The current postdoctoral career structure benefits the biomedical research system, but not necessarily early career researchers, says Vicky Sherwood.
A 2017 study paints a gloomy picture of the benefits of postdoctoral training for biomedical researchers, particularly if they choose not to pursue an academic career in the end.
The study by Shulamit Kahn and Donna Ginther analysed the financial implications of postdoctoral training on the early careers of biomedical researchers, examining a cohort of more than 10,000 US-trained PhD recipients who qualified between 1980-2010. Inflation-adjusted salary, a decade post-graduation was recorded and the conclusions were stark.
The major finding of the study, published in Nature Biotechnology, was that annual salaries of PhDs who skipped postdoctoral training were significantly higher on average than those who did not, demonstrating that work experience is valued more highly than postdoctoral training outside of academia.
Annual earnings of those who did not pursue postdoctoral training versus those that did were on average, higher by $US 12,002. A decade at this difference (even if it remained static) equates to a wage difference in excess of $100 000, not including the additional benefits, such as bonuses salary reviews and benefit packages that are on offer in the commercial sector.
Postdoctoral training is the natural progression for those hoping for tenure-track research positions. It is not a career goal in itself, but seen as a training period to develop the skills and experience for independent scientific research. But competition for faculty positions is now immense. The work by Kahn and Ginther demonstrates there is a serious financial implication of undertaking postdoctoral training.
Postdoctoral positions can often represent the path of least resistance for graduating PhDs, especially if they have done well during their studies and are offered referrals through their academic network. Industry positions (particularly within the research and development setting) are highly competitive without additional experience.
As a result, many PhD holders take up postdoctoral positions after graduating. This is not a problem if the ultimate aim is to obtain research independence, as postdoctoral positions offer valuable training.
The problem comes when the number of PhD graduates far outstrips the growth in faculty positions and competition becomes too high for the vast majority of postdocs to obtain tenured posts. This is the situation the academic biomedical research system is currently in and it does not look set to change in the near future.
Globally, more PhDs are graduating than ever before. The number of US PhDs awarded in the biomedical field grew by 132% between 1980 and 2010, says a 2012 report by the National Institutes of Health Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group. In fact, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2014 the top 10 countries training the most post-graduates (including the USA, UK and Germany as the top three), graduated 217 582 PhDs across all fields. This represents nearly 600 PhD graduates per day in 2014 from those 10 countries alone.
It is no wonder that competition for faculty positions is stiff and realistically most PhD graduates will never obtain one. In the UK for example, it is estimated that only around 3.5% or less PhD graduates will ever become permanent research staff at universities. This estimate is supported by findings from a UK Royal Society report in 2014, which that 95% of science PhD graduates will eventually leave academia at some point during their research careers.
A source of this problem identified by Paula Stephan in a 2013 article published in Bioscience, is the common practice by supervisors, institutions, and funders to direct early career researchers toward postdoctoral training, thereby providing a highly skilled and productive workforce at low cost.
Ultimately postdocs represent an integral component of the current biomedical research system, which is unlikely to change at least in the short term. Meanwhile, individuals who take the postdoctoral career route, will continue to have to invest time and money into this decision and face the most likely outcome of being unable to obtain a faculty level position in the end.
Postdoctoral training provides a solid foundation for further career development
The financial implication of undertaking postdoctoral research is only one angle to consider. I took two postdoctoral positions before obtaining research independence. They helped me to become a principle investigator, but I gained far more from them than academic career progression alone.
I developed essential leadership and project management skills, had the opportunity to work abroad and experience different cultures, was able to identify research groups that answered scientific problems that I found interesting to work on, became a resourceful problem-solver for a variety of projects, and honed my communication skills. Surviving in the cutthroat environment of the biomedical research field enabled me to develop a high level of resilience and tenacity, produced through the hyper-competitive working conditions.
These postdoctoral years taught me how to quickly adapt to different situations and problems that arose within projects. This is something I could not say I would have been anywhere near as good at, straight after graduating from my PhD.
I do not regret my postdoctoral training. It helped me to become the critical scientist I am today. Furthermore, my research experience enabled me to transition seamlessly into industry, from where I now reap the rewards of this additional training. Postdoctoral training provided a strong foundation of transferable skills that support me in the day-to-day responsibilities of my current role as a medical writer in the pharmaceutical sector.
Postdocs looking to leave academic research should leverage these highly sought-after skills in job applications and at interviews, whilst being prepared to negotiate starting salaries. Potential employers can use lack of experience in the commercial sector to recruit skilled workers at low cost.
The need to weigh the financial implications of postdoctoral training against the experience gained, will ultimately involve individual values and goals. Although I personally would not trade my postdoc years, this will not be the same for everyone and for all professions. Overall, it’s important to critically assess career development options carefully at the point of graduation.
Postdocs and postgrads should seek help where they can, either from a trusted mentor or a career coach, and aim to balance the advice they receive from multiple perspectives (ideally from those with experience in- and out-side of academia).
Taking a strategic planning approach at an early career stage will help researchers to evaluate the right career path. The work by Kahn and Ginther show that there is a financial price to pay for not doing this well.
Research institutions should help their postgraduates develop a systematic approach to career planning, but PhD graduates have reported they are not well trained in this area during their graduate studies, says a 2017 paper by Melanie Sinche and colleagues in PLoS One. Mostly it is left to researchers to figure out strategic career plans for themselves with limited knowledge about the opportunities available in other professions.
Career coaching can be perceived as pricey, but in reality it represents an investment that could help make improved and more informed career decisions. Ultimately this could be a sound financial investment, potentially supporting increased earnings that run into hundreds of thousands of dollars for PhD graduates over their working life.
Vicky Sherwood is the author of BiomedBadass.com, a blog providing actionable insights that help researchers in the biomedical field identify interesting career opportunities and systematically make career transitions.
Since passing her PhD in 2006, Vicky ran a prominent academic research lab in the UK and has recently navigated the surprisingly challenges of a career transition to the pharmaceutical sector.
Through her writing she shares experiences of working in and outside academia to help other researchers who are considering their future career path.