It is now clear to anyone familiar with biomedical academic research in the United States that the situation of postdocs in this country needs serious attention; no reasonable person would debate this point. This necessarily includes fundamental changes in the current academic culture that would allow a revamped definition of postdoc status, the creation of new kinds of positions within the academic setting, and genuine encouragement of alternate career paths.
The classical definition of a postdoc is an apprentice or trainee who is obtaining valuable experience in order to attain his or her professional goals. This inadequate and outdated description has fostered inappropriate perceptions of postdoc status that have affected all aspects of institutional and government policy. Although it is true that most postdocs do receive valuable training during their tenure, it is also true that employees in other professional jobs are constantly learning and honing their skills. The role of postdocs in the research enterprise is not adequately characterized by the one-way benefit relationship of a trainee. In addition, this definition disregards the many situations in which postdocs are hired to do very specific projects that utilize skills they already possess. These individuals are in a sense cheap labor, and here the "trainee" definition is not only inadequate but also inaccurate.
Postdocs are fundamental contributors to the research output of academics labs, and their work is therefore directly related to the amount of grant money that comes into institutions. Postdocs do the bulk of the hands-on teaching that goes on in labs--by training graduate students, medical students, and technicians, for example. In many cases, postdocs not only bring in their own funding but also assist their principal investigators (PIs) in writing their grants. All of these activities can be viewed as benefiting the postdoc in some way, such as gaining experience in teaching or grant writing, but the benefits to institutions and their faculty contributed by postdocs cannot be disregarded.
The postdoc and the institution/lab have a reciprocal relationship of support and mutual dependence that I would argue is analogous to an employer-employee relationship rather than a mentor-trainee association. That's not to say that most individual PIs do not make important mentoring contributions to their postdocs--they do. But on balance the relationship is as I have described it. Student status for postdocs, which exists in a good number of institutions including my own, is completely inappropriate, if not offensive.
The relegation of postdocs to trainee status has contributed to abysmally low salaries and lack of appropriate benefits. The argument persists, either stated or implied, that postdoc compensation is adequate, because it is only a temporary position undertaken for their own professional development. This perception flies in the face of all evidence to the contrary. With the increasing amount of time spent in graduate school and postdoc positions, the average age of postdocs is creeping up, and the amount of time spent in postgraduate "training" can easily be 10 to 12 years or more. This means that many postdocs have families and are worrying about preparing for retirement and their children's educations before they get their first official job.
Why is the amount of time spent in a postdoc position(s) increasing? Clearly, there are not enough jobs for all the postdocs being trained. All PIs train many more postdocs in their lifetimes than required to replace themselves, and new faculty positions are not increasing at anywhere near the rate required to compensate for this. However, postdocs possess invaluable talents and are relatively inexpensive to employ. In addition, hiring postdocs at academic institutions in the United States is solely the responsibility of individual PIs, who need experiments to be done and papers to be written so that they can continue to get funding for their labs. These two factors mean that PIs will hire as many postdocs as they can, with no incentive to limit postdoc numbers, because they are competing with other labs that are doing the same.
Because there is no incentive for PIs, and therefore institutions, to self-regulate the numbers of postdocs they train, the burden of controlling postdoc population growth falls on the shoulders of the government. The government controls the postdoc and graduate student supply already as it is the major single source of funding. Numbers should be controlled at the level of enrollment into graduate institutions, before too many Ph.D.s and postdocs have entered into the pipeline. This would include both foreign and domestic graduate students, but foreign students should not be preferentially limited.
Of course, individuals are ultimately responsible for the career choices they make, as they are the ones who will suffer the consequences if they find that the career paths they have imagined and trained for might not be open to them. However, there are very few hard data available on what happens to people after they leave their postdoc and how these actual outcomes relate to their initial goals when they entered graduate school. At my institution, a recent survey of postdocs revealed that more than one-third of individuals who start their postdoc with the intention of obtaining a faculty position change their minds after the first several years. Institutions that receive federal funding should be required to keep data on the career goals of their students when they enter and leave their programs, as well as where these individuals go after they leave. Such data collection is standard practice in other disciplines, such as medicine and law.
On the demand side, the pool of "legitimate" jobs for Ph.D.s should be expanded. There are many alternative career paths, including industry jobs, science writing, patent law, and consulting. Some might know they are interested in these kinds of careers when they start their graduate work. However, within the academic culture, such careers are not considered comparable in value to pursuing an academic position. I like to call this the "monk culture" aspect of academics: Only if you love research enough to sacrifice yourself completely to the system as it exists can you be sure you belong there. Institutions should offer alternative career information and assistance for all postdocs they are training (and benefiting from), because they know only too well that not all of them will be able to or want to obtain academic jobs.
What about those who know absolutely that they want to stay in an academic setting? Institutions should establish time limits for postdocs, after which they must be hired as research associates with commensurate salaries and benefits. In addition, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) should offer grants explicitly to Ph.D. researchers who want to continue to do research in an academic lab but do not want to become PIs themselves. For those going on to academic positions, more career transition awards need to be created. The 3-year time limit for postdoc fellowships is too short for the vast majority of faculty-destined postdocs to get enough publications under their belt in order to land that first academic position. This leaves PIs to pick up the salaries of senior postdocs and leaves postdocs more dependent rather than more self-sufficient.
In summary, there are too many people in the Ph.D. pipeline in biomedical sciences for the goal of tenure-track positions for all to be feasible. These numbers should be controlled to some degree at the level of graduate programs. In addition, individuals should be provided with accurate information regarding career placement data so that they can make their own informed decisions before they have invested too much time in their education and training. There are many nontraditional career paths for Ph.D.s, and preparation for these alternatives needs to be truly supported by institutions and PIs. Non-PI research positions and grants for those who want to continue to do research in academics should be created and supported as a legitimate career goal. Finally, more transition career awards need to be offered to assist senior postdocs in becoming independent researchers. Limiting the supply, expanding the current roster of "suitable" jobs for postdocs, and assisting postdocs in transition to PI status will ensure that all parties involved in the research enterprise achieve their goals.
Karen S. Christopherson is a postdoc in the Department of Neurobiology at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Readers can contact Karen at email@example.com.