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Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science

Gary McDowell, 29, a postdoctoral researcher working at the Tufts University lab in Medford, hopes to set up his own lab in a few years.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Gary McDowell, 29, a postdoctoral researcher working at the Tufts University lab in Medford, hopes to set up his own lab in a few years.

The life of the humble biomedical postdoctoral researcher was never easy: toiling in obscurity in a low-paying scientific apprenticeship that can stretch more than a decade. The long hours were worth it for the expected reward — the chance to launch an independent laboratory and do science that could expand human understanding of biology and disease.

But in recent years, the postdoc position has become less a stepping stone and more of a holding tank. Some of the smartest people in Boston are caught up in an all-but-invisible crisis, mired in a biomedical underclass as federal funding for research has leveled off, leaving the supply of well-trained scientists outstripping demand.

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“It’s sunk in that it’s by no means guaranteed — for anyone, really — that an academic position is possible,” said Gary McDowell, 29, a biologist doing his second postdoc at Tufts University who hopes to set up his own lab in a few years. “There’s this huge labor force here to do the bench work, the grunt work of science. But then there’s nowhere for them to go; this massive pool of postdocs that accumulates and keeps growing.”

RELATED: Grants for research get scarcer

Postdocs fill an essential, but little-known niche in the scientific pipeline. After spending 6 to 7 years on average earning a PhD, they invest more years of training in a senior scientist’s laboratory as the final precursor to starting labs where they can explore their own scientific ideas.

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In the Boston area, where more than 8,000 postdocs — largely in the biosciences — are estimated to work, tough job prospects are more than just an issue of academic interest. Postdocs are a critical part of the scientific landscape that in many ways distinguishes the region — they are both future leaders and the workers who carry out experiments crucial for science to advance.

RELATED | Opinion: Postdocs in limbo? Expand your options

The plight of postdocs has become a point of national discussion among senior scientists, as their struggles have come to be seen as symptoms of broader problems plaguing biomedical research. After years of rapid growth, federal funding abruptly leveled off and even contracted over the last decade, leaving a glut of postdocs vying for a limited number of faculty jobs. Paradoxically, as they’ve gotten stuck, the pursuit of research breakthroughs has also become reliant on them as a cheap source of labor for senior scientists.

“They really are the canary in the coal mine,” said Marc Kirschner, a professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School whose lab of 17 scientists includes 12 postdocs. “They decided they’d go ahead and try to understand why a cancer cell is different from a normal cell, and here they are a few years out. They knew it was a competitive situation, and they were going to work very hard, but they didn’t see the whole system was going to sour so quickly.”

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Biomedical research training traditionally has followed a well-worn path. After college, people who want to pursue an advanced degree enroll in graduate school. The vast majority of biology graduate students then go on to do one or more postdoc positions, where they continue their training, often well into their 30s.

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Their progress is very poorly tracked; the leader of a national report on the state of postdocs has called them “invisible people.” The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the country. Salaries vary, but rarely reflect their level of education. The NIH stipend ranges from $42,000 a year for a starting postdoc, up to $55,272 for a seventh year.

The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs — teaching, industry, government or nonprofit jobs, or consulting.

This wasn’t such an issue decades ago, but universities have expanded the number of PhD students they train — there were about 30,000 biomedical graduate students in 1979 and 56,800 in 2009. That has had the effect of flooding the system with trainees and drawing out the training period.

In 1970, scientists typically received their first major federal funding when they were 34. In 2011, those lucky enough to get a coveted tenure-track faculty position and run their own labs, at an average age of 37, don’t get the equivalent grant until nearly a decade later, at age 42.

Facing these stark statistics, postdocs are taking matters into their own hands. They organized a Future of Research conference in Boston last week that they hoped would give voice to their frustrations and hopes and help shape change.

“How can we, as the next generation, run the system?” said Kristin Krukenberg, 34, a lead organizer of the conference and a biologist in her sixth year as a postdoc at Harvard Medical School after six years in graduate school. Krukenberg plans to apply for faculty positions this year, and said that as she has neared the end of her long years of training, she has begun to think deeply about her future responsibilities to the people in her lab.

“Some of the models we see don’t seem tenable in the long run,” Krukenberg said.

RELATED | Opinion: Let’s change the system for postdocs

She has seen how large labs can create a vicious feedback loop: the scientists who run them become both dependent on the cheap labor and stuck in a cycle of endlessly writing grants to support a big laboratory. She would like to run a lab small enough that she can do science, while helping prepare postdocs for their next jobs.

RELATED | Editorial: Drop in US funding of science thwarts dreams of the next generation

Many senior scientists, who may fondly remember their own postdocs days, agree that laboratories have grown too bloated. As the cost of conducting research and the number of institutions doing such work have increased, science has outgrown the traditional model in which trainees are also the worker bees, they say.

“The mom-and-pop structure we used to have doesn’t work . . . anymore,” said Gregory Petsko, who headed a national committee studying the plight of postdocs and for years ran a laboratory at Brandeis University before moving to Weill Cornell Medical College. “The game is changed, and what should be a wonderful time in people’s lives is, in many cases, a time of great, great anxiety and unhappiness.”

Possible solutions span a wide gamut, from halving the number of postdocs over time, to creating a new tier of staff scientists that would be better paid. One thing people seem to agree on: Simply adding more money to the pot will not by itself solve the oversupply.

Petsko said he is the “poster child” for how the system can go wrong, by building a laboratory that leaned heavily on efficient, smart postdocs who could do science productively, rather than emphasizing their training.

“As I got older and developed more outside responsibilities . . . it became easier to have more postdocs than graduate students because they didn’t need as much supervision. You could have a bigger lab that way without occupying more of your time,” Petsko said. “I could have done almost as much science and just about as good science with a significantly smaller lab.”

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The issue has been taken up by influential groups. Petsko led a committee convened by the National Academy of Sciences to draft a report on the state of postdocs, expected to be released soon. Earlier this year, Kirschner teamed up with the head of the National Cancer Institute, the former president of Princeton University, and the former editor-in-chief of the prestigious journal Science to publish a controversial paper describing a worrisome, hypercompetitive atmosphere in science and its dependence on postdocs and graduate students.

Casey Ydenberg’s path illustrates how easy it is to follow a dream and find oneself locked in a career track without a destination.

Ydenberg, 33, has an impressive resume: he earned a PhD at Princeton, then went for a postdoc at Brandeis. This summer, a decade into his training, he realized that not only were the odds of getting a faculty job against him, but he didn’t think he really wanted one. He felt burnt out.

Today, Ydenberg is pursuing a job that gives him real joy, building websites. He isn’t bitter; he cherishes his memories of graduate school. But he uses none of his formal training and thinks there should be more conversations, earlier, about future careers so that people don’t spend as long honing research skills that may not prove relevant.

“I don’t think we’re this oppressed minority or anything like that,” Ydenberg said. “But I think for science to reform and for science to become better at serving society, the issues facing postdocs are going to need to be addressed — otherwise nobody is going to want to go into research.”

More coverage:

Editorial: Drop in US funding of science thwarts dreams of the next generation

Editorial: Gifted researcher shows value of mentoring others

Opinion: The innovation deficit

Carolyn Y. Johnson can be reached at cjohnson@globe .com. Follow her on Twitter @carolynyjohnson.
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