Science’s Next Wave Policy Debate--U.S. and Canada


W e invited each of the North American 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 in the United States is on the rise. In fact, the number of biomedical postdocs alone is outpacing the rate of growth of the U.S. labor 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 postdocs 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?

The classification of postdocs is only one symptom of a lack of policy where postdocs are concerned. Postdoc stipends are unregulated at many academic institutions, with no set minimum, no review process, and no annual increase policy. It is only very recently that some universities are starting to use the NIH?s National Research Service Award levels as guidelines, and only a few of these universities have actually created a policy stating that the NRSA levels are the de facto minimum.

Well, then, if the compensation is low and if there are so many postdocs already, why would anyone want to be a postdoc? In some disciplines, newly minted Ph.D.s simply have no choice. What used to be a voluntary 1- to 2-year training period to learn additional skills and develop an independent project has become a required 4- to 5-year (or longer) apprenticeship period for scientists in many fields. Scientists in some disciplines--such as genetics and neuroscience--do more than one postdoctoral stint. Postdocs have become a sizable fraction (about 12%) of the science and engineering Ph.D. workforce at research universities, according to NSF data. In the life sciences, they make up about 20% of the Ph.D.s working at research universities. And if one considers a broad definition of ?postdoc? as Ph.D. scientists who are employed at universities but are not on the tenure track, then the number of life science postdocs could be about one-third the size of the life sciences faculty in the United States.

Postdoc positions are easy to get; tenure-track faculty positions are not. These days, the academic postdoc position has become a ?holding pattern,? a place where scientists wait it out until obtaining a faculty position. And when postdocs finally do obtain a faculty position, that job is often not on the tenure track: According to the NRC report mentioned above, the number of biomedical nontenure-track employees has mushroomed 10-fold from 668 in 1975 to 6822 in 1997.

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?

  • How would you assess the numbers of Ph.D. graduate students and postdocs? Are there too many or too few? Are the numbers ?just right??

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

  • Below are some remedies and strategies that have been proposed by those who say that there are too many Ph.D. students and postdocs. Are any of these feasible? Do you have other suggestions?

    • Limiting supply. One of the NRC?s recommendations was this: ?There should be no growth in the aggregate number of Ph.D.s awarded in the basic biomedical sciences.? Can and should government agencies and/or universities control the supply of Ph.D.s? Should the numbers of visas to foreign scientists (who make up about 50% of the postdoc population) be further restricted? Should the supply be limited by reducing scientific outreach to high schools--that is, should we stop encouraging young people from entering science as a career? Is it ethical to encourage the production of more Ph.D.s? What are the pros and cons of limiting the pool of trained scientists?

    • Redefining success. Should an academic job be the only "positive" career outcome for a Ph.D.? Do you believe that alternative career outcomes are adequately articulated for graduate students and postdocs? Do you believe that students and postdocs have adequate support in exploring other career options? Given the FASEB definition of a postdoc, should those interested in a nonacademic career path be discouraged from applying, or can the postdoc be viewed as extra science training for a myriad of legitimate careers besides the academic track?

    • Examine tenure. Should some or most postdoc positions be reclassified as nontenure-track staff research positions within labs of tenure-track PIs? What about tenure? Is the tenure process important to the progress of science?

  • Follow Science Careers

    Search Jobs

    Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

    Top articles in Careers