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What to do about Post-Docs?

November 16, 2009

Last week, I highlighted a recent report by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) which outlined the difficult and untenable position for Canadian postdocs. These highly-trained, highly-qualified researchers are stuck between a hiring slowdown in academia and a lack of options outside academia. Adding to the trouble is a huge increase in their numbers, driven by large increases in PhD enrolment. The result is an increasing cohort of wasted talent and training – a “parking lot” of researchers with no obvious home.

Why does this problem exist? Why do we have such an oversupply of post-docs? I think there are three reasons:

  1. Post-docs have unrealistic expectations for their academic careers. About 20% of post-docs will find tenure track positions. When I was a PhD student, I could have easily pointed to my student colleagues who would likely make up that 20% – they were finding research success, publishing regularly, and winning major funding competitions. These students were able to choose the labs in which to do their post-docs, kept winning major funding awards, and found themselves being interviewed for faculty positions in short order. Why do the other 80% not recognize their position?
  2. PhD students receive terrible career advice. That is, if they receive any career advice at all. Their supervisors only know the standard academic career track, and so can provide little experience in anything else. After a decade or more in university, post-docs have few contacts or experiences outside academia. Their science undergraduate training pointed them towards being doctors, dentists, or professors. That’s it.
  3. There is a conflict of interest in the system – post-docs are the real engines of productive research in most academic labs, and they cost peanuts. If a post-doc sees no career options available, and will continue to work for 5, 6, or 7 (!) years in a supervisor’s lab at a lower salary than a technician’s, it places the supervisor in a rather uncomfortable conflict of interest. Maybe the supervisor recognizes that the post-doc needs to pursue a different career, but maybe after that paper gets published…
  4. Post-docs are victims of their own procrastination/inertia. As a corollary to my first point, I think a lot of post-docs do recognize that they are unlikely to find tenure track employment. But they don’t know what else to do. So they simply keep taking the next step that’s laid out to them. From high school to university to grad school to post-doc. That’s the obvious path, and in the absence of a compelling reason to do otherwise, a lot of post-docs just simply take the next step.

So, what do we do?

  1. Fund transition programs for post-docs and PhD grads. I think the government funding agencies should have a role (and maybe a responsibility, given their contribution to the “problem”). Forget about funding programs in interdisciplinary training for PhDs and post-docs – supervisors want their trainees in the lab, not doing policy internships. Instead, the councils can provide post-docs with transition funding upon leaving the lab. IRAP currently has a similar program as part of  its Youth Employment Strategy. But the program is limited to recent graduates under 30 years old. By providing post-docs with transition funding, they would be more attractive to potential employers, and would be encouraged to step out of the academic track.
  2. Encourage the creation of evening/weekend practical training seminars for PhD students and post-docs. PhD and postdoctoral researchers are expected to be in the lab, period. Thus, it is awfully hard to gain the breadth of experience that makes for an attractive job candidate. Imagine the CV of a post-doc looking to get out of research: 10 years lab research experience, a number of papers, a few decent awards. It’s one-dimensional experience. Yes, I know there may have been teaching opportunities, and you can make a case for transferable skills – but in terms of quantifiable, relevant experience, post-docs are at a disadvantage. By offering weekend courses on management, communication, economics, etc. post-docs earn quantifiable skills, and can be encouraged to start thinking about careers outside of academia. University career centres are equipped for this sort of thing, and should be assisted by the research funding councils.
  3. Better, but shorter, funding for post-docs. Post-docs are woefully underpaid, despite their central role in the research process. I think this is historically justified since these are considered “training” positions. The numbers, however, now demonstrate that the training emperor has no clothes. We should pay post-docs commensurately with their experience, and should provide them with benefits. The flipside, though, is that we should impose stricter time limits on post-doctoral tenures. Placing a limit of 3-4 years on postdoctoral funding from all sources accomplishes two things. It prevents supervisors from using post-docs as cheap labour, and it forces post-docs to make career decisions instead of sitting indefinitely in purgatory. Three or four years will be sufficient for tenure track candidates to seek positions. Furthermore, supervisors who want to keep postdoctoral researchers beyond these 3-4 years will have to hire them as actual staff scientists

By moving more post-docs out of the academic “parking lot” and into the mainstream of Canadian society, everybody wins. These highly-trained individuals get spread across society, where they can contribute in diverse ways, and the post-docs get out of the desperation of a dead-ended academic track.


A note: for more on this and other post-doc related topics, check out the insightful blog The Black Hole. There are too few voices for post-docs in Canada, and Beth and Dave are doing a bang up job by adding theirs. Also, check out Jim’s thoughtful-as-always comments on this issue here.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2009 10:01

    Hey Rob,

    Great to see this article and to get even more attention to the CAPS report which really highlights some major trends and begins to get a handle on some statistics of PDFs in Canada.

    I do have to pipe up on this one though, as I think your comment of “Why do the other 80% not recognize their position?” is unfair for two major reasons:

    First, every project is different and the more challenging ones can often result in no publications while the training (which has no real metric) is in tact and these people would make excellent research scientists. While admittedly the battle becomes even more uphill if you are unlucky, I’d hate to see further encouragement of cookie cutter “get my paper” PhD projects. It’s already getting pretty bad in some fields and we need to focus on encouraging research of novel ideas not simply “banging out three papers” in a PhD.

    Second, good scientists aren’t all going to become, nor should they become, PIs and we need a whole host of excellent researchers to be “lost” to journalism, law, government, industry, etc if the national picture is going to get better. I think it is short sighted to label them as the “other” 80% and make it seem like there are 20% who are destined to be “good enough” for professor jobs. I simply can’t accept a line of thinking that suggests that the only the smartest and/or hardest working PhDs will become professors and the others will find other careers.

    All of that being said… you raise an excellent point that I touched on in my post yesterday: PDFs need to step back and take a good long look at where they are and what they are doing and ask if the academic career is what they want.

    If it isn’t, talk to people in your institute, search out others who feel the same, or heck, start a program to discover what jobs are out there and invite speakers from different fields in… this worked very well in the last place I was based and was driven by a PDF (way to go Bari!) who took the time to make it happen.

    As always Rob, very good post – keep it up!

    • Rob Annan permalink*
      November 16, 2009 10:20

      Hey Dave,

      Thanks for the comments – I absolutely agree with you. A quick clarification: by no means do I want to suggest that only the best and the brightest will succeed in academia – by no means! Unfortunately, being unlucky as a PhD and post-doc tends to translate to being unlucky in the search for an academic post – candidates are too often judged primarily on production. Candidates facing that uphill battle need to be honest with themselves, and prepare themselves for alternative futures. And the alternatives to tenure track need to be viewed as something other than failure (which shouldn’t be hard, considering the pay will probably be better, as will job security, work hours…).


  2. November 16, 2009 10:30

    I’d just append that many of the best and brightest will (and should!) actively NOT go into academia.

    Just because you COULD become a professor with your publications and CV, doesn’t mean you have to become one – many other jobs are out there, but you’re definitely right that the guidance to finding them is currently lacking.

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