This perspectives piece, written in my personal capacity, appeared in a slightly shorter form in the Global Young Academy Connections, Winter 2013, Issue 1, pages 10-12. The following image (CCCC MS 20, f.66r) appeared along with the article, and was used with the kind permission of The Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.
Medieval Christian theologians speculated that the afterlife must include a place for those not deserving admission to heaven but not guilty of behavior that would condemn them to hell. They called it limbo. In scientific research too, we have a limbo. It contains a large number of highly trained minds in their years of peak productivity but who are not yet considered ready for a faculty position. It’s called “postdoc.”
A postdoc is not a clearly defined academic status or job title—it’s a fluid state of time, open to much interpretation. The accepted principle is that a postdoc is just a temporary appointment for gaining additional skills and experience beyond a doctoral degree. However, there’s no consensus on how long the time period could or should be. Academics argue that the time depends on the field of research and the motivation of the individual postdoctoral researcher. Sometimes that “temporary” period can span up to a decade over multiple installments in multiple labs or research specialties. That state is a “super postdoc”—though there is nothing super about it.
In the United States, for example, the number of scientists and engineers in postdoctoral appointments—postdoctoral fellows or trainees, research scientists or associates, the names for this position are legion—has skyrocketed in recent years. The best estimates suggest total numbers between 50,000 and 100,000, with over sixty percent of those being citizens of other countries. A large majority of those scholars are in the biomedical sciences. Engineering and related interdisciplinary research areas have seen a significant influx of postdocs in recent times.
Several specific factors are thought to explain this burgeoning population: the difficulty of publishing in certain research specialties, the shrinking success rates for research proposals, the limited number of tenure-track faculty openings at top universities. Some observers attribute it to more systemic issues: a wobbly, ill-defined labor market for scientists and engineers shaken by the recent financial crisis or the antiquated structure of an academic system, which now includes aging faculty members who are postponing their retirements.
The benefits of postdoctoral training are thought to be self-evident—intellectual growth, professional maturity, and the development of a research network. But under the surface lurks a different reality. For years many postdoctoral scholars have felt like being treated like second class citizens. Some might even call them the invisible members of the scientific community.
Let’s consider some perspectives about the postdoctoral system from those who have had first-hand experience with it:
A recently graduated elementary particle physicist notes: “The low pay scale is extremely demoralizing: low salary, no health insurance, no retirement fund; moving to private industry would double my earnings…I expect that within two years I will be forced to leave my field (after six years of graduate training) and become a full-time computer hack in order to allow my wife and me to be able to afford to have children.”
And this from an environmental toxicologist who decided against doing a postdoc: The postdocs “...are rapidly becoming a source of labor to which senior people owe no responsibility; postdocs are cheap, non-tenured, have no seniority rights, and don’t dare complain, since they exist at the supervisor’s discretion…”
A recent solid state physics graduate who abandoned the research area for an industry position adds: “Postdocs seem to be a ‘holding pattern’ in most Ph.D.’s careers, judging from my associates’ experiences, wherein one trades peak earning years (already substantially deferred) for a low salary, ill-defined working conditions, and no accrued benefits after a one or two year stint.”
In my own line of studies—engineering—one faculty member seeking to hire postdocs said: “At present…the pay for postdocs is so low that is very difficult to find American citizen engineering candidates. Most (if not all) the candidates who applied my two postdoctoral positions were of foreign origin and citizenship…At least in engineering I think we have the makings of a future crisis.”
A sociology postdoc at a leading program observes: “…I took this research position because it was a unique opportunity to work with special people. But now, two years later, the job market in my field has collapsed. Though I have been very productive in terms of publications, etc., I have no idea what the future will bring at this point. I’ve talked to many other young, productive sociologists about these issues lately, and the level of stress and anger is alarming.”
And finally, as an astronomer notes, the postdoctoral positions have in “many instances been transformed from a temporary educational/maturing experience into a semi-permanent holding pattern permitting a denial of employment realities and a kind of ‘futures’ speculation against an improbable massive increase in demand for academic faculty. For all too many people whom I know personally, the speculation failed and the chain of postdoctorals ended with financial exhaustion, and under- or unemployment.”
Raw, astute, and as contemporary as they may sound, these perspectives are taken from a sweeping multi-disciplinary survey conducted by the National Research Council four decades ago that was part of the 1981 report Postdoctoral Appointments and Disappointments (National Academy Press). These issues are now well known, but the challenge is not much is being done about them in a systematic manner.
Over the past decade, some of the issues—offering health insurance, establishing university offices for postdoctoral affairs, and providing various forms of assistance to scholars on temporary visas in the United States—have already gained traction and support. Membership organizations such as the National Postdoctoral Association in the United States and the U.K. Research Staff Association have also come into existence to make a better case for postdoctoral scholars. These are encouraging steps.
But they don’t begin to cover the root questions that may underpin the agonies of postdoctoral researchers. We must ask: What is the purpose of higher education? What is the purpose of additional training? What is the desired and practical length for each or both of them? What drives the multi-year, multi-institution, multi-field, and multi-publication postdocs for coveted entry level tenure-track positions? Why prepare a host of overqualified individuals for a very limited number of faculty positions? Why pay them so little for their advanced qualifications? Is the change difficult to make because there are no incentives in place for the mentors and institutions hosting the postdoctoral scholars? There are no simple answers to these questions.
Instead of tackling some of these core issues, what we have instead developed are some escape mechanisms. In my experience, one way to shy away from offering policy solutions is to call for more data collection. In fact, one of the four recommendations of the 1981 report mentioned earlier was to focus on data gathering. A number of more recent reports issued by the National Institutes of Health, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the American Chemical Society among others have followed suit. Lack of quality data will be a perpetual concern. As long as the world of the public policy exists, it’s a good bet that we will continue to come across reports calling for more or better data collection.
My view is that better data would be desirable, but is there anyone in the research world who is not already aware that there are serious issues with the postdoctoral system? The morale of our highly valuable postdoctoral scientists and engineers—and by extension the vitality of the scientific enterprise—is at stake here. One way to approach this challenge would be to go beyond our bunker mentality and take a portfolio approach toward enhancing the careers of doctoral and postdoctoral-level scholars. In other words, the focus needs to be on a cornucopia of different career pathways that exists beyond the towers of academia. Some like to refer to academia (and occasionally industry) as “traditional” pathways whereas others such as creative arts, journalism, policy, law, finance, consulting, marketing and fashion design as the “alternative” pathways.
This is a flawed approach, and one of which I’m guilty. I classified careers as “traditional” and “alternative” in my co-edited book Career Development in Bioengineering and Biotechnology (Springer), which I worked on as a graduate student. This confession aside, the essence and intent of that book was to promote a portfolio approach to career development with the understanding that many career pathways are equally valuable and legitimate for a scientifically-based mind. In fact, the current reality is that academia is becoming the “alternative” career pathway as ever more PhDs and postdocs pursue non-academic careers. And this has advantages. Only by encouraging the spread of scientists and engineers through different career channels to the various corners of our society can we become better designers and communicators of our profession in the future.
Career development of scientists and engineers across different sectors needs to be given greater weight and recognition in our scientific culture. Awareness of the portfolio of career pathways available for scientists and engineers needs to begin as early as undergraduate years, perhaps even during high school years, via counseling, publications, symposia, social media, online courses, professional societies, and both young and senior national scientific academies. The pursuit of doctoral degrees and postdoctoral experience needs to be critically evaluated by aspirants before important life-altering decisions are made. Advanced degree or training is not for everyone, and not every career pathway requires one.
Calling for a culture change or a structural reform in the scientific enterprise is easier said than done. To reengineer the postdoctoral research system—with the ultimate goal of redesigning the academic research system—we first need to change ourselves. We also need to update our understanding of current social, economic, and labor market conditions. The early career scientists and engineers—and young national academies—can help propel these discussions, and need to take responsibility for leading this change. By ignoring these realities we remain prisoners of our tradition.
The alternative? There’s always limbo.