Opinion

The Podium | Sheril Kirshenbaum

Postdocs in limbo? Expand your options

Gary McDowell is a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe staff

Gary McDowell is a postdoctoral researcher at Tufts University.

Should today’s newly minted PhD graduates be surprised that the traditional academic pipeline is clogged? Maybe not.

A recent Globe story raised concern over the growing number of researchers currently in a holding pattern. The story didn’t use the term “pyramid scheme,” but suggested that’s how many postdocs see their situation. They spend long days toiling in laboratories with dreams of pursuing independent research, teaching students, a successful publication record, and job security in the ivory tower. The overwhelming majority will not succeed. Tenure-track jobs are scarce. And this problem has existed for years.

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In 2002, a popular article in Science Magazine described postdocs as a population “that has slipped between the cracks of the recognized workforce of the scientific community.” Four years later, NIH Director Elias Zerhouni suggested that the scientific establishment is eating our seed corn, rather than protecting the next generation of scientists. By 2014, fewer tenure track faculty positions than ever were available. And according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, three out of four new faculty hires nationally are off the tenure track.

On top of that, our granting establishment typically rewards the oldest professors doing fairly predictable research. To accommodate the nation’s most innovative young scientists, aiming to pursue daring new ideas, the system would have to fundamentally change.

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But let’s step back a bit to consider the big picture. The academic job market is tough, but not every science doctoral degree has equal status. Several years ago, Michael Gottselig and Lars Oeltjen, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Zurich, tried to quantify the influence of graduate school choice. They concluded:

“[Students] interested in an academic career should be advised that the selection of a reputable, high-ranking graduate school with high “impact factor” is practically a sine qua non for obtaining high-ranking professorships and probably professorships in general.”

In other words, there are a lot of schools out there offering PhDs, but just a handful of the top programs are disproportionately represented in new faculty hires. Where you obtain your degree has a large influence on your future success. So academia is not quite a pyramid scheme when you stack the odds in your favor by making calculated decisions early.

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Still, tenure is never guaranteed and budget constraints are making the pursuit of a research career path ever more challenging. But from a practical perspective, tenure should not be every student’s goal when he or she enters graduate school in science. Given that our most pressing global challenges require investment in research and innovation, we critically need more people with scientific expertise to enter other arenas — such as politics, business, communication, primary and secondary education, journalism, media, and the arts — where they can work toward improving science literacy in American culture.

Finally, a modest suggestion: It should be the responsibility of every graduate mentor to sit down with new students and talk about the reality of job prospects after graduation. Perhaps then young scientists would not feel blindsided after 10 years of tireless work and low pay, when they realize there’s not necessarily a faculty position at the end of the struggle.

It’s true that the traditional scientific pipeline is clogged with postdocs, and arguably dysfunctional. And things are likely to get worse if the Republican-led House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology continues to press the National Science Foundation to justify how every basic-science grant it awards will benefit the country.

So let’s create new valves in that crumbling pipeline to ease some pressure. By preparing PhD students for a broader job market, the outcome might be a more scientifically literate society. Postdocs should be looking for new areas to apply their knowledge and training beyond the university career path — in the real world, where it also really matters.

Related:

Glut of postdoc researchers stirs quiet crisis in science

Yuly Fuentes-Medel: Let’s change the system for postdocs

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

Research community weighs in on the postdoc position

Sheril Kirshenbaum is director of The University of Texas at Austin Energy Poll and coauthor of “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future.”
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