Number of postdocs on campus sets a record

Currently, 1,754 postdoctoral scholars are engaged in research projects at Stanford.

L.A. Cicero Hedwich Kuipers

Hedwich Kuipers, a postdoc from the Netherlands, arrived nearly a year ago to conduct research on multiple sclerosis.

It can be hard to nail down exactly how many postdoctoral scholars are working at Stanford on any given day. 

There is an official count, of course, that Rania Sanford, the university's assistant dean for postdoctoral affairs, is always able to provide.

But the total could change this afternoon, or next week, or next month, because postdocs arrive throughout the year – unlike a new cohort of undergraduate or graduate students, who most often arrive in the fall at the start of the academic year.

Postdocs are people with Ph.D.s who are engaged in advanced training – under mentors – to enhance the academic and professional skills they need to pursue their chosen career paths.

At the beginning of 2010, there were 1,754 postdoctoral scholars working in offices, laboratories, institutes and centers on campus, including the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

That's a record number, and larger than any single undergraduate class at Stanford.

As a group, Stanford's postdocs would fill Memorial Auditorium to capacity, with four dozen of them left standing in the aisles.

Women compose about 40 percent of the postdoctoral community on campus.

Postdoc community on the Farm is growing

Sanford said the number of postdocs at the university has risen nearly 10 percent since last June, an increase she attributed in part to the economic downturn, which has affected hiring at colleges and universities across the country.

"It's also true that, over time, the number of postdocs has been steadily increasing, whether we were in a downturn or not," she said. "There have been peaks and valleys in the numbers, but the curve is steadily moving upward."

Over the last 10 years, the number of postdoctoral scholars on campus surged 37 percent, to 1,754 in 2010, from 1,281 in 2000, according to the university's Office of Postdoctoral Affairs, which is housed at the School of Medicine and serves as an advocate for postdoctoral scholars across the university.

The office oversees, develops and manages policies related to postdoctoral scholars; it also offers them educational programs and services.

On Friday, April 9, the office will host one of its monthly "Academic Chats," lunchtime seminars for postdocs who are considering academic careers. A panel of staff and faculty will discuss "Applying for Academic Positions – And You Thought Getting a Postdoc was Hard," in the Terman Engineering Center.

Where in the world do postdocs come from?

The current crop of postdoctoral scholars on the Farm comes from 81 countries, ranging from tiny Andorra in the peaks of the Pyrenees to global powerhouse China, the most populous nation on Earth.

The largest contingent – 601 postdocs – comes from the United States.

The second largest group – 242 postdocs – carries Chinese passports.

Rounding out the top five countries on the list are Korea (98), India (86) and Canada (70).

The postdoctoral community also includes 306 people from the European Union, as well as nearly four dozen people from Russia and Eastern Europe, 33 people from the Middle East and 32 people from Latin and South America.

More than two dozen postdoctoral scholars are the sole representatives of their countries on campus, including Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

L.A. Cicero Wei Wang, a postdoctoral scholar in mechanical engineering, said her time at Stanford helped her secure a job as an assistant professor of mathematics at Florida International University.

Wei Wang, a postdoctoral scholar in mechanical engineering, said her time at Stanford helped her secure a job as an assistant professor of mathematics at Florida International University.

Most Stanford postdocs work at the Medical School

Two-thirds of the postdocs at Stanford – 1,179 people – are engaged in research projects at the Medical School. They are working in more than two dozen departments, including bioengineering, dermatology, pediatrics and psychiatry.

Women comprise 46 percent of the Medical School's postdoc community.

One of them is Hedwich Kuipers, who grew up in Friesland, a northern province in the Netherlands. She earned a doctorate in neuroimmunology in 2007 from Leiden University, the country's oldest university.

Kuipers, who arrived at Stanford nearly a year ago to do research on multiple sclerosis, is working in the laboratory of Dr. Lawrence Steinman, the George A. Zimmermann Professor of Neurology and Neurological Sciences.

Kuipers also has embraced another role on the Farm: as co-chair of the Stanford University Postdoctoral Association Council, a 14-member group that advises the administration and faculty on issues of concern to postdocs, including salaries, benefits, childcare and housing.

The group also strives to build a postdoc community by organizing educational and social events, including poster sessions, networking events, happy hour gatherings and an annual summer barbecue that attracts spouses and families.

Kuipers said social get-togethers are important, because being a postdoc is stressful.

"You have high expectations, not only from your supervisor, but also from yourself," she said. "This is the time you are building your career as an independent scientist, so you'd better give it all you can."

Humanities & Sciences

While most postdoctoral appointments at Stanford are in medicine and the sciences, the positions are becoming more common in other academic fields.

"We're beginning to see a rise in the number of PhD graduates in the humanities and social sciences who pursue postdoctoral study as the next step in transit to an academic job," said Sanford, of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs.

In the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford, four departments – biology, chemistry, physics and applied physics – accounted for 80 percent of postdocs, according to statistics from the office.

The rest are found in 10 other departments, including history, linguistics, philosophy, East Asian studies, psychology and sociology.

Postdocs in Earth Sciences, Education and Engineering

More than three dozen postdocs are doing research in the School of Earth Sciences, and 10 scholars have postdoctoral appointments in the School of Education.

Some 200 postdocs are working in nine departments in the School of Engineering.

One of them is Wei Wang, a postdoctoral scholar in mechanical engineering, who arrived at Stanford two years ago. She was born in northeast China, in a province that shares borders with Russia to the north and Mongolia to the west.

Wang's academic journey began at the prestigious University of Science and Technology of China, located in the city of Hefei in mid-eastern China, where she earned a bachelor's degree in mathematics in 2004.

Wang, who had loved math since childhood and wanted to get an advanced degree, decided to go abroad for advanced study; her professors encouraged her quest. She enrolled at Brown University, in Providence, R.I. In 2008, she graduated with a doctorate in applied mathematics.

Later that same year, Wang began working at the Center for Turbulence Research, a research consortium for fundamental study of turbulent flow that is jointly operated by Stanford and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

This fall, Wang will move to Miami, where she has accepted a position as an assistant professor of mathematics at Florida International University.

Wang said Stanford was her "dream school" for a postdoctoral appointment, because it was famous and beautiful.

"Working here for sure helped me a lot to find a tenure-track job," she said. "The people at Stanford are very smart and knowledgeable. I learned a lot from them."

Kathleen J. Sullivan, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-5708,