Opinion: The Postdoc Challenge

Financial hardships of young scientists in training are forcing many talented researchers to find new careers.

Aug 1, 2012
Magdia De Jesus

In 2009, as a graduate student that lived on a $19,000 annual stipend in New York City, I did not worry about being unable to readily afford the laptop and printer that would help me write my thesis. I would just charge them to a credit card that I could pay off after I had earned my degree and had landed a competitive postdoctoral position that would help me pay for my graduate school investments. As a postdoc, I thought that I would also be able to help pay for my aging father’s medical bills. It was a promising plan, but one that I soon realized was far from reality.

It is no secret that postdoctoral training in the academic life sciences is now lasting longer than it was just a decade ago. Indeed, a typical postdoc is now estimated to be greater than 3 years with some lasting as long as 7 to 10 years, while the position used to average just 1 to 2 years. This increased duration has been attributed to a number of factors, including a surplus of qualified PhDs, the scarcity of federal research dollars, and a decrease in faculty appointments and positions in industry. While extended postdoctoral training does offer an opportunity to advance a personal research program so as to be more competitive in securing future independent funding, it comes at a cost—the incredible financial challenges that accompany life as a postdoctoral fellow.

In conversations over the past 8 years with many academic postdocs at universities, medical centers, and government agencies, I have heard over and over again that the primary source of job dissatisfaction is not research- or lab-related, but salary-related. Indeed, although most postdocs are creative when it comes to living within their means, it is a financially strenuous period that is characterized by the constant struggle to make ends meet. This is in no small part because postdoctoral training typically coincides with major life events such as getting married, having children, beginning to care for aging parents, and/or paying hefty student loans. In a recent conversation with a group a postdocs about this issue, one mentioned to me that she hesitated having a second child because the costs of baby diapers and formula would dramatically change the budget of other necessities such as gas, food, and extra daycare services for the first child. A second postdoc mentioned that he was afraid of the continuously rising cost of his health insurance premium because it would mean less money for raising his family.

These conversations highlight a major source of personal dissatisfaction and emphasize that our pay scale—the current National Institutes of Health stipend for the entry-level postdoctoral fellow is $39,264 a year—does not reflect our training levels and professional experience. Furthermore, there is no merit-based promotion; the stipend just increases yearly by a few hundred dollars. Additionally, many postdocs do not enjoy the common benefits of industry employment,(especially if institutions treat postdocs as outside contractors) such as retirement plans, comprehensive health insurance plans, commuter benefits and any additional perks that a job in industry might offer.

When professionals outside of the life sciences learn what postdocs make, the reaction is often, “Why do you continue your career as a scientist?” Indeed, the odds of succeeding in academic research are quite grim. According to the NIH, only 26 percent of biomedical sciences PhD recipients in 2012 obtained tenured track positions, down from an already low 34 percent in 1993. And a 2010 article published in The Economist reported that between 2005 and 2009, “America produced more than 100,000 doctoral degrees. In the same period, there were only 16,000 new professorships.” As a result, many talented scientists are choosing to abandon their careers in the life sciences in pursuit of more lucrative opportunities.

The solution to this problem is not easy an one, but there may be some ways that could help offset low stipend levels. For instance, academic institutions could pair up with industry or government to create transition programs to help postdocs move into positions outside of academia. Additionally, financial counseling offered by institutions could alleviate some of the financial anxiety by helping postdocs start retirement plans, even if it means using some of their stipend money.

Strategies to correct the imbalance of incoming scientists to available jobs would also help by shortening the average length of postdocs. Reducing class sizes in graduate programs and setting guidelines as to when older faculty should start thinking about retirement are two possibilities. The NIH acknowledges the problems caused by this bottleneck, but has yet to take any action to correct it. Perhaps the agency should reevaluate the current stipend and grant funding systems in order to limit the numbers of PhDs it supports in academia.

It is clear that something must be done but changes in a system that has been in place for so long and has trained many successful scientists will take time. It is important that these issues continue to be raised by postdoctoral organizations and presented to government agencies as well as the general public to inform them of the value of our training and the current deficiencies of the existing system. What attracts us most a career in science is the passion for experimentation and the pursuit of truth. With the same rigor, we should continue discuss these issues publically, and we will see positive results.

Magdia De Jesus is a Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Life Science Research Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the Wadsworth Center, NYS Department of Health in Albany, New York.

Thank you to all the postdocs in the Mantis laboratory that inspired this opinion piece.