Re-Evaluating The Academic Post-Doc

August 9, 2012 | Posted by leah in Research |

The role of the post-doctoral scholar is facing considerable uncertainty.

The past decade has seen a significant rise in the number of PhD graduates, a rise not matched by any concomitant increase in tenured positions. This has resulted in a kind of education inflation, where the odds of a PhD graduate obtaining a STEM-related faculty position have dropped to 27:1. This is amidst a tighter funding climate, which continues to reward grants on the number of publications and citations awarded.

It has consequently become difficult for an individual post-doc to compete in such an environment. It takes much longer for post-docs to advance to the next stage of their careers, with many young scientists having to complete two or more post-doc positions to produce a competitive portfolio for funding. This has caused the average age of scientists receiving independent funding to dramatically increase in the past twenty years, which combined with the basics of supply and demand, means there are a lot of academic post-docs… going nowhere.

The Change In Post-Doctoral Roles

Such a dynamic was not always the case. Historically, an academic post-doctoral position was merely an extension of PhD training. The position lasted 1-3 years, during which young scientists would learn from their mentors on how to acquire funding and run an independent research program. By contrast, most tenure-track scientists are now spending 7-10 years in a post-doctoral role, required to undertake non-research activities such as teaching, serving on editorial boards, and reviewing papers and grants. This, combined with increasing lab sizes, means both post-docs and their mentors have less time to engage in fundamental training.

Post-doc positions are by consequence shifting from valuable training positions to cheap disposable labor in a market where the supply of PhD graduates significantly outweighs the demand for professors and university lecturers.

Potential Solutions

So, what is the solution?

Many are proposing to limit the number of PhD spots in each academic field to reflect projected job vacancies, as is done in medical and law schools. Such proposals are unlikely to be implemented however, given graduate and post-doctoral scholars can provide a low-cost, and steady supply, of research data at university and research institutions. And it doesn’t help that many institutions use the sheer number of graduates as a critical metric of success, reducing any incentive to limit such positions.

I can propose three alternative solutions:

  • Graduate Benchmarks: An alternative proposition would be to change institutional benchmarks from the number of graduates to their measured success post-graduation. For instance, university graduate programs could be ranked by the number of graduates with a permanent job one, five and 10 years after graduation, or even by the average salary wage of recent graduates.
  • Vocational Training: It may also help to redefine PhD programs so they do not simply comprise training for non-existent academic positions. PhD students should be better educated in a variety of career options, with access to a wider range of training in the skills required for non-academic careers. Universities could even work with industry leaders to decide which skills would be most valuable to students, and provide resources to build the respective skill-sets.
  • Standardized Training: Another solution is to standardize the academic post-doctoral position so it is truly a training position with defined goals, required skill-sets, and a limited time frame. These changes would help prevent young scientists from languishing in several post-doc positions or from becoming disillusioned and trying to jump ship to non-science careers.

Adapting Research To Post-Doctoral Roles

From a macro perspective, sustainable solutions to improve the role of post-doctoral scholars may come from changes to research practice itself. Academic labs could broaden collaborations or use experimental outsourcing, as seen incentivized by innovative funding portals such as the MCubed program at the University Michigan.  Such programs can help to reduce infrastructure cost and permit more time for post-docs to focus on experimental design and analysis, rather than mundane bench-work and procedures.

Further promotion of experimental outsourcing could also help to increase the productivity of individual scientists, allowing post-docs to be paid a wage commensurate with their training and experience. In fact, it could be worthwhile to revalue all academic roles and change the current pay scale, as graduate students and post-docs are paid next to nothing in contrast to their PIs.

Whatever the solution, the role of the post-doctoral scholar in academic research is one of tantamount concern. There needs to be a thorough discussion in academic institutions of how to address the issue, or gross inefficiencies in science will continue to persist.

About the author

Leah is the editor for the San Diego chapter of the Oxbridge Biotech Roundtable and a post-doc at the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute in San Diego where she is researching cardiac aging using the fruit fly. She is interested in all things to do with the heart, as well as the exciting changes which are occurring in the scientific and biotech communities. In a previous life, Leah practised as an emergency veterinarian in both Melbourne and Sydney, Australia. Follow Leah on twitter @leahcanscience.

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