Postdocs are looking for ways to change postdoctoral research and training.
In December 2014, Shaping the Future of Research: A perspective from junior scientists, by Gary McDowell et al was published in F1000Research. It’s a report based on the Future of Research meeting that was held in October that year. Its main message is that bioscience and biotechnology postdocs aren’t happy.
The report touches on many different problems that postdocs face, but the bigger problem is the culture within scientific academia itself, says Gregory Petsko, professor of neuroscience at the Weill Cornell Medical College and Chair of the National Academies’ report on the postdoctoral experience. “When I was a postdoc, it was the best time of my life. And many others my age could say the same,” says Petsko. “We had almost complete freedom, very few responsibilities and the particular career paths that we wanted to pursue were available to us (at least that was our perception). Now, the period of being a postdoc is enormously stressful.”
That change is probably due to the overwhelming number of postdocs working in academia. “A postdoc has become the default position after finishing graduate school,” says Petsko. As McDowell et al explain in their paper, postdocs don’t understand how numerous they are or what career options exist.
“One common complaint is that scientists are not being prepared for non-faculty positions, yet the number of new faculty who are un-prepared for their non-research responsibilities (such as managing employees and budgets or teaching) suggests that graduate students and postdocs are not even being properly trained to become future faculty.”
“We have a distorted view of academic training. At the moment all PIs think about is cloning themselves. But this isn’t reality. Academia is the alternative career,” stresses Petsko. “Grad school training is excellent and we should encourage as many people as possible to do so.” But the next step, becoming a postdoc, shouldn’t be the default. The careers outside of academia don’t require postdoctoral training, but the problem lies in the beliefs that PhD students (and postdocs) hold of themselves: they don’t think they’re capable or skilled enough to take on anything else.
Petsko’s solution to the too-many-postdocs problem is to double the stipend for a postdoc. This would then decrease the number of postdoc positions available by half, making sure that the PIs only chose the scientists that will make a real difference in their field. However, if that happens, the PIs might also give researchers less freedom (if they’re paying more), which might stifle research longer term.
The report is well written, and shows just how passionate the postdocs are at changing their situation. Some of the problems they discuss are:
– Training: there isn’t enough, and what’s there isn’t available to all or isn’t standardized.
– Job demand: there are too many postdocs being trained up by PIs as clones, postdocs are used as cheap labour, there is a lack of awareness of alternative opportunities and evaluation metrics breed a culture of hyper-competitiveness.
– Funding: Sources are insufficiently diverse, fail to select for long-term productivity, grant evaluations disadvantage young scientists.
– Reward incentives: young scientists want more honesty, integrity, communication, collaboration, utility and application of knowledge.
Their main recommendations to fix the above are plausible: increase connectivity between young scientists and postdocs to create a community; increased transparency of data on postdoc positions and movements; increased investment in junior scientists. Their call to action: young scientists should take control of their own careers and play a larger role in engaging with these issues.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Many institutions are creating training courses, certificated programmes and internships with industry so that postdocs can begin to adapt. A recent Nature Careers article, Boosting business, highlights some of these available to biotech and bioscience students. We’ve also looked at MBAs for scientists and we’ve offered articles with advice on becoming an information officer and working in science policy plus much more.