Science’s Next Wave Policy Debate--Europe


W e invited each of the European essayists in our feature Too Many or Too Few? The Postdoc Production Policy Debate to read and consider the following document before responding to the ?thought questions? at the end.

Postdoc Production

The number of science postdocs is on the rise. The University of Cambridge, UK, has more than twice as many contract researchers as staff in permanent positions (University of Cambridge Reporter, Special No 8, vol CXXXI, p 38, 2000). In the U.S. the number of biomedical postdocs alone is outpacing the rate of growth of the U.S. labour force by a factor of 3, according to estimates made for the National Research Council?s 2000 book Addressing the Nation?s Changing Needs for Biomedical and Behavioral Scientists . And this is probably an underestimate--many institutions use multiple classifications for postdoctoral researchers and have no employment-tracking system, making it very difficult to get an accurate count.

Differential classification of postdocs begs the question: What is a postdoc, anyway? Traditionally, postdoctoral positions have been thought of as temporary training for full-time academic or research positions (see FASEB?s definition in a recent Next Wave article). But with scientists remaining in postdoc positions for longer and longer periods, some have begun to seek the benefits and rights given to employees. One might wonder--has the postdoc become a job?

Lack of job security is increasingly common in many fields of employment. However, in the case of the young scientist, this is combined with low wages, which makes buffering those insecurities impossible. Postdoc positions are easy to get; faculty positions are not. These days, the academic postdoc position has become a ?holding pattern,? an uncomfortable place for scientists to wait it out until obtaining an independent post.

Thought Questions

  • How would you define ?postdoc?? Is it clearly an apprenticeship/training position, or is it in fact a job? Is it required in your field or economic sector?

  • Are too many people currently undertaking Ph.D.s? Should fewer continue into postdoctoral research?

  • If there are too many Ph.D.s and postdocs, what can and should the major players (governments, industry, funding bodies, and educational institutions) do to remedy the problem? Are these players currently helping or hurting the situation?

  • If the current supply of postdoctoral researchers is "about right," or even too low, to meet the demand for academic research, what strategies can be adopted by the major players to remedy the current uncertainty associated with the ?holding pattern? situation?

  • Should an academic job be the only "positive" career outcome for a Ph.D.? Do you believe that Ph.D. students and postdocs have adequate information and support in exploring other career options?

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