation New Scholars ProgramThe Elsevier Foundation New Scholars program, which funded the NPA project, supports projects to help early- to mid-career women scientists balance family responsibilities with demanding academic careers and addresses the attrition rate of talented women scientists. For more information, visit the Elsevier Foundation website or contact Foundation Program Director Ylann Schemm (@YlannSchemm) at

The NPA and the Elsevier Foundation

In 2013 the NPA received a 2-year $70,000 grant from the Elsevier Foundation. The grant enabled them to expand the NPA ADVANCE project through the following project:

  • Screening survey
  • Focus groups at the 2013 Annual Meeting in Charleston, South Carolina
  • Workshops at the 2014 Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Societies survey to clarify resources and programs serving postdoc women (ongoing)
  • Online clearinghouse (yet to start)
  • Guidebook (yet to start)


Elsevier Connect Contributor

Anneleen DoornebalAnneleen Doornebal was a communications intern for Elsevier's Corporate Relations department. She holds a bachelor degree in Political Science, with focus on governance and public policy from the University of Amsterdam. Recently, she started a Research in Public Administration and Organisational Science master's degree program at Utrecht University.

comments powered by Disqus

Related Stories