By Paul Smaglik
US postdocs are less satisfied with their lives than are the general public and people in some developing countries, according to a recent survey. Of the survey’s 190 participants, 30% said that they would not recommend postdoctoral training for their peers, and 20% said that they changed their career goals during their postdoc.
The survey, published this month in F1000Research, an open-publishing platform, reflects a deep disenchantment with the US postdoctoral programme, perhaps because so many postdocs initially hope that their training will result in tenure-track positions that don’t materialise. While the number of postdoc positions has tripled since 1979, the number of available tenure-track positions has not increased to accommodate them. In the United States, 65% of all PhD holders pursue postdocs, but only 15-20% of those attain a tenure-track position (Nature, 2015; 528 (7580): 22–25).
The author of the survey, Amir Grinstein, associate professor of marketing at the business school of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, posits that the level of dissatisfaction the survey shows is the result of dreams first deferred, then broken. Postdocs see their fellowships as a dues paid toward their ultimate goal of faculty jobs. The disillusionment is further exacerbated when the postdocs are at elite institutions like Harvard and Stanford universities, where they may think the status of their host institution will help confer job security in the future. But that is often not the case. That disconnect results in frustration. “They are so close to the dream, but so far away,” Grinstein says.
Those postdocs also make many personal sacrifices in terms of relationships and starting a family, he says. “You put your family on hold and your individual well-being on hold,” Grinstein says. When those sacrifices don’t yield the tenure-track positions that postdocs feel were implicitly promised, dissatisfaction sets in.
One variable that can ameliorate dissatisfaction exists, however—lab culture. While demographic variables, personal characteristics and productivity metrics didn’t square with higher satisfaction, happiness with lab atmosphere did.
Principal investigators (PIs) should take note, Grinstein says, because the survey indicates they are “engaging with a group of very unhappy people.” That unhappiness translates to a less productive, efficient and creative lab.
Grinstein sees two ways to improve satisfaction—both on the postdoc and the PI side. Fellows need to be more aware of their odds in securing a tenure-track position. And PIs need to create more-collegial labs.
Advocacy organizations such as the US National Postdoctoral Association in Rockville, Maryland, are already working on the first. But PIs could work on their soft skills by organising social events and encouraging cooperation among lab members.
Grinstein has heard that many labs are socially isolated and highly competitive. He’s heard stories of postdocs pitted against each other conducting the same study, with only one group attaining publication. “This is anecdotal evidence about how broken the system is,” says Grinstein.
There may be wider systematic issues at play as well, Grinstein suspects, since medical students and business school fellows report higher satisfaction. Restructuring scientific fellowships so that postdocs are less dependent upon the PI may help postdocs feel a greater sense of autonomy, and, therefore higher levels of life satisfaction, Grinstein concludes.
Paul Smaglik is a freelance writer in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.