February 2, 2007

Postdocs come to U.S. to advance scientific careers

BOULDER – Thomas Schibli would rather be working in his home country of Switzerland, but until the right job emerges, he’ll take Boulder. Or Boston. Or Japan.

The 34-year-old is a postdoctoral fellow currently working at JILA, the interdisciplinary research institute operated jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

CU, NIST and Boulder’s other labs – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Center for Atmospheric Research – employ hundreds of foreign postdocs.

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It’s difficult to know exactly how many, American and foreign, said Laura Border, director of CU’s Graduate Teacher Program and chairwoman of the school’s postdoctoral association. Border estimates there is between 500 and 600, but, “It’s really hard to identify the number of postdocs. They work in concert with research labs like NOAA, NIST and NCAR, so it’s hard to separate out who’s who.”

Additionally, postdocs are classified in different ways – some are called faculty, some research associates, still others are lab assistants – and their pay may come from the primary researcher’s grant or their own grant money, again confounding identifying them, she said.

Most scientists complete one or more postdoctoral assignments, said Alyson Reed, executive director of the National Postdoctoral Association. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit provides the type of professional development postdocs don’t learn in the lab, i.e., negotiation skills, research ethics, lab management, grant writing, getting published and intellectual property protection.

Reed compared a postdoctoral position to a medical residency. “First a medical student does mostly course work. The residency is where you get hands-on clinical experience, and a postdoc is where you get that kind of experience.

“Over time the field of natural sciences has evolved to where there is a perception for a need for additional hands-on training in a lab above and beyond the research you do as a grad student in order to run a lab.”

In the highly competitive professional research world, permanent jobs are very hard to come, Reed said. Having a number of postdoctoral assignments on a resume can make a scientist more attractive to employers. “It’s a buyers market, and (employers) can look at a pool of applications. One has finished their Ph.D. but no postdoc, and another has done a postdoc.” Typically a postdoc will have published more, making him a better candidate.

As a metrologist – one who develops and evaluates systems to measure things like time, temperature, distance and so on – Schibli’s choices for places to work are limited.

“My ultimate goal is to become a permanent faculty member at a university or work for a research institute,” he said. “I really like research, so I want to do that as long as I can.”

The JILA stint is Schibli’s third postdoc.

After graduating from university in Switzerland, he attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his master’s, then went to Germany for his doctorate. He then spent another two years at MIT during his first postdoc and traveled to Japan where he worked a three-year postdoc.

Reed said postdocs form an inexpensive source of talented labor. “People are willing to spend three to six years doing postdoctoral research for an average salary of $36,000.”

This is difficult for people with spouses and children. What’s even more difficult is, as a fellowship recipient, a postdoc isn’t classified as an employee and therefore can’t qualify for health insurance or other benefits, she said.

For Schibli, money hasn’t been a big concern. JILA is paying him $60,000 (plenty for Boulder, he said), and MIT paid $44,000 (tough in the expensive Boston area, he admitted).

But if and when he goes back to Switzerland, he’s concerned about making ends meet. Although he thinks he’d command $140,000, the cost of living is twice as much.

Schibli said it doesn’t really matter to him where he works, because, “Research is not bound to a country.”

But he likes the research atmosphere in the U.S. “It’s much easier to get people in the same boat to do a collaboration. In Europe it can be a little more difficult; people prefer to work in their own group and keep their benefits.”

In Japan it took him “at least a year to get a good trust relationship,” he said.

People find postdoctoral jobs just like they find any jobs – online, in newspapers and journals, and through personal recommendations and invitations.

Schibli has spent no time job seeking. “Each time I got invited, so it was convenient for me. I’m very lucky.”

Contact Caron Schwartz Ellis at 303-440-4950 or [email protected].

Postdocs by the numbers

In 2005, American Scientist published “Doctors Without Orders,” highlights of the U.S. postdoc survey done by scientific research society Sigma Xi.

Among the findings, Sigma Xi discovered:

_ More than 50,000 people hold postdoctoral appointments in the U.S.

_ At 24 percent, 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively, molecular biology, cell biology, and biochemistry, biophysics and structural biology are the top research areas.

_ 42 percent of all postdocs are women.

_ 54 percent are from other countries; the nation of origin for visa holders is most commonly China, 14 percent; followed by India, 6 percent; Germany, 4 percent; South Korea, Japan and France, 3 percent each.

_ 58 percent are between 30 and 35.

_ Median salary is $38,000.

BOULDER – Thomas Schibli would rather be working in his home country of Switzerland, but until the right job emerges, he’ll take Boulder. Or Boston. Or Japan.

The 34-year-old is a postdoctoral fellow currently working at JILA, the interdisciplinary research institute operated jointly by the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

CU, NIST and Boulder’s other labs – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Center for Atmospheric Research – employ hundreds of foreign postdocs.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many, American and foreign, said Laura Border, director of CU’s Graduate Teacher Program and…

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