Can the future of postdocs be changed?

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There is a growing number of postdocs and few places in academia for them to go. But change could be on the way.

The postdoctoral system is broken. These highly skilled scientists are a major engine driving scientific research, yet they are often poorly rewarded and have no way to progress in academia. The number of postdocs in science has ballooned: in the United States alone, it jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012. But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking (see Nature). Many postdocs move on to fulfilling careers elsewhere, but those who want to continue in research can find themselves thwarted. They end up trapped as ‘permadocs’: doing multiple postdoc terms, staying in these positions for many years and, in a small but significant proportion, never leaving them. Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years (see ‘The postdoc pile-up’).

This problem is felt acutely in the large US biomedical-sciences workforce, but the trends are similar in many other countries and disciplines — and the economic drivers are too. Postdoc salaries have remained low — often less than the stipend and tuition costs of a graduate student. Discussion about the postdoc problem has grown increasingly loud. In December 2014, a committee convened by the US National Academies released a report aimed at highlighting and improving the postdoc’s plight. The committee called for a hike in salaries, from the current recommended starting salary of US$42,840 to $50,000, and a 5-year limit on the length of postdocs. Senior scientists in the United States, who have been urging reforms for the scientific workforce as a whole, have identified the postdoc oversupply as one of the most urgent issues.

Experts acknowledge that change will be hard; after all, the National Academies made similar recommendations 15 years ago with little effect. But some institutions and countries have started to address the issue. Several US universities have enforced 5-year term limits, New Zealand inadvertently narrowed the pipeline when it slashed the number of postdocs available, and some laboratories are moving permadocs into stable, better-paid positions.

Numerous research institutes and Universities have implemented the five-year fixed-term postdoc rule. In 2008, NYU’s School of Medicine decided to try a tough-love approach: it began enforcing a rule that researchers could hold a postdoc for a maximum of 5 years — including time spent at other institutions. In 2014, 35 of the roughly 400 postdocs there left because their time was up.

Keith Micoli, chairman of the board of the National Postdoctoral Association and director of the NYU School of Medicine postdoctoral programme, says that term limits combat two problematic phenomena. The first is the ‘just one more year, experiment or paper’ syndrome, in which postdocs feel that they must endlessly build their academic CV before moving on. The second is the permadoc who stays on indefinitely, eventually runs into his or her adviser’s retirement and is stranded without a job, a situation that Micoli himself encountered. Having a hard deadline forces postdocs to make career decisions and “people are better for it”, he says. Of the postdocs who left NYU in 2014, Micoli says that roughly equal numbers got faculty positions and left academia.

Other major research universities, such as the University of California system and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (UNC), have also implemented 5-year term limits. But the limits are not always strictly enforced. Postdocs and their advisers can often request a sixth year and some postdocs are moved into positions that are postdocs in everything but name.

Sibby Anderson Thompkins, who directs the postdoctoral affairs office at UNC, says that the most-recent postdocs there embrace the term limit. They enter with a plan to find a career path quickly and exit the postdoc early if an opportunity arises. Anderson Thompkins, who also sat on the 2014 National Academies report committee, says that this type of planning should begin in graduate school, alongside raised awareness of the academic bottleneck that trainees will face. Whereas about 65% of US PhD-holders continue into a postdoc, only 15–20% of those move into tenure-track academic posts. The European situation is even more competitive — in the United Kingdom, for example, about 3.5% of science doctorates become permanent research staff at universities.

Term limits have also been tested in the United Kingdom, France and Germany, where labour laws limit the number of years that academic researchers can remain on short-term contracts before they must be hired permanently. But it is unclear whether these laws help or hurt, because there are often ways around them.

On the other hand, postdocs don’t have to be forced out of the pipeline if, instead, they are never let in. That was the result when, in 2010, the New Zealand government decided to axe a scheme that had funded roughly 90 postdoc slots — eliminating nearly one-third of its postdocs in one fell swoop.

Before this, the government covered salaries for a huge chunk of the country’s postdocs, who enjoy salaries and benefits nearly equivalent to those starting permanent academic positions. For most labs, postdocs are too expensive to fund from research grants. So when the government funding disappeared — mainly a money-saving decision — so too did many postdoc spots.

Many principal investigators (PIs) in New Zealand are unhappy with the situation. With no postdocs to help them, they struggle with lab management and mentoring, and they say that labs have become dependent on graduate students. “All we’ve done is to outsource our postdocs,” says Shaun Hendy, a physicist at the University of Auckland. “We’ve removed a cohort of young researchers from our system and replaced them with even younger, less-experienced researchers.”

Most US researchers balk at the idea of restricting the number of postdocs entering the system. Jennifer Lippincott-Schwartz, a cell biologist at the US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, says that it is nearly impossible to determine who has the characteristics of a superstar researcher until mid-way through a postdoc term. “I don’t think it’s bad when part of that workforce has to leave and move into other professions,” she says. “They carry with them skills that are not wasted. They still have a knowledge base that is valuable to society.”

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If postdocs are so prized, then one obvious solution is to reward them. Both the 2014 National Academies report and earlier reports urged US lab heads to consider creating senior staff scientist, or ‘superdoc’, positions. These would be higher-paid, permanent jobs for talented postdocs who have no desire to start their own labs. Some funding agencies and institutions around the world already offer this option. Lippincott-Schwartz, for example, has two superdocs in her cell-biology laboratory at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). One serves as a software developer for the lab’s super-resolution imaging of intracellular structures. The other is a microscopy specialist and lab manager. They both mentor trainees, help to write publications and keep up with the latest technological advances in the field.

Some funding bodies do offer funds specifically for staff scientists, and others are introducing them. In March, the US National Cancer Institute proposed a grant programme designed for superdocs that would cover a salary in the range of $75,000–100,000 for five years. It is planning to grant 50–60 such ‘research specialist awards’ throughout the next 18 months.

Eventually, the question is, can the scientific community be convinced? No one interviewed for this story — whether lab heads or postdocs themselves — wanted to give up these highly valued research positions. But few lab leaders, institutions or funders seem willing or able to spend what it takes to reward them appropriately. Funding agencies could step in and enforce change, by demanding that universities direct a portion of their overhead payments — money given to the university rather than the lab — towards creating more staff-scientist positions.

The solution needs to be global, or else postdocs denied jobs in one country will simply slide across country borders to find them elsewhere. In an ideal world, postdocs would be able to take their funding wherever they like. People should be going to the best labs, the best places for them to work and be trained, which are dotted around the world.

Sophie Thuault-Restituito, a research-laboratory operations manager at NYU, says fewer PhDs should be flowing into postdocs, and is frank with graduate students who ask her for advice: “If you are not 150% sure you want to do it right now, don’t do a postdoc.”

This article is an excerpt from the latest Nature News Feature.

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Scientist-entrepreneur-manager-journalist: -Co-founder, Author; Former Assistant Editor and Director, Biotechin.Asia, Biotech Media Pte. Ltd.; -Founder & CEO, SciGlo (www.sciglo.com); -Programme Management Officer, SBIC, A*STAR (former Research Fellow). --Sandhya graduated from University of Madras, India (B.Sc Microbiology and M.Sc Biotechnology) and received her Ph.D from the Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She worked on oxidative stress in skin, skeletal, adipose tissue and cardiac muscle for a decade from 2006-2016. She is currently working as a Programme Management Officer handling projects and grants at Singapore Bioimaging Consortium (SBIC), Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR). Earlier to this she was a Research Fellow in the Fat Metabolism and Stem Cell Group at SBIC. Sandhya was also the Vice President and Publicity Chair of A*PECSS (A*STAR Post Doc Society) (2014-2016). Recently she founded a platform for scientists - SciGlo (www.sciglo.com) and is a startup mentor at Vertical VC (Finland). She is an ardent lover of science and enjoys globe trotting and good vegetarian food.

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