by The NIH Fellows Committee

Our committee, which is a group of fellows representing every institute, center, or division (ICD), was invited by The NIH Catalyst to comment on problems encountered by postdoctoral fellows at NIH. At our monthly meeting in October, we discussed this topic and several common themes emerged. The views expressed in the following article reflect the opinions and experiences of individual committee members and do not necessarily represent the position of the entire committee. We acknowledge that the postdoctoral experience at NIH is not uniform and is influenced by the attitudes and practices of the ICD and even of the laboratory or branch in which a postdoc works.

There is a strong consensus among members of The NIH Fellows Committee that the quality of the scientific training at NIH is unique and outstanding. However, many of us also feel that there are a number of serious problems with the NIH postdoc experience that need to be addressed. Although our concerns are as diverse as the types of science being done on campus, the major shortcomings of being an NIH fellow in the ë90s tend to fall into three general categories: mentoring, jobs, and special needs of certain groups. The following is our discussion of these problems and some suggested solutions.


NIH's primary purpose is to conduct scientific research that improves the nation's health. But isn't another purpose of NIH to serve as the largest single training center of postdoctoral fellows in the biomedical sciences? It's time to realize that scientific productivity is not the only standard by which NIH's success can be measured. Another critical test is whether or not this institution can provide the mentorship necessary to adequately train the next generation of scientists.

The sad truth is that most fellows feel that NIH has not yet succeeded in the area of mentorship. Many of us feel that, in the name of productive science, advisers take advantage of fellows, using them as "slave labor" rather than entering into a partnership with them that would allow for good science for the lab and successful career development for the fellow.

This begs the question: who is mentoring the mentors? Is anyone at NIH teaching senior scientists to focus some of their attention on the careers of their fellows, not just their gels? The answer in some ICDs is, apparently, no one! There needs to be a campus-wide effort to provide uniformity in helping advisers develop into accomplished mentors as well as fine scientists.

For starters, most postdocs would like to receive better feedback from their mentors. Perhaps NIH should require regular evaluations of the scientific progress of fellows. Some fellows report that they have no opportunity to sit down with their mentor on a regular basis and take a close look together at their progress, or lack thereof. Other fellows think that NIH may want to consider some type of outside peer review of postdocs' work.


Perhaps the number one disadvantage that NIH postdocs face when they compete against other postdocs in the job market is our inability to establish a track record in grantsmanship. One suggestion to help alleviate this problem is to encourage more postdocs to write for outside grants from private institutions. This could be facilitated by publishing a booklet listing private foundations as well as tips on writing a good grant. Another suggestion is to establish an intramural, peer-reviewed postdoctoral grant program. Although this would require more work for postdocs in the short term, it definitely would be a long-term boost for their scientific careers.

We all know that the job market is not what postdocs or their advisers would wish for. But what are we at NIH doing to give ourselves a competitive edge in this bad market? We need heightened marketing skills, new alternatives, better networking, and cross-training. Fellows need opportunities to meet with head hunters and industry representatives. We need job fairs!

These days, it seems almost impossible for a fellow to get a foot in the door for a good academic position without a helpful letter or phone call from a senior researcher. We need our advisers to be actively involved in our job search. It would be great to know that advisers would accept some responsibility for helping the fellows they have trained get placed in good jobs.

We also need more information on how NIH's intramural program is reshaping itself. What kinds of positions are being downsized? What changes in NIH career opportunities can we anticipate, and how can we take advantage of them?

Foreign Fellows And Clinical Associates

There is strong sentiment among foreign fellows that the information at NIH about all-important visa issues is inadequate. Some fellows have had to hire immigration lawyers because they cannot get good counseling on campus. One possible solution is to set up an immigration ombudsman office that is independent of the Fogarty International Center. In addition, special assistance might be offered concerning the problems faced by foreign fellows who are searching for a job in the United States.

NIH has also not dealt adequately with another major headache for foreign fellows: the problems of language barriers. Prejudice and bias against foreigners is an unfortunate fact of life in some labs. What can we do to ensure that foreign fellows are not held to tougher standards than their U.S. counterparts?

Clinical fellows may differ from other postdoctoral fellows in having little formal training in research methodology. The prospect of becoming skilled clinical researchers is a primary draw for M.D.s coming to NIH. However, many clinical associates find their schedules so hectic and educational opportunities so limited that obtaining formal training remains an elusive goal. Apart from the new Clinical Research Core Curriculum, we are left with a catch-as-catch-can system of training. The politics and red tape involved in clinical research today also frequently extend a project's duration beyond a typical clinical associate's term-leading many clinical fellows to view themselves as simply another cog in a machine that too often seems to produce few tangible results.

Assorted Gripes, From Pay to Beer

Postdocs who are Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) fellows work under terms that are left almost entirely to the discretion of their advisers. The lack of information on matters such as annual and sick leave or contracts leaves many IRTA fellows feeling unduly stressed.

Why can't there be a congressional exception that lets fellows qualify for Metro Rideshare rebates? Or, if that's not possible, how about a campus-wide initiative that compensates fellows for using environmentally sound methods of transportation?

Fellows' salaries should be raised more often and more substantially. As the postdoc position has evolved from being a short period of simple training to what is now a longer period with greater responsibilities within a lab, there ought to be greater financial reward.

Fellows at satellite campuses often feel cut off. Many receive announcements of activities on the main campus after the fact, or when they do receive them in time to go to Bethesda, they find it difficult to find a parking place.

NIH needs to help foster a sense of community among postdocs. Many of our nation's best scientific institutions have a bar on campus. This issue has come up again and again-we need a friendly beer pub on campus. Hey, how about in the B level of Building 27? Has anyone seriously looked into ways to install a friendly watering hole for beleaguered postdocs and their mentors?

Editor's Note: Fellows may currently use the FAES Social and Academic Center at Cedar Lane and Old Georgetown Road for social gatherings.

Return to Table of Contents