Opinion: The Postdoc Crisis

A lack of jobs leaves postdocs without a future in academia in the United States. Meanwhile, other challenges threaten the postdoc community abroad.

By | January 4, 2016

© LIGHTSPRING/SHUTTERSTOCK

Postdoctoral fellows play a critical role in the research productivity of any country. Currently, the United States has a relatively strong postdoc infrastructure, offering higher salaries and more benefits than most other countries. Postdocs also have support from the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) and postdoc offices in most American universities. However, limited growth in federal research funding during the last decade has made it increasingly hard for postdocs to find permanent jobs. The limited funding has also created a highly competitive environment for those who do find positions as principal investigators (PIs). Under constant pressure to produce high-impact papers and secure large grants, many PIs no longer invest adequate time and attention in the development of their postdocs, treating them instead as a skilled labor force.

Conversely, research and development (R&D) funds have increased nearly tenfold in China over that same period, and the number of postdocs has risen with it. But postdoc salaries and benefits remain low. According to a recent survey, most Chinese scientists felt that they received insufficient mentoring during their progression from PhD to postdoc to independent researcher in China, and there is no organized infrastructure to deal with challenges postdocs face there. If the lack of investment in postdocs continues, both the U.S. and China could see their reputations as research powerhouses diminished, which would only serve to exacerbate the postdoc problem.

My colleagues and I recently surveyed the postdoc community, the amount of federal R&D funds, and the annual number of publications in both the U.S. and China (BioScience, 65:1088-95, 2015). Between 1993 and 2012, China exhibited exceptional growth in all three of these areas: the total number of domestic and international postdocs increased substantially each year; government funding rose at a rate of approximately 18.7 percent per year, resulting in an increase of approximately 2,273 percent (from $7.08 billion to $168.2 billion) over the 20-year period examined; and the number of publications has increased fourfold. In the U.S., on the other hand, the number of postdocs has not increased; federal funding has decreased approximately 0.2 percent per year, resulting in a total decline of 4.7 percent between 1993 and 2012; and the annual publication output has remained relatively constant. The relative difference in publication trends held true even when examining only those papers published in the high-impact journals Science and Nature.

There is no doubt that these three factors—postdocs, federal funding, and publications—are correlated. There is a stark difference between China’s upward trends and the U.S.’s neutral and slightly downward trends, which raises an interesting question: Could increased funding for postdocs spur greater scientific productivity in the U.S.?

In a survey conducted at Harvard Medical School, 70–97 percent of papers published between 1990 and 1999 from select high-profile labs, including 43 percent of papers published in Science, had a postdoc as the first author (Science, 285:1531-32, 1999). This trend, which continues in the U.S., indicates that postdocs remain one of the most productive groups in research. In addition to publications, postdocs bring new research ideas, mentor graduate and undergraduate students, and help PIs write grants.

One trend we noted in our recent study is the significant movement of young researchers from China to the U.S. for their postdoctoral training. One half of current postdocs in the United States are non-US citizens with temporary visas. Only 11 percent of China’s PhD recipients continue their research as postdocs at Chinese institutions (Nature, 452:1028-29, 2008); many head to the United States. Some Chinese researchers choose to expatriate even earlier in their training; the number of Chinese graduate students in the U.S. more than tripled from 1987 to 2010. China is now the largest source of foreign science doctoral graduates in the U.S. China’s notoriously low stipends are pushing talented young researchers toward postdoctoral opportunities abroad, and the widespread use of Mandarin has created a language barrier that often deters international postdocs from accepting positions in China. On the other hand, international postdocs are often attracted to the U.S. because they believe it provides a better opportunity than their home countries for advancing their research career. The U.S. is able to offer higher postdoc salaries and greater benefits, and the country’s cultural heterogeneity makes integrating into the new environment much easier for international postdocs.

However, postdocs in the U.S. are facing increasing uncertainty of landing a permanent job. Instead of creating job openings for permanent staff scientists, PIs and some funding agencies tend to favor hiring postdocs, partly due to postdocs’ relatively low salaries and high research productivity. A recent estimate showed that only around 15 percent of U.S. postdocs secure tenure-track jobs, while another survey found that the unemployment rate after completing a postdoctoral fellowship has more than doubled from four percent in 2008 to 10 percent in 2012.

As a result, postdocs are staying in these low-paying positions much longer. While a typical postdoc position used to average just one to two years, many young researchers today remain postdocs for upwards of three to five years (Nature, 452:1028-29, 2008; Nature, 471:578, 2011). Others are becoming discouraged by the prospect of a life in academia and choosing to take positions in industry, or to abandon primary research altogether.

In order to maintain their high output of top-tier research, both the U.S. and China must enact significant changes. China must direct more funds toward increasing postdoc stipends and improving the quality of research training, and the U.S. needs an influx of financial support, along with maintenance of current postdoc standards. In addition, both governments should offer specialized counseling for postdocs and open all postdoc fellowship programs to national and international researchers.

Changes must also occur at the university level. Academic institutions should teach students about the academic career path, collaborative research, and time and laboratory management; revise the selection criteria for incoming graduate students to ensure that only the most talented candidates enroll; and conduct surveys to determine which types of students tend to perform better in industry or academic settings, then redesign graduate programs accordingly. Additionally, if institutions are unwilling or unable to create new tenure-track faculty positions, they should create additional permanent staff research positions.

Recent trends in the U.S. and China are keeping postdocs undervalued and unemployed. This ultimately will drive bright minds away from research, and limit or cease altogether our advancements in science. My coauthors and I believe that acting on these recommendations will help to raise standards for the global postdoc community and the scientific community as a whole. 

Muhammad Z. Ahmed is a postdoctoral associate in the Tropical Research and Educational Center at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences. He formerly held postdoc positions at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and at South China Agricultural University in Guangzhou, China.

Advertisement

Add a Comment

Avatar of: You

You

Processing...
Processing...

Sign In with your LabX Media Group Passport to leave a comment

Not a member? Register Now!

LabX Media Group Passport Logo

Comments

Avatar of: Natick4

Natick4

Posts: 4

January 4, 2016

Umm... teach!

I lasted two years as a post-doc, and I really enjoyed it despite the fact that I made less money ($k/yr) than my age. However, after limited success at obtaining a tenure-track position without a giant grant in my back pocket, I made the switch to teaching at the community college level. It's not for everyone, but I do love it.

The expectations that young researchers will have access to large grants early in their careers is fantasy, pawned off by tenured-track facutly who received their PhD's in the 1980's (some the 1970's). It's just math - there are way more post-docs than available teaching positions. 

 

Avatar of: Zafar Iqbal, PhD

Zafar Iqbal, PhD

Posts: 9

January 4, 2016

I think big pharmas should provide appropriate funding for postdocs doing original work that ultimately benefits the industry. Currently most of the basic work is done with federal government support and the product is utilized by the industry. 

Avatar of: SaG

SaG

Posts: 3

January 4, 2016

How does this, 

"open all postdoc fellowship programs to national and international researchers."

 solve the stated problem,

"A lack of jobs leaves postdocs without a future in academia"?  

Avatar of: Mike Holloway

Mike Holloway

Posts: 7

January 4, 2016

 

 

Same old, same old since the early 90's.  The one change, the one slightly bright spot, is that "they should create additional permanent staff research positions" has finally made it's way into the narrative since Francis Collins raised this solution many years ago now.  One continuing disappointment is the lack of any recognition of why this would do wonders to increase the attractiveness of research as a career, and it's not primarily so that the exponentially increasing army of post-docs can get a job.  No, it's so that the number of post-docs can be brought into an honest correlation with positions available by making lab productivity more dependent on trained professionals and less on cheap labor.  In other words, to stop the process that is creating the crisis.  But no, this article continues the cynical tradition of denying there's any problem with every lab producing too many PhDs and post-docs for the sake of cheap labor.

 

 

 

If someone was actually concerned about US PhDs being able to find a job, the brake would be put on job visas being awarded to pharm and ag companies when US PhDs are going unemployed.  Biomed PhDs unable to find a job in their field is far higher than 10%.

 

Avatar of: Thermal

Thermal

Posts: 1

January 4, 2016

I was a postdoc in the early 1990s, working in the Earth Sciences - in my case, an attempt to embark on my third postdoc was unexpectedly pre-empted by a permanent employment opportunity @ the same instutution that I was applying to. A very fortuitous situation, to say the least. Though there is considerable variation between disciplines, what I've observed is that the situation regarding the postdoc-to-employment opportunity ratio has remained pretty much unchanged over the past 20-25 years, except that it is far more challenging to land a postdoc position these days.

Graduate students in my field of study were encouraged to apply only for academic positions, and those who ended up outside the University system were essentially shunned or treated as pariahs. Sadly, this has come back to haunt the academics, as fewer academic positions become available, and postdoc positions, themselves, are becoming increasingly competitive. One surefire way to increase the awareness of the true diversity of meaningful employment opportunities for PhDs is for University departments to nurture their relationships with professional alumni. Because i am now a virtual non-entity in my former field of study does not mean that I haven't made scientific contributions in other areas. It's ironic that a PhD can prepare you to do a wide vartiety of things in the STEM world, but the degree-granting institutions themselves are not able to recognize this fact when it comes to non-academic employment.

Avatar of: FJScientist

FJScientist

Posts: 27

January 4, 2016

Thank-you to Dr. Ahmed for highlighting an issue that has been around for a long time: there are more post-docs in the system than there are academic jobs available. In the 1990's, the pharmaceutical and nascent biotech industries provided jobs for that excess capacity. A parallel expansion in the amounts of federal funding in the 1990s enabled the creation of more post-doctoral training spots available to fill that demand. But with the softening of the economy and science job market, post-docs in training found themselves without jobs to access. The solutions include enhanced funding to create more jobs (Dr. Ahmed's solution) or, in the absence of enhanced funding (which is the well-established trend in the US) to have those post-docs use their knowledge in non-academic areas.

I would not recommend that US post-docs finding themselves without an academic position to wait for more academic jobs to appear in the US. The political winds have been blowing against that in the US for some time. Given the nature of how science is supported in the US, either through grant funding or educational funding, the only route to increasing the numbers of academic jobs for post-doctoral trainees is to advocate for an elevation in research or educational funding. We can't just say "the universities should create more tenure-track positions" without some plan in place about how the universities can afford to do that. Failing that increase in funding, post-docs are well-advised to focus on non-academic jobs either related to their training or even any job in which their training provides unique insights and value.

Sadly, there have always been more trainees than there are jobs available in any field, science or otherwise. Being realistic, it has to be that way since there will always be some who maybe are not quite as gifted as others. Dr. Ahmed refers to a 10% unemployment rate for post-docs. If Dr. Ahmed means that 10% are not in a science-related job, some would say that post-docs are far better off than almost any other trainee in any other job sector. If it is 10% unemployed in any job whatsoever, then we have to find out what is impeding highly training post-docs from accessing non-science positions where their training can be of value.

January 4, 2016

... I'll just leave this here for your consideration: 

https://www.facebook.com/notes/national-postdoc-union/ideas-for-expanding-opportunity-and-innovation-in-science-careers-version-2-revi/454721067976787

"Ideas for expanding opportunity and innovation in science careers - Version 2 (REVISED) August 18, 2013 (3:00 PM EST)"

Avatar of: Chip Mackenzie

Chip Mackenzie

Posts: 1

January 4, 2016

It is sad to see how much things have degraded since I left academics 30 years ago to go into software development.  Even 30 years ago, it was clear that competition for grants made it likely that there would be years without grant support.  I was amazed that my very bright graduate advisor ended up focusing on administration and teaching within 10 years of my graduation.  

While the US still produces amazing science, without more opportunities for new researchers we are likely to be unable to maintain our position as the primier generator of new ideas.  

I was delighted to see the increase for NIH this year.  Now we need to elect people that understand how important science is to our nation!

Avatar of: Sue50

Sue50

Posts: 11

January 5, 2016

Having had to change careers in my 40's from engineering into the medical field I have another view of this subject. The field of research has been overwhelmed by as you say 50% non-American citizens. They not only get scholarships to our universities for their studies, but are willing to accept less pay to get USA citizenships after having been here 12 years, with a built in sponsor-grant research. So the pay have nose dived, just as it has in engineering which the pay has been flat for 30 years. I would like to know the percentage of Post Doctorates who return to their home countries, I beat it's lower than 10%. So in America we have been flooded by alot of cheap labor, with a limited amount of jobs, once again.

Avatar of: Zee

Zee

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from Natick4 made on January 4, 2016

January 6, 2016

Community college is a good option. I am glad that you found a way out and you are feeling satisfied with it. But if someone has invested 10-12 years of his or her life performing research and publishing papers (during PhD and multiple postdocs), it would be hard for them to switch from research to just teaching. But anyway teaching positions are also not enough to accommodate this influx of postdocs and PhD graduates. To me, the best solution would be to increase R&D funds.

Avatar of: Zee

Zee

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from SaG made on January 4, 2016

January 6, 2016

If you happened to read Dr. Ahmed 's main article Ahmed et al. 2015 published in BioScience, here is the link: (http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2015/09/24/biosci.biv125), it is explained that international postdocs played a significant role in making the U.S. a global leader in sci and tech. Sci and tech in the U.S. has been heavily dependent on international postdocs for many decades while China has been trying hard to attract international postdocs for the same reason. So far China has had less success in recruiting international postdocs, even though they are ranked second overall in research output, as was measured by the number of publications in Ahmed et al (2015). If the U.S. will not create more positions (either by opening all positions for international and national or by increasing the research funds etc.), these hard working and talented postdocs will seek positions in China. This would seriously threaten the U.S. global ranking in science and technology.

Avatar of: GeorgeTyrebyter

GeorgeTyrebyter

Posts: 2

January 9, 2016

The situation is clear. The NIH and NSF have decided that allowing all foreign Ph.D. to work here will reduce costs. We have a flood of foreign Ph.D.s, which did not exist 20 years ago. This has ensured that US scientists cannot find jobs in the US, but scientists from other countries can. OPT training, which allows foreign students to get jobs after finishing the degree for a period, allow employers to HIRE WITH A TAX CUT OF $10,000. It is cheaper to hire a foreign worker. That is wrong. 

Avatar of: GeorgeTyrebyter

GeorgeTyrebyter

Posts: 2

Replied to a comment from Sue50 made on January 5, 2016

January 9, 2016

And when you state this obvious truth, morons call you a racist. I agree with you. The situation is terrible. US workers should have priority for jobs in the US. I bet you had to switch from engineering as that area is overwhelmed by foreign scabs as well.

Avatar of: Zee

Zee

Posts: 3

Replied to a comment from GeorgeTyrebyter made on January 9, 2016

January 9, 2016

Foreign postdocs can only work in the U.S. on two working visas, J1 and H1B. According to the department of Labor, employers have to pay standard wages to all H-1B nonimmigrant workers at least equal to the actual wage paid by the employer to other workers with similar experience and qualifications for the job in question, or the prevailing wage for the occupation in the area of intended employment. So all of those postdocs who are on H1B visas are not working here only because their employers find them cheaper. Most of them are very competent and get job after competing and proving themselves better than other competing candidates. All those who are on J1 can accept any salary to work in the U.S. since there are no standard wages laws on J1 nonimmigrants. However, in case of J1, candidates have to leave the U.S. after 5 years. Most postdocs on J1 are sent back to their home country after five years except those who work extraordinarily and are able to apply for NIW (National Interest Wavier) to continue their stay in the U.S. The competition for NIW is always tough and one has to have an extremely good record of publications with enough citations to apply. There is always a limited quota each year for NIW applicants. Therefore, the competition for foreign postdocs to survive in the U.S. is exceptionally difficulty (i.e. Do or Die).

Avatar of: Prakasha

Prakasha

Posts: 3

January 20, 2016

Since the entire article is on comparision between USA and China, the title should have been focused as well. Europe is not in the picture at all. 

It is common trait in the east that any one who gets a Ph.D. would go for postdoctoral training in the west or in Japan. This will have a positive advantage in securing jobs in their own countries or somewhereelse. I have seen Ph.D.s who are ready to go to any country other than their own country for postdoctoral training. 

PhD will be the minimum qualification for many jobs in the future - when we have more numbers of Ph.D.s. Let us face it. 

Avatar of: Prakasha

Prakasha

Posts: 3

January 20, 2016

Since the entire article is on comparision between USA and China, the title should have been focused as well. Europe is not in the picture at all. 

It is common trait in the east that any one who gets a Ph.D. would go for postdoctoral training in the west or in Japan. This will have a positive advantage in securing jobs in their own countries or somewhereelse. I have seen Ph.D.s who are ready to go to any country other than their own country for postdoctoral training. 

PhD will be the minimum qualification for many jobs in the future - when we have more numbers of Ph.D.s. Let us face it. 

It is not fair to compare salaries with other jobs!

Popular Now

  1. NYU Halts Studies, Suspends Investigator
    The Nutshell NYU Halts Studies, Suspends Investigator

    Experiments conducted at the New York University School of Medicine violated several research standards, according to US Food and Drug Administration investigators.

  2. Exercise-Induced Muscle Factor Promotes Memory
  3. The Meaning of Pupil Dilation
    Daily News The Meaning of Pupil Dilation

    Scientists are using pupil measurements to study a wide range of psychological processes and to get a glimpse into the mind.

  4. Brexit’s Effects on Science
Biosearch Technologies