As postdoctoral researchers, sometimes we feel a little unloved. Alternately, we feel like a mysterious emerging disease: Nobody seems to know how many of us there are, what exactly to call us, and experts have been warning the scientific community about us for years.
As the ranks of U.S. postdocs have swelled close to 100,000, eminent scientists, administrators, and policy analysts have increased the urgency of these warnings (1, 2, 3). The economic reality is that 100,000 faculty and biomedical jobs do not await us. Our best estimates are that only 8-15% of the current crop of postdocs will obtain tenure-track faculty positions (Fig. 1) (4).
On October 2-3, 2014, a group of postdocs from the Boston area organized the Future of Research (FOR) symposium to discuss the challenges that face us in the future. One of the goals of the symposium was to identify biomedical workforce problems and propose solutions (5). These proposed solutions ranged from reorganization of national biomedical funding priorities to personal actions for individual postdocs to take.
If postdocs have learned nothing else from having endured graduate school in the U.S. (which averages nearly 7 years (6)), it is that everything in research moves very slowly. So the question becomes: What about us? What happens to the postdocs we already have?
Forces that hold us in the pool
If we are unaware of the drawbacks of the position and the poor chances for obtaining a tenure-track faculty position when we begin our postdocs, we are quickly made aware of them. Yet, as a group, we stay an average of 4 years. This means that many postdocs stay in their positions for a period of time nearly equal to that of their graduate training. Scientists are smart and resourceful people who can analyze problems and propose solutions, so why aren’t postdocs running for the hills or storming the gates?
It is worth noting that, like subatomic particles, we are held in the postdoctoral orbit by both attractive and repellant forces. These forces make change more difficult. Many of us do want to become principal investigators (PI). We are attracted to a postdoc because a postdoctoral fellowship is almost a firm prerequisite for starting one’s own lab. Moreover, the scientific enterprise is a unique creature. The postdoc training years appeal to many of the reasons we became scientists in the first place—the love of science and discovery, the desire to do creative and independent research, and the contributions that one’s research provides to the betterment of humanity or the environment. Plus, there are benefits. Some aspects of postdoctoral positions, such as flexible working hours/days and the availability of dependent benefits, are advantageous for many people.
Leaving a postdoc, or never taking one to begin with, comes with its own set of anxieties. There is a sense of obligation and loyalty to your postdoctoral advisor, not to mention to your graduate advisor, for staying the course. The fear of missing out, burning bridges, or closing doors is real. Even if you are unsure of your future career path, a common refrain heard in graduate school is that a postdoc won’t “close any doors.” It is a safe, approved path that ends at another juncture where, presumably, all career paths are still “open.” If grad school were an oligarchy, the postdoctoral years are a dictatorship. You are completely reliant on two factors for subsequent job placement: the number of publications you have and a glowing recommendation letter from your PI. There are no grades, formal evaluations, thesis committees, or ways of ranking “postdoc training programs” for rigor or effectiveness. You don’t even get a certificate of appreciation.
Draining the pool with us still in it?
Even if action were taken today, most young scientists will not reap the benefits. Many proposed solutions would take years to implement and would not affect the current number of postdocs in the system anyway.
Governments and institutions are not known for nimble flexibility, and changes on these levels, while essential, are unlikely to arrive in time for those of us who are postdocs now. As others have pointed out, the “postdoc problem” has been growing for at least 40 years (7) and there is still no end in sight. A government (i.e. NIH, NSF) mandate to restructure postdoctoral funding and salary rules will likely be phased in over multiple grant cycles, which can take years, leaving the current generation of trainees poorly funded and still directly tied to their PI’s research grants. Of course, this is assuming that legislation is passed with any degree of haste and with mandatory guidelines, neither of which are guarantees.
On an institutional or regional level, forming a postdoc union and any subsequent labor negotiations will also be over the course of many years. Unions may form more easily and more strongly in certain environments and not throughout the entire scientific enterprise. Although working toward these goals will improve the training environment for future generations of postdocs, those of us currently in the pool will not directly see the benefits of these changes.
Nor is there any safe, legal, or ethical way to reduce the number of current postdocs. Any modification to graduate school admissions and training or to the hiring and funding of new postdocs will translate to lower numbers of postdocs in the future. A census and standardization of job titles for postdocs will take time to implement, but will not directly alter the number of postdocs in the pool. Additionally, new limits on the length of a postdoc may also lead to a temporary bloat in “staff scientist” or “specialist” numbers as long-term postdocs are renamed without moving on in their careers.
What can a postdoc do?
Thus, our original question remains: What about us? While the situation may sound bleak for current trainees, there are many things we can do now to ensure our futures in science. Broadly, these actions fall into three categories: 1) individual, 2) departmental, and 3) larger scale. Resources and achievable action items exist within each of these three categories; many can be achieved on a timescale that will directly affect the quality of a current postdoc. Although it may feel like we are sticking our postdoc “atoms” into a super-collider with the result uncertain, these actions require individual postdocs to assume agency in getting the most out of their training. By and large, we came to this place because we love this prickly cactus-like thing we call science, and once upon a time, our advisors and department chairs did too.
On an individual level, we recommend taking advantage of resources already available to you and speaking up about what your goals are for your postdoc and beyond, increasing your individual connectivity and transparency. Get involved with your institution’s postdoc association (PDA) (or write a concerned email to your department chair if there is no PDA); many institutions have clubs for those interested in careers in business, industry, teaching, etc. Join them. Beyond your institution, get involved with larger trainee-focused programs like ASCB’s Committee for Postdocs and Students and FOR. These organizations provide a sense of community and empowerment so many of us lack, while also providing opportunities for directed training and networking beyond the traditional academic career path. Utilize free and anonymous tools available from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) or AAAS’s myIDP to create plans for your individual goals. Use these tools as conversation starters with your PI about your career goals and how to achieve them. These conversations will be a great opportunity for you to discuss taking time off from the bench to pursue teaching or internships if they will strengthen your training for your goals (we are trainees, right?).
There are departmental-level solutions for current postdocs that we believe can be achieved now. If your department or institution does not offer courses in all NPA core competencies, you can send another concerned email to your chair and volunteer to help organize new courses for trainees. To increase transparency in your employment, you can petition your department to provide an evaluation process held separately from reappointment and with at least one other neutral party. This will enable broader feedback specific to you and is not necessarily tied simply to research productivity.
Finally, we suggest that current scientists begin petitioning for larger institutional changes. Working with your local PDA and groups like COMPASS to continue to raise awareness and to propose solutions to challenges facing the current generation of postdocs will help to bring about institutional, regional, and national change. Raising awareness to Congress and the public is also necessary for change to be achieved. Although most of these changes will occur on long timescales, it is imperative for current trainees to get involved in order to improve the future of the scientific endeavor for all.
- Bourne HR: The writing on the wall. Elife. 2013c; 2: e00642.
- Stephan P: Research efficiency: Perverse incentives. Nature. 2012b; 484(7392): 29–31.
- Teitelbaum MS: Research funding. Structural Disequilibria in Biomedical Research. Science. 2008; 321(5889): 644–645.
- Polka JK. Where will a biology PhD take you? 2014.
- McDowell GS, Gunsalus KTW, MacKellar DC et al. Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists. F1000Research. 2014, 3:291
- Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group: Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. (Report to the Advisory Committee to the Director). Bethesda, MD: National Institutes of Health. 2012.
- Stephan P. Referee Report For: Shaping the Future of Research: a perspective from junior scientists. F1000Research 2014, 3:291
This essay won third prize in COMPASS’s 2014 Writing Contest.
About the Author:
James Kraemer is fascinated by the amazing, complex world of prokaryotic cell biology. After completing his PhD research with David Agard at UCSF studying a new family of bacteriophage encoded tubulins, he is now studying the molecular pathways of the response to amino acid starvation in bacteria with Mike Laub at MIT. Marcella Erb wants you to know that bacteriophages are awesome! After studying a bacteriophage-encoded tubulin for her graduate work in Joe Pogliano's lab at UCSD, she is now in Ethan Garner's lab at Harvard studying cell division and bacteriophage. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org