I am a postdoc and I think I just realized I have been screwed for years

It seems in the past two weeks someone has started going around lifting big stones in the luxurious and exotic garden of science, finding the obvious gross underneath. To be more precise, the topic being discussed here is: “I am a postdoc and I think I just realized I have been screwed for years“.

A couple of weeks ago, a friend of mine blogged about his decision to leave academia after yet another nervous breakdown. I leave it to his words to describe what it means to realize in your early thirties that your childhood dream won’t become a reality because the job market is broken and you can’t cope with that stress. To be honest, while I sympathize with him,  I find his rant extreme, but what is more important than discussing anecdotal experiences is actually the huge number of comments that post had, not only on the blog but also on social discussion websites. Literally hundreds of comments from people who went through similar experiences, culminating with the epiphany that finding a job in academia is freaking difficult.

This discussion is not new, of course. Occasionally people from academia feel the urge to let postdocs and PhD student know that this is a very risky road. See Jonathan Katz’s opinion from back in 2005, for instance.

Why am I (a tenured professor of physics) trying to discourage you from following a career path which was successful for me? Because times have changed (I received my Ph.D. in 1973, and tenure in 1976). […] American universities train roughly twice as many Ph.D.s as there are jobs for them. When something, or someone, is a glut on the market, the price drops. In the case of Ph.D. scientists, the reduction in price takes the form of many years spent in “holding pattern” postdoctoral jobs. Permanent jobs don’t pay much less than they used to, but instead of obtaining a real job two years after the Ph.D. (as was typical 25 years ago) most young scientists spend five, ten, or more years as postdocs. They have no prospect of permanent employment and often must obtain a new postdoctoral position and move every two years.

Pretty actual, isn’t it? Although these arguments do emerge now and then, they do it way less than they should¹. Why? The main reason is that PIs have really nothing to gain from changing the current situation: as it is now, they find the field overcrowded with postdocs who cannot do anything else but staying in the lab, hoping to get more papers than their competitors; waiting for the unlucky ones to drop out to reduce competition. That means it’s easy for the PIs to get postdocs for cheap and keep them in the lab as long as possible.

Of course there could be an even better scenario for PIs: postdocs who never leave the lab! Let’s face it: having so many postdocs to choose from is nice, but many of them aren’t actually that good and also it takes time for them to acquire certain skills. So why don’t give them the chance to stay for 20 years in the same lab? This is exactly what Jennifer Rohn was advocating on Nature last week. I think in her editorial Jennifer actually rightly identifies the problem:

The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30–40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between.

But she fails to provide the right solution:

An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set. Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.

I cannot even start saying how full of rage this attitude makes me. This position is so despicable to me! Postdoc positions exist, on the first place, because they provide a buffer for all those who would like to get a professor job but cannot, due to the limited market. Any economist would tell you that the solution is not to transform this market into something even more static but to increase mobility, for Newton’s sake! Sure, some postdocs may realize too late they don’t really want to be independent and they would gladly keep doing what they are doing for some more time: this is what positions in industry are for², and this is what a lab tech position is for. No need to invent new names for those jobs.

So, here I propose an alternative solution: what about giving postdocs the chance of being independent, without necessarily being bound to running a 4 people lab to start with, or without the need to hold a tenure position? What about redistributing resources so that current PIs will have a smaller lab so that 1 or 2 more people somewhere else could have the chance to start their own career? Isn’t this more fair?

I wrote about this before, so I won’t repeat myself: in short, the big lab model is not sustainable anymore and it is not fair!

The problem, Jennifer, is not that postdoc want to stay longer in the lab: the problem is that they want out!

Notes

1: a recurrent question in the new Open Science society is “should scientists be blogging?“. My answer is yes, definitely (in fact, that’s what I am doing) but I don’t expect them to blog about their opinion on the last paper in their field. I don’t think that is so useful, actually. I’d rather have them talk about their daily life as scientists and speak freely and loudly about controversial issue.

2: My wife is one of them: she realized she didn’t want to have anything to do with academia anymore and she moved to industry where she actually got a salary that was more than twice the one she was getting in the University doing pretty much the same job, without worrying about fellowships and competition. She has never been so happy at work, too.

26 Comments

  1. Reply
    m. sandal 6 March 2011

    We already discussed that, but what you really don’t get is that not everyone wants to be a PI. And no, lab tech or industry jobs are by no means the same thing.

    Increasing mobility is insane: how can you have *more* mobility than now? Changing lab every six months? To what advantage?

    The waste of expertise in the current system is a real problem. You get people that, say, made a career by being damn skilled at knowing a biological system forced to teach, write grants and do networking, while they would be better do what they do and know better.

    Postdocs are buffers? Yes. But they shouldn’t be. We need less PIs, not more. We probably need a better hierarchy with middlemen between full PIs and postdocs. Not everyone wants to be a one-man band like you; quite the opposite.

    • Reply
      gg 7 March 2011

      Yes, we did discuss that and it’s obvious that there is not a “one size fits all” solution. I agree with you on that. I think you are also right that most postdoc (numerically speaking) are afraid/unwilling/unattracted by the idea of becoming PIs. I think part of it has to do with lack of self confidence rather than lack of skills but whatever. I am working on collecting data on the matter now, cause I don’t think this issue has been addressed properly in the past.

      • Reply
        m. sandal 7 March 2011

        Well, I am not very self confident but I would love to be a PI: I love to delegate and coordinate!

        The points are:
        – many do not want that
        – even of those who want, many are probably better suited doing else
        – having a forced progression is BAD: Going to dirigence or pure independence should be an option but not the only one.
        – waste of expertise in a group is a bad thing
        – many pis = wastes of redundant efforts (e.g. grant writing)

    • Reply
      Reuben D 7 January 2012

      Old thread, but I’m definitely interested in the conversation.  I think your really on to something here with the “needing more middle men”. Rather than 1 PI making double what anyone else in the lab makes surrounded by 10 post-docs new positions should be created especially with different focuses so people can do more of what the want to do. Also a more balanced pay scale with contracted positions, like kind of a semi-tenure where after proving yourself for a couple years if the university and head of the research project like you, you could be guaranteed a 5 year position with acceptable pay.

  2. Reply
    Bjoern Brembs 7 March 2011

    Interestingly, the German research foundation (DFG) is funding exactly the ‘glorified postdocs’ you mention: three-year, independent projects, all by yourself with your own funding. It’s not all that competitive (because it’s small funds) and allows you to do your own stuff. Because it’s the lesser-valued program after ‘junior research groups’, it reeks of failure, but it’s actually a very important and useful program, IMHO (I ‘failed’ and got one of these myself, I have to disclose :-).

    • Reply
      gg 7 March 2011

      I didn’t know that you had such a position in the past. For how long? I’d like to put together some resources about independent postdoc kind of fellowships, can you please send me a link to that DFG thing? Google didn’t help me.

      • Reply
        Björn Brembs 7 March 2011

        I’ve had it for three years until 1.5 years ago. You have the DFG link now via the FB thread. Let me know if there’s any more information I can provide.

        • Reply
          Devicerandom 8 March 2011

          I’d love to hear about this too. A truly 100% independent position would be nice, but I’ve never, ever seen one in my field until you get tenure track.

      • Reply
        Functionaladdict 8 March 2011
  3. Reply
    Jennifer Rohn 7 March 2011

    Thanks for your comment about my piece. I’m sorry you don’t agree that having some permanent positions available for researchers who’d like to keep working at the bench might be a good idea. When you state, “The problem, Jennifer, is not that postdoc want to stay longer in the lab: the problem is that they want out!”, I wonder if you are letting your own preferences speak for the entire group of us? I for one would welcome the chance to keep experimenting, and given the hundreds of supportive comments and emails from postdocs that my piece has generated, I’m not alone.

    Although you’re entitled to your opinions, I don’t think “rage” at my “attitude” is a good solution. How about appreciating the diversity of career aspirations that exist? Some people want independence, others don’t. There should be room in the system for all of us.

    • Reply
      gg 7 March 2011

      Yes, “rage” is too much of statement here. I apologize for the bad choice of words: I should learn to count until 100 before blogging next time. I do appreciate very much you raising the issue on the first place.
      That said, I still believe your proposal really does not address the problem:
      1) permanent postdoc positions already exist. Many of the lab technicians I met when I was in the USA were in fact people with a PhD who wanted out of the traditional career path. Most universities also offer staff scientist positions. I have no problem with people making this kind of choice and I am not proposing of removing that option from the table.
      2) The main problem, as you correctly state in your op-ed, is that the number of PI position is tiny and shrinking: the solution you propose won’t change that.
      3) as of now, a typical PI is spending most of their time on managerial/budgeter aspects, and less and less on the bench-side aspects of science. The permanent-postdoc model seems to put even more emphasis on this. I personally don’t like it.

      • Reply
        Devicerandom 8 March 2011

        “a typical PI is spending most of their time on managerial/budgeter aspects, and less and less on the bench-side aspects of science. The permanent-postdoc model seems to put even more emphasis on this. I personally don’t like it. ”

        Wut? Isn’t it the exact opposite -having a career choice where you’re not forced to enter managerial aspects?

  4. Reply
    Jennifer Rohn 7 March 2011

    Hi GG

    Thanks for your response.

    “Most universities also offer staff scientist positions” – universally? And many per department? This is not the case in the UK, and not in a lot of places in Europe. I was trying to write my piece with a more global perspective. I am sure that some countries might offer these sorts of jobs, but as a global ecosystem, it appears to be a rare thing.

    It would also be great if there could be more lab heads in the world, for those researchers who would like to be PIs, but this was not the aspect of the career that I wanted to address in my piece. There are multiple ways the system is broken; the solution I propose could be accomplished by the redistribution of current funds, and would not require a vast influx of new cash, as it seems more PI jobs would require. I’m not sure science can expect vast influxes of cash anytime soon, in the current climate.

  5. Reply
    Björn Brembs 7 March 2011

    There are vast differences between countries right now. Germany is investing heavily in R&D. The opposition Green Party has even asked for 4000 new university professorships (Germany has a total of ~25k):
    http://bjoern.brembs.net/news.php?item.691.11

  6. Reply
    Stuart 7 March 2011

    That’s a very interesting article. Personally, I think working as part of an established team/group enhances your chances of getting funding and having your article accepted. I’m not sure going down the independent road so early on is a good idea.

    There is so much competition these days in nearly every subject, I just think you’re making life harder by going independent.

  7. Reply
    Edward 7 March 2011

    Hi gg,

    I am on the same boat as many others. I like your suggestions indeed. Being in academia is tough not only because of competitions, but also because of the way their evaluate your “talents”, i.e. by no. of publications or grants. What if you are someone who has huge potential but just doesn’t have enough publications at that moment in time? I wish institutions would consider your suggestion and let us (postdocs) be a pseudo-PI for a fixed period of time and see how it goes.

    All in all, academia is broken. I instead treasure a place where “superiors” treat everyone equal and value their talents regardless of their background.

    Best,
    Edward

  8. Reply
    Frederik 9 March 2011

    Well, Jennifer Rohn’s argument rests on the premise that science requires a top-down approach and that scientific success is scalable.

    With few exceptions I think both is false, but I’m sure the establishment will tell you otherwise.

    It may be interesting to go back to first principles and ask: “Why have labs?” Also, if we conclude that it is useful to organize research into labs, do they necessarily need dictatorial leadership or could they also have democratic structures?

  9. Reply
    Frederik 10 March 2011

    Well, Jennifer Rohn’s argument rests on the premise that science requires a top-down approach and that scientific success is scalable.

    With few exceptions I think both is false, but I’m sure the establishment will tell you otherwise.

    It may be interesting to go back to first principles and ask: “Why have labs?” Also, if we conclude that it is useful to organize research into labs, do they necessarily need dictatorial leadership or could they also have democratic structures?

    • Reply
      gg 10 March 2011

      Oh, thank you! You wonderfully phrased one of the main messages I am also trying to get across. “What is a lab and why we have them on the first place?”. These are questions that we should start considering again, from scratch!

  10. Reply
    nihil 23 May 2011

    Hi GG,

    Both, you and Jennifer Rohn raise interesting solutions to
    an omnipresent crisis in the academic job market. I do however think that both
    approaches are solely effective in curing some symptoms, but will not be
    effective in reaching or even changing the core of the problems.

     

    I have worked in academic and industry settings for more
    than 20 years at various levels and consider the recent employment developments
    in the Life Sciences very destructive and dramatic. I do believe that young
    scientists (from undergrads to group leaders) in academia are exploited in a
    very ruthless way and sometimes find themselves working in conditions that
    would have never been accepted a few decades ago. The starting signal was the
    same as in uncounted professions before: unregulated growth.

     

    There is no such thing as unlimited growth on this planet!
    Professions that have successfully restricted education and hence access to
    their job markets (according to demand) are the only ones that operate in a
    sustainable manner. Professions that do not implement such policies will go
    down into an oscillatory cycle of partial destruction and partial recovery
    sooner or later. This has happened many times in history and you can start
    naming professions at your convenience: from Gold digging to lawyers, from html
    programmers to graphic design or pharmacists to professional musicians. We have
    been overproducing Life Scientists for the last decades and simply do not know
    what to do with them anymore. They are almost like a plaque. Industry can’t
    soak all of them up and companies are only picking the very best ones for good
    jobs. Academia gives these people ill defined, low quality jobs at all levels:
    PhDs as quasi- technicians, life-long postdocs for the dirty benchwork or pseudo-group
    leaders with very little expansion or development potential and the worst of
    all a herd of poor assistant professors.

     

    Some people in the 80ies and 90ies expressed their concern
    about the un- preceded growth rate and the potential buildup of a bubble, but
    overall young people were still encouraged to study Biology, Genetics and so
    on. Now, the whole academic profession is affected by this development: Not
    only do young scientists find very few good job opportunities, but also
    established labs have to compete with countless small and smallest groups for
    funding, publishing and people. The cost of all this: On the side of the
    individual -> smaller and smaller numbers on the paycheck compared to many
    other professions and more stress, pressure and an increasing overall workload.
     On the side of the academic institution
    even more dramatic -> dilution (studying related topics in an ever
    increasing array of model systems leading to pointless redundancy and a
    decrease in efficiency) and inflation (drop in scientific standards and quality).

     

    The consequences are readily visible: i) Declining interest
    amongst the well educated youth in the Western countries to pursue an academic career
    (yet hiring proceeds at an even faster rate from Asia). ii) A slow but steady
    shift from academia to industry as the major driving force behind Life Sciences
    research. iii) Private investors and government bodies who fund start ups and
    small corporations rather than academic institutions. iv) Insignificance of an
    increasing sector in academic research to applications and generation of
    products.

     

    The solution to “mobilize” postdocs and help them become independent
    sooner at a yet smaller level would further fragment academic research and some
    labs which nowadays produce only incremental contributions to a particular field
    would produce even less. For most research projects in Life Sciences we would
    rather need coordinated, collaborative, supra-regional structures that make an
    end to this one lab-head one independent, competing unit philosophy. Although
    this fragmented structure might indeed be effective in some occasions and for
    sure should not be given up entirely, we should orient ourselves towards
    physics, where consortia are prevalent in many areas and money is used in a
    more effective way. Individual units should be much more incorporated into
    adroit and !collaborative! networks that share resources, ideas and money. It
    would then also become easier for people to move geographically. This
    organization would also put an end to the classical position “Pl” as we know
    it, which is in reality more than useless. The more appropriate term would be “team
    leader” anyway. But in science it’s all about ego so collaborating with others
    might be hard to swallow for some:)

     

    In other words: we do not need the lab number one thousand
    and one that studies RNAi in fish, flies, mice, humans, yeast, protists, C.
    elegans, rats or aplysia. Academic research has to shrink to an effective size
    again, restructure itself into collaborative networks to make the maximum
    possible contribution and rephrase what are the truly important questions and
    goals. Otherwise academic research will be a mere bystander to industry
    research in many areas (a development that happened in computer research in the
    last 20 years).

     

    Sad but true. Maybe the generations to come will be smarter
    than us and study history and the basics of economy before they allow
    biologists to run their own business (lab).

     

    Thanks for reading!
     

  11. Reply
    Nano Ungi 13 February 2012

    Hello there,

    I´m mexican, doing a posdoc in Brazil, aiming to get another posdoc position but this time in Japan, Canada, or Europe. Weather is an important thing! It´s so warm here! About the culture, is not what I want for the rest of my life.

    I´m also looking for a permanent job, since a posdoc salary does not allow you to take your kids and wife with you (I must send them money and live here alone as well). On the other hand, it seems that I will remain FOREVER as a posdoc! I´ve been seriously thinking about quitting from science…but what can I do (and like more) than science?

    If I had know before, I would have followed an engineering career path instead, working at the industry field…

  12. Reply
    Guest 24 February 2012

    I love this post.  I have been thinking for a while about this topic, and how to give more chances to talented scientists.  I worked in Europe for several years, and then moved back to the US.  It seems there is quite a big difference between the models, but similar inequities exist.  Its nice at least in holland how as a young researcher, you are given Ph.D. students and have access to the equipment in a large lab.  However, you trade being able to truly define yourself by being under a top level professor. 

    To a certain extent, the PIs in the US are the ones that protect this model.  On the floor I work on, we have 8 multi-function (ie luminescence, fluorescence absorbance) plate readers, mostly because none of the labs will share with each other.  This is probably around $500k worth of the same machine.  Our lab is new, and of course we don’t have any of this equipment, nor can we use the other ones on the floor, despite it being essential for my project. 

    We have 2 professors who are more or less emeritus, but have funding and have labs that have nobody in them, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of reagents, equipment, and space.  If you are one of the lucky ones, you protect your fifedom, and have that understanding with the other PIs that more competition is bad for you.  You leverage your success into a large lab which allows you to continue publishing, all the while you really want to prevent competition because it hurts yourself.  There is no motivation for successful PIs to change the model, and their is no motivation on the University level, because the large name PIs are their currency – and the people they want to keep happy. 

    Several labs in my vicinity have greater than 40 postdocs, one of these labs has a Ph.D. student that has been there for 11 years.   Everyone talks about Linda Buck to semi-rationalize their mental, financial and family eliminating choice to be a indentured servant with very little chance of it actually paying off.  I used to say to myself that it was about lifestyle, and that I would have the freedom later in life to set my own schedule etc.  Now I realize my quality of life for a huge chunk of my life is going to be worse than it would have been if I simply would have joined a Pharma company after my undergrad. 

    If there is one thing that gives me hope it is that generation Y is becoming generation DIY, and home based biological hacking is starting to occur.  It will create the competition from the outside.  Betzig’s development of PALM at his home is a perfect example.

  13. Reply

    […] been a lot of interesting discussion about the poor job prospects of post-docs, much of which was sparked by this Nature News column by Jennifer Rohn. I responded […]

  14. Reply
    Federico G 9 June 2014

    Funny thing is that the original poster of that blog (Device random, aka Dr. Massimo Sandal) started another postdoc in Verona in 2012 🙂 Talk about coherence.

    • Reply
      devicerandom 9 June 2014

      Yeah, I’m aware of the irony. I did it because it was friends asking me, and it was a small, 1-year programming-oriented contract (basically I developed a web server).

      Then I was caught again, and now I do research again in Germany. But I do not repel what I wrote years ago in my post. It is still all true. It is just me that fell back because I needed to pay my bills, basically. The system still sucks.

  15. Reply
    Yadgyu 13 July 2017

    Becoming a postdoctoral fellow is a complete and total waste of time. If you are smart enough to earn a doctorate degree, you should be smart enough to know that taking a $40,000 a year job is a horrible decision.

    Some educated people think too much and end up not taking the right course of action. Once you get your PhD, get a real job! Forget being some wage slave after you get your doctorate. You were already a wage slave in grad school. Get out there and take a job in the industry and work, work, work to make real money.

    The sad thing is that people are doing multiple postdoc jobs. They are going years into working at jobs that pay less money than other people with only a bachelors degree. A $40,000 a year job is not the way forward, especially if you have student loans to pay back. Do not fall for the postdoc trap.

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