WIKIMEDIA, PEN WAGGENEROver the past three decades, the number of postdoctoral researchers in biomedical science has increased about three-fold, but jobs in industry and academic research have not kept pace with this increase. At the same time, PhD education and postdoctoral training in the sciences has become increasingly exploitative. 

Postdocs carry out the brunt of the scientific research at American research universities. They are at a career stage when they have enough experience to make important contributions and are often the cutting edge of their fields. Yet many are institutionally invisible—counting neither as students nor as staff, and thus often not receiving salary, health insurance or retirement plans comparable to university staff. Many institutions cannot even state how many postdocs they employ. Postdocs are treated as transient satellites, often supported on short-term contracts.

Many young scientists train for over a decade to develop highly specialized technical skills, only to...

Unlike medical students who are responsible for paying their tuition for medical school, many graduate students and the vast majority of postdocs are paid through federal research grants. Their training thus represents an investment of taxpayer money in building the future of biomedical research. If taxpayers were paying for medical students’ training and only 10 percent of medical students went on to practice medicine, the public would not stand for it. But that is exactly what is happening with our biomedical trainees. This is a terrible misuse of the resources that are invested in training highly specialized technical experts, especially now, when research budgets are tight. Furthermore, the loss of postdocs is a waste of the most precious resource of the biomedical research enterprise: the scientific talent, creativity, and energy of young and educated scientists.

To be sure, many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics PhDs who leave academia find creative and fulfilling ways to contribute to society, for example in science communications, science policy, entrepreneurship, research and development at biotech companies, and many others. But the transition from academic science to these so-called alternative careers is fraught with personal and professional difficulty. Many postdocs find themselves at once over-qualified and lacking in work experience, thus making employers reluctant to hire them. Young scientists could offer a lot more to society—and their transition into the workforce would be eased—if their training better prepared them to meet the needs of employers in government and the private sector.

To address this misuse of money and talent, it is necessary to change the incentives created by the funding policies of federal agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

First, funding agencies need to separate research funding from training funding. This would prevent the exploitation of trainees as cheap source of research labor and eliminate the incentive to admit too many students into graduate programs. It would also give trainees more autonomy to develop and pursue interesting avenues of research independently.

Second, research institutions should treat postdocs as employees, and increase the numbers of permanent “staff scientist” positions. In this way, more scientists could continue to use their skills and knowledge to contribute to scientific advancement in the way they were trained to do.

Third, graduate training ought to be changed to include preparation for non-academic careers, because not all trainees could be absorbed into staff scientist positions, nor would they all want to be. Increasing awareness about non-academic career options for young scientists would help trainees make more informed career choices, and ensuring a better match between employers’ needs and graduate training would increase the return on investment in training young scientists when they enter the workforce.

At a time when federal budgets for science have never been tighter, it makes not only ethical but also economic sense to reform graduate and postdoctoral training in the sciences—for the benefit of trainees, the economy, and the future of biomedical research.   

Viviane Callier is a research scholar at the Ronin Institute for Independent Scholarship and senior science writer at The Scientific Consulting Group.

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