The frustrated postdoc

The blogo- and twittersphere, as well as scientific journals, and even popular media outlets are all rife with discussions on the fate of young researchers in academia. The central problem is that there are way more people with advanced degrees (PhD or equivalent) then there are jobs for them in the academic sector. A large fraction of people who went on to do a PhD are trained to do science and want to continue doing it after getting their degree, but the jobs simply aren’t there. To make matters worse, work outside of academia isn’t much easier to find. Consolidations in the industry have made the abundance of jobs in pharma/biotech a thing of the past, so people with very high qualifications and extensive knowledge are stuck applying for positions that have zero connection to their past experience. Many of them stick around in academia and keep working as postdocs into their late thirties, but are dissatisfied with their situation for many reasons. First, the salaries of postdocs seem disconnected from their extensive experience and knowledge. In the industry, people with similar experience make twice or three times the postdoc’s salary. Second, they feel like they don’t get the credit for the discoveries they make as scientists. It’s always “Have you seen this paper from so-and-so’s lab?” and not “Have you seeen this paper by such-and-such first-author postdoc?”. They feel (rightly or wrongly) that the intellectual contribution is mostly their own and their PI is reaping all the benefits. Third, they are mostly independently-minded and become frustrated with having to follow their mentors’ directions. Fourth, the postdoc is a temporary position with no job security. Unlike a PhD student, a postdoc can be let go at a moment’s notice when the financial situation in the lab worsens or if the PI feels like they are not getting their money’s worth. In the past, postdocs were willing to put up with low salaries and lack of independence and job security because they could hope to make a move to an independent position after a few years. Nowadays, these positions are so scarce that the promise of future benefits just doesn’t cut it for many.

Many systemic reasons for the postdocs’ plight have been proposed. Some think that the exponential expansion of  academic science is coming to an end and that we are reaching the saturation stage of the logistical plot of the industry’s growth. Others believe that the slow-down is due to the global economic crisis. Still others believe that the system is simply broken, that it’s structured like a Ponzi pyramid scheme or a drug gang. Finally, a commonly cited reason is that we are simply producing too many PhDs due to misguided incentives in the academic system.

So can anything be done about that and if so, should it be done? According to the libertarian school of thought the system should correct itself through decreased demand for PhDs and consequently fewer PhDs graduating each year. There is some merit to that way of thinking. In the US the population of postdocs is increasingly composed of foreign labor and many of these people go back to their home countries after finishing the stint at the US institution. However, some do stay, and anyway the amount of press that the issue is getting is proof that the system has not autocorrected itself and that perhaps it never will. In countries with fewer foreign postdocs the problem is even more severe.

Perhaps the most commonly cited systemic solution to the problem is the creation of permanent postdoctoral positions with higher salaries, slightly more independence and better job security. I think that if you ask postdocs, many of them would actually enjoy working as such staff scientists rather than become full-fledged group leaders. They like doing experiments, troubleshooting technical issues, being “close to the science”, so to speak. They loathe the administrative side of research, applying for grants, and managing people. The advantage of this solution is that there would be people with extensive experience in positions where they can crank out experiments quickly and generate reliable data with little supervision, unlike PhD students or technicians. There is, however, a catch, and it’s a big one. These positions, if they are to deliver on their security advantage, would have to be paid for by universities rather than by the PI’s grant money. Seeing that universities are actually moving towards insecure soft money positions even for faculty, it is hard for me to believe that they would be willing to invest in highly trained staff scientists and guarantee their salaries. The other disadvantage is that these permanent staff scientists might actually be worse “bang for the buck” than regular postdocs. They would have to be paid more and, having reached their “target” position in the academic world, would be less motivated to spend extra time in the lab and deliver papers. Like it or not, the rat race among the current generation of postdocs is making them work some serious overtime, and in my experience this does actually lead to increased productivity, up to a point of course. So in effect you are asking universities to cover permanent salaries for staff scientists who will be more expensive and presumably less efficient (despite higher experience) than postdocs. The only way this might happen is if the supply of postdocs suddenly dwindled and they were forced to hire people for longer term, which brings me to another solution.

What has been suggested many times is that we are producing too many PhDs. Some people claim that we should turn off the PhD tap, which would make life easier for all down the line. Since over 80% of PhDs end up working outside of academia, they might be better off investing in their future careers rather than spending 4+ years running gels and analyzing data. Sure, graduate studies develop their independent thinking and teamwork skills etc., but there are more direct ways of forwarding your non-academic career goals than spending countless hours in the lab. Here, the problem is both the demand and supply side of the equation. The demand for PhDs is high because they are relatively cheap and bring a degree of “freshness” and creativity to the lab that may be absent in more experienced scientists. Systemic incentives are also in place to increase PhD generation – promotions and funding both at the individual PI and institutional levels are often dependent on the number of PhDs graduated. The supply is also high, because science nowadays is incredibly exciting and there is a relatively low barrier of entry. In the olden days, one had to spend hours and hours looking for relevant literature, the laboratory techniques were very rudimentary and results hard to interpret. Nowadays, almost every paper ever written is a mouse click away, new methods allow you to see down to single molecules or up to whole genomes, and you have a huge body of literature to aid you in data interpretation. What used to be “nerdy” is now “cool”. I posit that reversal of these incentives, especially on the demand side, is possible, but is again not in the interest of universities and PIs, which will make these changes difficult to implement. On the supply side, the problem might disappear once PhD candidates realize how bleak their prospects are after graduation.

The final solution would be to simply keep expanding academic jobs through increased funding, so that we are able to accommodate the extra supply of postdocs. While a win-win solution on its surface, this idea comes with an obvious caveat – we cannot grow academia indefinitely. Basic research funding comes from taxpayer money, and these taxpayers are already reluctant to invest in what they perceive to sometimes be a fanciful and purely curiosity-driven enterprise with little application to real life. For every new research institute being built, a new hospital is not founded, a freeway is not repaired, and a cancer patient is not treated. There is a certain level of science funding that the taxpayers will simply not tolerate, and judging by the general sentiments we are relatively close to that limit.

To sum up, I don’t think that there is a simple solution to the postdoctoral glut problem. Like with other jobs that are intrinsically motivating, such as teachers, artists, and athletes, people who choose to pursue a career in academia will have to put up with lower salaries, low opportunities for career advancement, and small chances of “making it big”. My opinion is that the solutions proposed by idealists have little chance of real-life success, but I sincerely hope the future proves me wrong.

2 thoughts on “The frustrated postdoc

  1. Dear Pawel,

    I enjoy so much reading your blog, but today particularly your detailed analysis of the postdoc situation. I agree that this is a difficult problem to solve. It is sad that people like us, after so many years of experience have to put up with the lack of stability. We are definitely resilient, but we are reaching our limit,…

    • Hey Cata,
      Welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting. You may want to also read the recent post on drugmonkey’s blog. There are a lot of interesting comments there. Hope to see you back on the blog for some more comments!

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