Graduate Division Publishes Call to Action on Tracking Postdoc Career Outcomes

By Erik Rotman

UC San Francisco's Graduate Division, in collaboration with the UCSF Office for Postdoctoral Scholars and the UCSF Office of Career and Professional Development, has published findings and conclusions from a study of postdoctoral career outcomes initiated in 2014.

Portrait of Elizabeth Silva
Elizabeth Silva, PhD

This is the first comprehensive study of career outcomes for UCSF’s postdoctoral scholars and possibly the largest single-institution study on the subject conducted to date.

The paper, titled “Tracking Career Outcomes for Postdoctoral Scholars: A Call to Action,” was published in May in PLOS Biology. Elizabeth Silva, PhD, associate dean of graduate programs, was lead author on the paper.

In addition to presenting data resulting from the study, the article provides recommendations for other institutions and highlights the importance of institutional action in career tracking. The study found that 81 percent of UCSF postdoc alumni from 2000 to 2013 who held PhDs were employed in areas typically thought of as PhD-related careers: research or teaching in academia and research in industry or government settings, and that 37 percent of US-employed postdoc alumni were in faculty positions.

Confusion About Definitions of 'Tenure-Track'

However, the article discusses the difficulty of determining what proportion of these faculty positions represents much-sought-after “tenure-track” appointments. In fact, a key point discussed in the publication is that there is much confusion about the definitions of “tenure-track” and “non-tenure-track,” resulting in a false dichotomy that does not recognize the increasing nuance in academic appointments and misleads postdocs as they consider career options.

We have a duty to provide postdocs with solid data to inform their career decisions and to use the data ourselves to determine the best kind of career development resources and programming we can give to postdocs.

Elizabeth Watkins, Graduate Division Dean


Elizabeth Watkins, PhD, Graduate Division Dean and Vice Chancellor of Student Academic Affairs, notes, “To our knowledge, we are the first to do such a study, and we are delighted to share it widely and encourage other institutions to follow our lead in tracking postdoc career outcomes. We have a duty to provide postdocs with solid data to inform their career decisions and to use the data ourselves to determine the best kind of career development resources and programming we can give to postdocs.”

The authors write in the study that local efforts for tracking postdoc outcomes will be more meaningful than a national survey due to the great variability in training environment and the classification of postdoctoral scholars among institutions.

"The oversupply of postdoctoral scholars relative to available faculty positions has led to calls for better assessment of career outcomes," the authors wrote in the study. "Here, we report the results of a study of postdoctoral outcomes at the University of California, San Francisco, and suggest that institutions have an obligation to determine where their postdoc alumni are employed and to share this information with current and future trainees."

Provides Framework, Methodology for Future Studies

The study also provides a framework and methodology that can be adopted by others, with the goal of developing a finely grained portrait of postdoctoral career outcomes across the United States.

The publication is the result of a study the Graduate Division began in early 2014 in response to an ongoing conversation – at UCSF and nationally – on the current and future state of postdoctoral training and career expectations. It is hoped that this study will set a precedent for similar research and reporting on postdoc career outcomes at other institutions nationwide, and promote creative thinking about the postdoc experience. Heeding its own call to action, the Graduate Division is incorporating tracking and reporting of career outcomes for postdocs into its ongoing projects.

Silva’s coauthors on the paper include Christine Des Jarlais, assistant dean for postdocs and career development; Bill Lindstaedt, executive director of Career Advancement, International and Postdoc Services; Erik Rotman, communications coordinator; and Watkins, dean of the Graduate Division, vice chancellor for Student Academic Affairs, and professor of History of Health Sciences.