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Studies question role of postdoc programs, GRE requirementsStudies question role of postdoc programs, GRE requirements

With academic jobs dwindling, researchers recommend changes to postdoc science positions and doctoral application procedures.

Tim Lundeen 1

January 20, 2017

5 Min Read
Studies question role of postdoc programs, GRE requirements

Federal research agencies, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) and National Institutes of Health, tout postdoctoral positions as valuable training for those pursuing for scientific careers.

However, a new study by Boston University and University of Kansas researchers has found that "postdoc" jobs don't yield a positive return in the labor market and that these positions likely cost graduates roughly three years' worth of salary in their first 15 years of their careers.

"Biomedical scientists require postdocs in order to do the work of science. However, the postdoc only prepares students for academic careers — jobs that are very difficult to come by," University of Kansas economics professor Donna Ginther said. "Ours is the first study to document the opportunity cost of taking a postdoc on the subsequent career outcomes of former postdocs. We show that the cost in terms of foregone earnings is very high. Most postdocs would be better off if they took jobs when they completed their degrees."

Ginther and co-author Shulamit Kahn, associate professor the Boston University Questrom School of Business, published their findings in the report "The Impact of Postdoctoral Training on Early Careers in Biomedicine" in the journal Nature Biotechnology.

The researchers said several of their findings challenge published assertions about recent trends in postdoctoral positions because their paper compared later careers of people with biomedical doctorates who had postdoc experience and those who didn't. They examined biennial longitudinal data from the 1981 to 2013 waves of the NSF "Survey of Doctorate Recipients" matched to the 1980-2013 NSF "Survey of Earned Doctorates."

They found of people who started in postdoc positions, the median annual starting salary during their first four years after earning their doctorate was $44,724 in inflation-adjusted 2013 dollars, compared with $73,662 for those who directly entered the workforce. After controlling for all factors, the 10-year post-doctorate salaries of those who started in a postdoc averaged $12,002 lower than those who skipped postdocs.

Ginther said the findings could help universities, advisers and the postdocs themselves to address issues with those pursuing biomedical careers. Ginther and Kahn hope that this research will help biomedical doctorates make more informed choices by weighing the 20% chance of obtaining a tenure-track job against the financial and personal sacrifices of the temporary postdoctoral positions.

They also expressed the hope that academic advisers will learn about the availability of non-academic research jobs that do not require a postdoc.

"The current system of postdoctoral training benefits the postdocs' supervisors, mentors, their institutions and funding agencies by providing them with highly educated labor willing to work long hours to produce cutting-edge science at low cost," the researchers said.

The researchers suggested ways that universities and funding agencies could address these issues, including:

* Universities could hire staff research scientists to assist tenured faculty with research instead of postdocs.

* Pay postdocs more to reduce the reliance of faculty on "cheap" labor.

* Institute term limits on postdoc positions to encourage researchers to start in permanent positions rather than later.


Devaluing the GRE?

A research team at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Medicine found that the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which is required for admission to graduate and doctorate programs across the country, is not the best indicator for predicting a student's success while pursuing a doctorate in the experimental life sciences.

From that research, the team recommended devaluing — if not eliminating altogether — the GRE from the applications process for biomedical doctoral candidates.

The team was led by Dr. Jean Cook, professor of biochemistry and biophysics and the associate dean for graduate education at the UNC School of Medicine. Dr. Joshua Hall, director of the National Institutes of Health-funded Post-baccalaureate Research Education Program (PREP) at UNC, and Anna O'Connell, director of UNC's Biological & Biomedical Sciences Program (BBSP), were co-authors in the research paper, which was published in PLOS One.

"My original interest in wanting to do a study like this really stemmed from my role directing our PREP program," Hall said. "I work closely with them and see them working as researchers and taking graduate coursework here at UNC, then they would apply to certain programs, but not get accepted. It would be frustrating to me to see students who were performing really well in the lab and in graduate coursework here, but they had low GRE scores and that kept them from getting offers to graduate programs.

"There was a correlation where students with higher GRE scores would get more offers than students who were preforming at a pretty high level as a researcher but who had lower GRE scores," he added.

After completing a research study that evaluated a cohort of 280 students who matriculated into UNC through BBSP, the team determined that quantitative metrics like GRE scores and — to some extent — grade point averages have been carrying more weight in the application process than they should.

The team's findings were specific to students pursuing graduate degrees in the experimental life sciences fields and who were accepted into the program, Cook said.

"I don't know if any of our information is relevant in the humanities, or the arts or even engineering," Cook said. "We only know about the people that we train, and it's possible that a complete different set of metrics will be useful in different disciplines."

According to UNC, the study followed a similar one conducted at the University of California at San Francisco in 2015, which determined that a student's background in research — and not the GRE score — appeared to be the strongest indicator of future success in doctorate programs.

First, Cook's team tried to define what made a "strong" student, then the team looked at what distinguished those students from those who weren't as strong.

Instead, they relied on graduation rates and first-author publications, which are a standard graduation requirement for most biomedical doctoral programs.

"We found that GRE scores simply didn't correlate with student success," Cook said. "Our message then to our admissions committee is: 'If the test score is spectacular, don't be seduced into thinking that it means they're going to be a great scientist while they're part of a lab at UNC.'"

O'Connell added, "If their score is low, don't be tricked into thinking that they're not ready or they won't be productive."

"Maybe this will force us to start thinking of other metrics that perhaps are better indicators of the things we're actually trying to measure and look for in an applicant — things like grit, optimism, perseverance and resiliency," Hall said.

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