Field of Science

Pity the postdoc

PNAS has an interesting interview with well-known biochemist Greg Petsko about the plight of the postdoc. Postdocs are the main drivers of published academic research so it was a surprise to Petsko - and it's a sad surprise to me - to know how woefully uninformed many US academic institutions are about the numbers and kinds of postdocs they have. They are almost equally uninformed about where postdocs go after they do their time.

The problem, as Petsko describes, is that the many inequities in the system - a shrunk job market, limited funding, the propensity of PIs to squeeze as much as possible from postdocs - have led postdocs to sustain a generally uncertain and grief-filled existence, with tenures of five to eight years now being depressingly common. Petsko also talks about how so many graduate students do postdocs simply because it seems like the next thing to do and because it would seem to be mandatory for an academic career; what they don't know is that academic careers are very much the exceptions these days. As he says, it would really be helpful to expose both graduate students and postdocs to alternative careers.

PNAS: Part of the plight of US postdoctoral fellows, Petsko says, can be attributed to unrealistic expectations and perverse incentives in the scientific job market.

Petsko: When I look around at my own university and the universities I visit, I see lots of postdocs; I see older postdocs than I used to see when I was younger. I see people doing postdocs for what seem to me to be considerably longer periods than they used to when I was younger, and I see them in many cases doing multiple postdocs, what I would call serial postdocs, if you will. And, I asked myself what drives these trends, and I think they’re driven by a number of things. One is that the bar has been raised, maybe unrealistically, for people to get from a postdoctoral position to an academic position in terms of the amount of work they are expected to accomplish, the number of papers that people seem to expect them to have published, and the degree of training they seem to have to have. I think the bar has been further raised for young principal investigators, young faculty in universities in terms of the amount of work they have to do to get a grant, to get a grant renewed, to publish papers in leading journals, and so forth. The net result of those perverse incentives is that people stay in postdocs longer because it takes more time to try to climb over this very high bar, and they tend to have multiple postdocs because they think they need lots of time and lots of experience to accumulate a vast CV before going out and applying for the limited number of jobs that are out there.

PNAS: With the changing economic climate that has increasingly affected scientific institutions, the notion of an “alternative career” in science might itself need revisiting, says Petsko.

Petsko: They go into a postdoctoral position almost by default because they think it’s what you are supposed to do, and in many cases they’re unaware that fewer than a third of them will ever do academic science. That, in fact, people like me are now the alternative career, and that not being an academic is by far the majority outcome for postdocs. And if they knew that, they might make different decisions about whether to do a postdoc, or what kind to do, or how long to do it for, and if they understood also what their realistic career options are, they might also choose to try to acquire more information about some of those options, which in many cases we don’t provide for them. If I think about what would benefit my own postdocs, boy, I think it would be great if they had some internships that they could try out some of these careers, if we could provide those for them. Certainly exposure to people with different careers, bringing them into a university, have them sit down and talk to postdocs about what it’s like to be a patent lawyer, a science writer, a policy wonk in Washington, all kinds of things like that. 


  1. Face it, academia is the last Feudal system left standing.

  2. Having spent a fair bit of time in the academia and some outside, I have often thought that the best thing universities could do would be to encourage people to take 1-2 year stints outside the hallowed walls before returning for an additional degree, similar to the way business schools encourage people to try to start a few companies before doing a business degree.

    1. Yes, that's a very sound suggestion. Most grad students go on to postdocs almost as automatons since they don't know what else they can do to remain connected to science. They don't even know if they really want to do science in the first place, so some outside experience would indeed be valuable.

  3. What seems to be unasked is why there are so many people in the system in the first place, and why they are so unprepared for the world. Grad students and postdocs are adults, and have responsibilities for their own development, but they have been allegedly mentored and taught by people with a clue about how things work and what is needed, but do not evidence any such education. Instead, they are taught to perform tasks appropriate for a system that doesn't have opportunities for them, and given limited opportunity to develop skills that might be useful elsewhere.

    I think the problem is not so much the expectations that PhD grads have, but that their training and mentorship seems in lots of cases to place their well-being, scientific development, and future prospects behind nearly everything else. Research and publications, the benefits of which accrue mostly to others, are the primary concerns, with things like safety and the future pretty secondary to them. When there was an obvious path to a future career from school, people could tolerate these conditions, but now that there is not, and the training they have gotten and taken and the sunk costs they have ill fit them to make a career of their own, they become intolerable.

    1. You hit it on the head. I think Stephan said it best when she quipped that it's always in professors' best interests to tell their students and postdocs that everything is fine with their lives. That's where having outside experts - once their are allowed to breach the moat, of course - expose students and postdocs to other world views becomes so critical. But it's a firmly entrenched system with deep roots that feeds on itself, so any changes are going to be excruciatingly slow. Reducing the intake of new grad students certainly seems to be as good a starting point as any.


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