Are There Too Many Postdocs?


Universities are in the people and knowledge business. Highly skilled people are needed by industry, commerce, the service sector, government, and universities themselves. If universities are in the business of providing highly skilled people for the nation, it is a moot point as to why they keep so many of the nation's intellectual elite trapped in short-term postdoctoral appointments.

Let me declare a firm belief in the importance of Ph.D. training for a broad range of careers, in academia and elsewhere. Few fields of national endeavour could not benefit from the independence of thought, the creativity, the self-motivation, and the organisational flair that Ph.D. training instils. And also, from personal experience, I recognise the benefits to the individual that flow from a period of postdoctoral research. A Ph.D. is essentially a research apprenticeship. Once the Ph.D. has provided evidence that one can pursue independent scholarship, then a postdoc appointment offers the chance to demonstrate a degree of independence, while completing publication of Ph.D. outcomes and establishing a presence in the research community. But a period as a postdoc must be seen as one step in a career progression and not as a career in its own right.

The diagram below shows a simple route map through the academic system. Most graduates leave university with their first degree and enter the job market. Here the flow is dictated by market forces, although universities provide excellent career advice to undergraduates and take great pride in league tables that demonstrate the employability of their graduates. But for many the first degree is not enough. A judgement has to be made as to how a second degree will enhance career prospects. The second degree might be some vocational training, at the master's level, where the route to the outside world is well defined. Alternatively, the next step might be to pursue research. But for what purpose? It is naïve for those studying for a Ph.D. to think that this will secure them an academic appointment (although a Ph.D. tends these days to be the very minimum requirement for such a career path). But it is equally naïve for them not to recognise the manifold benefits of Ph.D. training for a host of exciting career options.

Armed with a Ph.D., where next? While universities pride themselves on their career advice to undergraduates and plotting their graduates' subsequent employability, I know of very few universities that proffer advice to postgraduates or track the employability of their Ph.D.s. All too often Ph.D. graduates "sleepwalk" into postdoc appointments--not just one but a string of appointments that often leads nowhere. Why? Well, it is an easy option. There is no shortage of postdoc positions on offer. Universities have spectacularly expanded their contract research portfolios, as they are forced to generate income and demonstrate their scholastic merit from the scale of their research income. Ph.D. graduates are needed to carry out the research, and universities have all too often adopted a "hired hands" approach to Ph.D. employment, taking on the hired hands while research funds for a particular project last but terminating employment when the project ends. Such a hired-hand mentality means that career advice and personal development opportunities are overlooked, and the rudiments of best employment practise are ignored.

Why do we need postdocs? First, there have to be people to get the research done. Funders, principal investigators, and postdocs themselves recognise this particular important requirement. Second, a postdoc is considered to be a steppingstone to an academic appointment. Many postdocs believe that securing a postdoc position means that an academic career can almost be assured. Sadly, this is not the case (even if this was considered desirable): The demographics suggest that at most about 20% of postdocs are needed to sustain the academic population. The final reason for the existence of postdocs is that they represent a means of knowledge transfer to industry, commerce, and the broader economy.

After a period of postdoc research, with its many and varied benefits to the individual, the university, and the national research effort, a significant flow of talented people from the "hothouse" of academia to the external workforce is needed if the nation is to reap the full benefits of the substantial investment in the Ph.D. training of individuals. This is "knowledge transfer on the hoof." Postdocs moving to companies can retain their links with erstwhile academic colleagues, to strengthen academic-industrial collaborations. There are so many spectacular examples of individuals moving on to industry, government, teaching, start-up companies, the media, and elsewhere after a 2- or 3-year postdoc "leavening" following their Ph.D. that it is surprising that others do not see this as a most attractive route for career enrichment.

If we are to encourage greater flow of highly skilled people from academia to the broader community, then whose responsibility is it to catalyse such a flow? Certainly the universities must play a greater role, by offering the same excellent career advice and tracking for their postdocs that they do for their undergraduates. They should see that the postdoc experience is needed not only for future progression to faculty appointments but also to fulfil their role of providing the nation with highly skilled people at all levels (graduate, postgraduate, and postdoctoral). Investment in personal development and career enhancement while individuals are in postdoc positions will clearly benefit a university if an individual stays in academia--but it should also be seen as a university's contribution to national well-being if a postdoc chooses to move out of academia to pursue other opportunities. Universities need to change their hired-hand philosophy. Linking an individual's employment to the duration of a specific research grant represents arcane employment practise. (A change is finally being forced by European Union legislation.)

Government funding agencies supporting research in academia also have a responsibility to provide support to move people on from postdoc appointments to positions elsewhere (to realise the broadest possible benefits from "knowledge transfer). Within the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), if postdocs wish to transfer their knowledge and skills to a company they have been collaborating with, then we automatically give them their salary for a year in the company. There is no obligation on the individual to stay with the company--after a year they may wish to return to academia--and no obligation on the company to offer them employment beyond the year funded by EPSRC. But at least the year in industry has offered a broadening experience and will look good on the individual's CV. The offer also extends to a postdoc moving to a university-sponsored start-up company resulting from EPSRC research funding.

But the main responsibility for a postdoc's career progression is with the individual concerned. Of course it is great if the university, as a good employer, offers career advice and support for personal development. And funders can be helpful in catalysing the flow of talented people out of universities. But I have grown increasingly exasperated over the years by postdocs who whinge about universities as employers, the research councils and others as funders, governments as policymakers--yet fail to recognise that in large measure the future lies in their own hands.

The Ph.D. experience is one that is enriching in many ways. Research is very rewarding. But so are many other career opportunities that can be greatly enhanced by having engaged in research. Although one might well make the case that there are too many Ph.D. graduates on short-term postdoc appointments, one could never make the case that the nation is producing too many Ph.D.s. We need to demonstrate that the Ph.D. is a valued qualification in industry, commerce, government, teaching, the military, the service sector, the media, finance, the social services, the voluntary sector, and so forth.

How do we break the mindset that the Ph.D. is the qualification for an academic career, and that if a postdoc appointment is not followed by the offer of a tenured faculty post that this represents some sort of failure? It doesn't. It represents a wonderful opportunity!

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