What if there is one simple way of assessing a program, something that is flexible, responds rapidly to increasing and decreasing quality, something that applies to the whole place but can also be used to understand one potential investigator over another? It is simply the number of postdocs the program has. A program with more postdocs will generally be better overall than a program with fewer postdocs. Why should this be the case?
Postdocs are special. There are fewer of them than graduate students. They have made it through a Ph.D. program and want to continue with research. During the precious postdoc years research will claim their time, their attention, and their interest. Postdocs add a lot to a research group and to a research program or department. But their importance for choosing a Ph.D. program does not only rest on what they add to the group. Postdocs are an excellent indicator of a successful research program and a stimulating research environment. Why?
Postdocs are paid for differently than graduate students. They do not get teaching assistantships. They are funded at a higher level than graduate students, currently beginning at $42,000 a year according to NIH standards for summer 2014. Their funding comes from grants the postdocs get themselves and can take anywhere, or from research funding of individual professors, or occasionally by positions funded by the university. The postdocs with their own funding vote on good programs for themselves by attending. Those with professors are an indication of successful researchers able to attract outside funding. The wise prospective graduate student will use the number and kind of postdocs as one indication of an excellent program.
Of course it would be silly to use this as a sole indicator. A younger professor may be outstanding, but not yet in a position for postdocs. I would still argue you should look at the program overall and be sure some of the other labs had postdocs.
How many postdocs should you look for before choosing a program. Well, this is not an indicator that is that quantifiable. It is just one more thing to look at, so I wouldn’t say that a program where half the labs had postdocs was worse than a program where two-thirds of the labs had postdocs. There are also a lot of other factors. But this is one that should lead you away from those generic rankings. Surely you aren’t relying on something as vague as a magazine like US News and World Report to choose your graduate program, the place where you will get your Ph.D. and be launched into the professional world?
Add the number of postdocs in the program to your complex decision. Happy postdocs are a wonderful resource and indicator of a strong program!