An aspect that is widely perceived as “problematic”, in the way the career path of a scientist in North America is currently structured, is the relatively long period of uncertainty and precariousness between the obtainment of one’s doctoral degree and the first potentially permanent employment . That time, which in some fields of inquiry often approaches or exceeds the decade, is typically spent in term, so-called postdoctoral appointments.
This state of affairs has prompted cell biologist Jennifer Rohn to write an editorial published on the prestigious Nature magazine, calling for a restructuring of what she calls a “broken system” of traineeship in the sciences.
Her point is basically this: the way the system is set up now, there are always going to be more excellent postdoctoral researchers than available permanent research jobs. The talent and experience of many senior postdocs who are unable to land a permanent position, should not be let go to waste by forcing these individuals into different professions, something which seems harsh and unfair, especially so late in their lives. Many of them are not in their predicament due to lack of ability — sheer luck has a lot to do with it, or sometimes they simply are not interested in becoming a leading investigator. However, they can and do still prove a valuable asset in support of someone else’s research program, as “senior staff members”, witness the very fact that the Principal Investigators (PIs) who employ them are willing and eager to renew their positions indefinitely, as long as the funds needed can be procured.
The proposed solution
Her suggestion is therefore that an official, alternate career track be established in the sciences, essentially regularizing a permanent staff position that de facto already exists in most places (typically referred to as “Research Associate”), except that positions ought be permanent and not subjected to the uncertainty of the grant renewal “roulette”, as they almost invariably are now (on this side of the ocean anyway).
Naturally, because science funding is a zero-sum game, the monies to make that happen would have to come at the expense of something else. Rohn proposes an overall reduction in the number of term postdoctoral positions, in order to set aside funds for those fewer, permanent (“hard”) ones. One way to attain that goal would presumably be that of cutting research grant money earmarked for postdoctoral training. According to Rohn, this would have the beneficial effect of diverting off the research track many, most doctoral recipients whose odds of landing the coveted permanent research jobs are dismal anyway, re-directing them to a different professional path when they are still young and marketable.
I am in — sorry, we are full
This is not new, of course. Calls for limiting the number of students admitted every year in science PhD programs have been made repeatedly over the past two decades, based on a supposed “glut” of science PhDs (but don’t ever show science PhD employment statistics to anyone who tells you sad tales of ex-postdocs panhandling, or driving cabs). To her credit, Rohn herself does not advocate reducing the number of PhD graduates. On the contrary, she acknowledges that they “are useful to society, and are eminently employable in non-research fields”. As mentioned above, Rohn would instead place the “gate” at the postdoctoral level, i.e., significantly reduce the size of the postdoc population, by “reducing the number of trainee postdocs infused into the system” — in other words, let fewer of them in to begin with.
Two things are worth mentioning right away: the first is that the career path of a scientist is long, difficult and precarious everywhere on this planet, not just in North America, and that has little to do with postdoctoral positions, and a lot to do with the fact that there are always going to be more applicants than jobs — it seems impossible to escape that bottom line. In Italy, for example, postdoctoral positions did not (formally) exist until not so long ago, but I do not think that a single Italian wannabe scientist would take issue with the contention that being a postdoc is way better than working odd jobs for years, waiting for an entry-level position to be advertised at some university.
Secondly, Rohn’s “solution” is ultimately no solution at all. The final outcome would still be the exclusion from the scientific career path of the vast majority of those who wish to pursue it. The difference is that in the present “cold hearted” scheme, wannabes are given a chance (not always a fair one, to be sure, but a chance nonetheless) to “show what they got”. The “winners” emerge from what Rohn refers to as the “tournament model”, wherein many are let in, in excess of the demand, and “practitioners [are] pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize” .
The “more humane” approach advocated by Rohn consists of simply denying most of them the opportunity to compete to begin with, thereby saving them from future disappointments. The fortunate privileged few allowed to become postdocs, would be essentially guaranteed a career in research — some of them as PIs, whereas the ones who should turn out to be, well, not that good after all, or not to have what it takes (apparently that still can and does happen) as “permanent research staff” .
Ten years ?
I have written about postdoctoral appointments already a few times, on this blog. Specifically, I have expounded my opinion as to why postdoctoral appointments are generally a good thing, both for the scientist in training as well as for the hosting investigator. I have also expressed my (strong) feelings about the need for time limits.
An aspiring researcher ought not spend too long a time on postdoctoral appointments. How long is “too long” probably varies slightly across disciplines (though I would be surprised if it really varied more than “slightly”), but I think that in any field where postdoctoral researchers operate, there exists a more or less understood, “optimal” duration, beyond which one’s employability and appeal as a PI in a research setting, decrease very rapidly with time. And that is what a postdoc is for, want it or not. It is a training position, a stepping stone, part of a selection process, not a point of arrival.
My personal “rule of thumb” is that after five years as a postdoc and no permanent research job, one should very seriously consider switching to another career . I also happen to think that the supervising PI should actively, concretely try and help the postdoctoral advisee make that switch.
PIs who, for personal gain (real or perceived), inability to serve as effective mentors or any other reasons, keep on renewing postdoctoral appointments beyond their usefulness, misuse funds and do a serious disservice, first of all to the trainees themselves, but also to science as a whole. They do so by allowing junior scientists unable to make the transition to PIs to keep their lives on hold, postponing facing reality, while depriving freshly minted PhDs of the same training and educational opportunities granted to their older colleagues.
There is where the problem lies, not in the lack of “permanent temp” positions.
How does that happen ?
My repeated observation is that people “settle” in postdoctoral positions, out of
a) sheer stubbornness, refusal (or perhaps inability) to accept a negative professional and life outcome. Boy, can we all be good at ignoring the writing on the wall, at not heeding advice that we do not want to hear. I have had countless conversations with colleagues expressing their impatience and frustration with senior postdocs who act as if finding permanent employment were not their problem, as if they were entitled to have their positions extended indefinitely.
b) the natural “inertia” that sets in, especially when families and/or significant others are affected by frequent displacements. I know from personal experience that one often loses sight of the negative, long term consequences of being in a postdoctoral appointment for too long, in view of the positive, short term relief arising from stability and two extra years of salary.
What to do, then ?
The question then, is not what to do with perennial postdocs, but rather how to make sure that no one end up spending years and years in a position that is meant to be temporary only.
Funding agencies, universities and government laboratories already often place restrictions on the employability of senior researchers in positions formally labeled (or, easily identifiable) as “postdoctoral”. For example, at my institution people having obtained their doctoral degree more than five years earlier cannot be hired on temporary appointments as “postdocs” — salary and benefits must be significantly higher, which in turn makes it financially much more burdensome for the PI. What other actions could be taken to “ease out” of the postdoctoral quagmire those who no longer benefit from that experience, and simply need to move on ?
Allowing only a minuscule fraction of people to become postdocs to begin with, and then creating government-funded ad hoc, permanent research positions for those who do not have what it takes to be PIs, is not the way to go. It is not right, it is not fair, it is wasteful use of taxpayers’ money, and it does not serve the best interest of society in the long run.
I think that what might work is a specific funding program aimed at connecting PIs and senior postdocs with potential employers, similar to internships.
Rohn is right in that starting a new career when one is in the late 30s can be a difficult proposition, but we know from the actual record that it is possible and that it does happen (which is why one does not see many former postdocs in unemployment lines or flipping burgers). These are people who can become effective contributors in different settings; I think that the effort must be directed toward connecting them with prospective employers.
The current system, which includes a few years of term postdoctoral appointment as a necessary intermediate step between the doctorate and, typically, a tenure-track faculty appointment, has been the subject of criticism and the source of discontent for many years. To be sure, some of the charges that Rohn levies against the postdoctoral position have some merit, and in fact the contention has been periodically put forward by some, that postdoctoral positions should simply be abolished.
In my opinion, however, Rohn completely misdiagnoses the problem, in the process perpetuating appalling misconceptions about the scientific environment and its players.
Aside from dealing a significant blow to the nation’s research output, scientific standing and overall productivity, her proposed course of action (one which will likely and luckily never be implemented) would have the result of greatly reducing opportunities for promising young scientists, accelerate the (already observable) overall aging of the scientific enterprise, reward seniority, independent wealth and/or stubbornness over excellence, and quite likely exacerbate the existing, serious problem of “scientific castes”.
And I also think that it would altogether make the research environment a less exciting, staler milieu.
 To what extent, in this day and age, any job can be really called “permanent”, is unclear to me.
 Rohn makes the
trite usual point that “to force a highly trained postdoc from research is a terrible waste”. I am not going to repeat here what I (together with countless others) have already stated (I did it in this post, for example), other than that this happens to everyone in every walk of life, that there is nothing special about scientists (oh, I know, it is so much harder, blah blah blah…), that by that token we should shut down 99% of all arts, humanities and sports programs, etc. As for the “tournament model”, it is not clear to me why people think that that is a specific feature of the scientific career only. Capitalism is based on competition, like it or not (I don’t like it but I don’t think it’s going to go away soon). We are all competing, all the time, either to get a job, or to keep a job (i.e., to keep our business afloat or be spared by the next round of layoffs).
 This, of course, begs the question: how would one go about picking the “very best” PhD graduates, the ones to encourage to pursue the postdoctoral path ? It is already difficult as it is to pick the best candidate for an assistant professor position, from a pool of postdocs with a fairly extensive research record. Would identifying the most promising and research-talented freshly minted PhDs, out of a much larger pool of junior scientists with necessarily less experience and (usually) no record of independent work, not be even more difficult ? I mean, at that point the only differentiating aspect would be the school where…. oh… wait… never mind… silly me.
 Frankly, I think that five years is a long time pretty much in every discipline. I also have to admit it, I have the sense that in some fields there is the tendency to confuse opportunity with availability. The fact that the money is there to prolong a postdoctoral appointment, does not mean that that is necessarily what serves best the interest of the trainee.