The Postdoc Problem

Kristen Thomas

Originally published November 23, 2015

Approximately 70% of PhD recipients in the biomedical sciences will pursue a postdoc after graduation. Traditionally, the purpose of a postdoctoral fellowship was to give scientists additional training and independence before pursuing a tenure track faculty position at a research institution. Today, however, the postdoctoral ranks have swelled well beyond the demand for new faculty, causing many to extend their training through multiple labs and beyond five years. The postdoc can often morph into a new position, one that few hopeful young graduate students dream of attaining: the permadoc. How did we get here and what can we do to fix the postdoc problem?

Why so many postdocs? (And why is it bad?)

As shown in a recent Nature Biotechnology article, the gap between the number of PhDs awarded and the number of faculty positions available has widened dramatically since the early 1980s, mostly because the number of faculty openings has remained relatively unchanged while the number of PhDs awarded has steadily increased. New PhDs seek postdocs under the assumption that they will eventually land the coveted faculty position but soon realize that they face stiff competition from their peers.

In the meantime, postdocs receive the pay, benefits, and prestige befitting a temporary trainee: not a doctoral degree recipient in a permanent position. Many eventually stop seeking faculty positions and start looking to industry or government for better prospects. Some leave science altogether, but some stay in postdoc positions hoping that one more experiment and one more prestigious journal article will land them an academic position. Perhaps as a result, about 10% have been postdocs for more than six years. In the meantime, faculty appear to benefit from having a large number of experienced and underpaid postdocs working in their labs.

A Popular Solution

In 2014 Nature asked its readers to choose among possible solutions to the postdoc problem and over 70% of respondents agreed on one solution: create more permanent, better-paid staff scientist positions. While these positions would not receive the salary of tenure track faculty positions, they would offer more people permanent positions conducting academic research. A report released that same year on the state of postdoctoral fellows in the United States agreed that increasing the number of staff scientists would help reduce the number of postdocs.

While current faculty recognize that having permanent, experienced researchers in their labs will benefit the lab’s productivity, many are concerned about the added cost. Labs would need to be smaller in order to have the funds to pay staff scientists. In March, the National Cancer Institute proposed a new grant program to fund “superdocs” or “research specialists” with salaries in the $75-100,000 range for five years. If other funding agencies follow suit, then faculty might not need to worry about the cost of offering these positions in their own labs. In another scenario, funding agencies might demand that universities shoulder the added financial burden themselves.

Alternative Strategies

Other solutions to the postdoc problem have also been proposed. One is to reduce the number of students entering PhD programs. Another is to divert graduates into positions other than postdocs. Others have proposed making postdoc positions more prestigious, harder to obtain, and better paid.

Many PhD students enter postdocs not because they want to train for faculty positions, but because they are unsure what type of career they desire and they are delaying more permanent employment while they decide. The NIH now requires that training grant recipients create Individual Development Plans (IDPs), which help trainees identify careers that match their personal strengths, values, and interests. The programs in the Graduate Division of Biological and Biomedical Sciences also use a variation of the IDP where students present two or three slides detailing their career plans at each committee meeting.  The NIH Common Fund has also started the BEST, or Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training, Initiative to train graduate students and postdocs for non-traditional careers.

Emory has employed several strategies. The joint Emory Laney Graduate School and Georgia Tech BEST program was among the first round of BEST funding recipients and will soon welcome its third cohort of trainees. Several trainees have left postdoc positions to start positions in industry, and student trainees have avoided postdocs altogether upon learning they were unnecessary for their desired career paths. The length of a postdoc has also been limited to five years within the School of Medicine. After five years, postdocs must either leave, seek an exemption, or be promoted to Instructor, a better paid but still not permanent position.

Looking Forward

While this problem might have no single solution, steps are being taken across the country to reduce the number of postdocs and promote the career advancement of existing postdocs. If you’re currently a struggling postdoc, take heart: at least you aren’t alone, and the NIH and other institutions are aware of the problem.