An exhaustive, 120-page national report on the state of scientific postdoctoral researchers urges a range of reforms to ensure that thousands of well-educated scientists do not spend their most creative years in low-paid training for jobs that are in scarce supply.
Although the authors say the problems facing the workers in the training pipeline have been “gnawing at the research community for decades,” they argue that the situation has become more urgent as the number of postdoctoral researchers has increased but the number of faculty jobs has not kept pace.
“Postdocs will rejoice while reading this report, which outlines recommendations that would dramatically improve the training experience of young scientists,” Jessica Polka, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard Medical School, wrote in an e-mail.
For decades, the training pipeline for scientists has followed an apprenticeship model. Science students who want to pursue an advanced degree attend graduate school. In many fields, the default next step has been a postdoctoral position, in which scientists continue their training before they set up their own laboratories.
Two key pressures have begun to turn that last step into a trap. First, the number of trainees far outnumber the faculty jobs they seek. That means many people are spending years treading water in postdoc positions, where they are often treated by their advisers — called principal investigators — less like trainees and more like cheap labor. That trend has occurred as the principal investigators have found themselves in intensive competition for limited research funding, which creates an incentive to build large and highly productive laboratories filled with postdocs who can help produce high-profile findings.
“The notion the postdoc is there to do whatever the principal investigator wants them to needs to be reconsidered. This is a training period for advanced research,” said Gregory Petsko, an emeritus professor of biochemistry at Brandeis University who headed the report. “We’ve gotten into a trap where I think a lot of the values that drove the profession for a long time are being eroded by careerist concerns.”
Boston postdocs organized a Future of Research conference this fall to brainstorm solutions to the problems they face. They asked attendees to respond to a survey and many described the problem in their own words, the scientists reported in the journal F1000 Research:
“Postdocs are really hired to produce results, not scientists,” one attendee wrote.
“Postdoc pay is low, so [principal investigators] can hire more postdocs to generate more results,” another wrote.
The reforms suggested by Petsko and colleagues in the report, a joint effort of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine, echo those that came out of the Boston conference and include:
■ A five-year limit on how long a person can spend working as a postdoc.
■ Introducing a new tier of staff scientists for people who would like to do science but do not wish to start their own laboratories.
■ Introducing a range of career paths starting in the first year of graduate school, to help change the idea that everyone should simply go on to be a postdoc.
■ Better mentoring.
■ Increasing postdoc salaries. The National Institutes of Health pays $42,000 per year for its postdoctoral award, and this amount is often used as the baseline by institutions across the country. The report suggests this should be increased to $50,000 per year.
■ Increasing accountability by collecting data on postdocs and their career outcomes.
Henry Bourne, a professor emeritus at the University of California San Francisco who was not involved in the report and has written about the problems facing the training pipeline, said in an e-mail that the report was “refreshingly candid” but added that the recommendations were unlikely to be successful in altering the landscape.
“I suspect that many scientific leaders and some institutions will applaud this document but promptly work to negate its rules. And they will succeed in doing so, with ridiculous ease. The reason is simple: It is clearly not in the interest of established investigators or their institutions to pay postdocs more and give them good jobs after their so-called ‘training,’ ” Bourne wrote.