Impact of increasing number of post-docs in CS

March 9, 2011 at 11:24 am 9 comments

My colleague Beki Grinter asked me to review a white paper that the Computing Research Association (CRA) has produced on the increasing number of post-docs in computer science. A post-doc is some kind of study or internship taken on after earning the PhD and before a faculty or industry job.  2009 was the first year that the number of PhD’s in the US who took post-docs exceeded the number of PhD’s who took faculty jobs.  The real issue is the declining number of faculty jobs.  For example, the number of new PhD’s going into industry has risen dramatically, from 240 in 2004 to 760 in 2009.  “Today, roughly 42 percent of all (US) PhD graduates are hired into industry immediately after completing their PhD.”  CRA tracks where new faculty hires came from.  In 2007, 118 new US Computing faculty were new PhD’s, and 38 were previously post-docs.  In 2010, the numbers were 116 and 47.

In comparison with other fields, we still have relatively few post-docs.  Medical and Life Sciences have 33,245 (67.5% of all post-docs in the US). Engineering has 9.4%.  CS has 0.9%.  Still, it’s clear that there’s a shift going on.

At the CRA website, there is a discussion about the impact of this change on the field.   I don’t know enough about other disciplines that have lots of post-docs to really understand the analogous implications for our field.  I do care about computing education, and I can foresee a couple of implications for computing education of this shift.

  • Pushing one or more post-docs before a faculty slot means that the new faculty are going to be more years away from graduate classes.  While I believe that every researcher stays updated on their own field, graduate school is where future faculty get a broad computing education, e.g., new languages and new technologies. It’s hard for existing faculty to do that, to keep up in their specific field and in general.  Perhaps there’s going to be a greater need for continuing education opportunities for faculty, to keep updated.
  • I am concerned about that the emphasis on post-docs even more heavily weights research (over teaching) in hiring, tenure, and promotion decisions.  I have not heard of a post-doc on teaching.  Faculty candidates who have had a post-doc will have a stronger (larger) publication record than candidates who did not have a post-doc. If doing a post-doc becomes a requirement for being a faculty member, are we  increasingly weighting research over teaching?  A graduate student can emphasize teaching (e.g., as a TA, through teaching awards).  That emphasis on teaching may not fade when the graduate student does a post-doc, but if the hiring requires a post-doc, then it’s clearly making a strong statement about the value of research.  How do we counter that, to re-emphasize teaching?

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Changing the Culture of Science Education at Research Universities Ontological Categories in Computer Science

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  March 9, 2011 at 12:19 pm

    In bioinformatics, which straddles the cultural divide between biology and computer science, we wrestle with the problem of how much to value postdoc experience all the time. The faculty that came from a bio background all had postdocs or other research experience for several years between grad school and becoming faculty. Most of the faculty coming in from CS backgrounds did not. Our own graduates mostly do postdocs, unless they go directly into industry.

    We do not see a big correlation (negative or positive) between postdoc experience and teaching competence, but we have a pretty small sample to work with, so no general conclusion should be made.

  • 2. Mark Urban-Lurain  |  March 9, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    I have not heard of a post-doc on teaching.

    At Michigan State, we have two programs for science post-docs that are specifically focused on teaching or STEM education research.

    The FIRST-IV program ( is a series of workshops for biology post-docs across the country to focus on PD for inquiry-based learning.

    The Center for Research on College Science Teaching and Learning (CRCSTL, focuses on science faculty’s involvement in research on instructional design, implementation and assessment of student learning outcomes in college science. CRCSTL post-docs are STEM Ph.D. graduates who spend at least 50% of their post-doc appointment on mentored STEM education research or projects.

    Consistent with the numbers you quoted, our post-docs in these programs are primarily from biology, as opposed to engineering or CS.


  • […] Impact of increasing number of post-docs in CS ( […]

  • 4. The PhD factory « Computing Education Blog  |  April 27, 2011 at 8:03 am

    […] from Nature has been leading to a lot of discussions where I’m at.  It relates to the CRA’s call for more discussion about post-docs.  Are we producing too many PhDs?  Or should we preparing more PhD’s for non-academic jobs? […]

  • […] the computing industry, academia isn’t growing. The economics in academia are changing, and there will be fewer academic jobs (especially in CS).  I still believe that we ought to ramp up CS faculty hiring, in order to offer computing to more […]

  • […] a fully-funded year, including travel money.  Many of the fellows treat it as a kind of post-doc. Post-doctoral study years are still uncommon in computer science and engineering, so the fellowship doesn’t have a lot of visibility in […]

  • […] Post-docs are becoming more common in computer science.  A new effort is aiming to help the community learn how to support these post-docs. […]

  • 8. gasstationwithoutpumps  |  September 24, 2013 at 11:54 am

    Postdocs have long been a way of underpaying PhDs in fields where there was a bigger supply than demand. For decades, computer science avoided this maltreatment of researchers by keeping the demand for PhDs higher than the supply. Has the field finally started overproducing PhDs, so that labor costs can be driven down to subsistence level (as they have in other scientific fields)? Or is this new growth of postdocs in PhDs in CS just wishful thinking on the part of funding agencies? (NIH loves postdocs—that’s about all they are willing to pay for these days, and they cap their pay at a very low level.)

    • 9. Mark Guzdial  |  September 24, 2013 at 12:02 pm

      I suspect that we now believe that we’re over-producing PhD’s, but I haven’t seen the data supporting that claim.


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