Postdoc Production--A Funding Agency Perspective


Is a postdoctoral fellowship a wise career choice for the newly minted doctoral degree recipient interested in a biomedical research career? The answer to this question used to be an enthusiastic "yes!" Recently, however, the answer has shifted from a strong "yes" to a qualified "maybe." The reason for this shift is relatively simple and has been widely documented: The number of postdocs in training significantly exceeds the projected availability of faculty positions. Moreover, training periods are increasing, and scientists in many disciplines are finding it necessary to do more than one postdoc, often with no permanent position in sight. This harsh reality has resulted in a crisis of expectations among postdocs and has led to an extensive national debate.

As a private voluntary health agency with a long record of funding postdoctoral training, the National Multiple Sclerosis Society has an interest in this issue. Our mission is to end the devastating effects of multiple sclerosis (MS). Postdocs supported through our fellowship programs or our research grants are on the front lines of MS research and undoubtedly play an important role in finding novel treatment and eventually a cure for this disease. We need postdocs! However, it is also clear that if not addressed, the increasing career frustration experienced by current postdocs, particularly in biomedical research, will lead future Ph.D. recipients to opt out of a research career. Such an outcome would compromise our ability to achieve our mission.

So, what can funders do to help resolve this crisis of expectations among the postdoc population? Through their policies and their funding priorities, funding agencies must strive to improve the quality of the postdoctoral experience and limit the retention of individuals in "perennial" postdocs. More specifically, public and private funding agencies can:

  • Establish policies that emphasize the temporary nature of a postdoc. Ideally, the postdoc training period should be limited to a total of 5 years or less. After 5 years of training, the postdoc should either move to a more permanent senior staff position, or should seek an alternate career. Funding agencies can and should structure their policies to encourage this outcome.

  • Review on a regular basis the salary and benefits they provide in order to ensure that they are appropriate and competitive. Although this will not solve the problem of diminished career opportunities, adequate compensation will, at a minimum, improve the quality of the postdoctoral experience.

  • Work with institutions to ensure the fair and equitable treatment of postdocs receiving independent fellowships. It is troubling that at some institutions, postdocs lose their access to health benefits when they succeed in securing independent fellowships. Funding agencies can play a role in encouraging best practices at institutions receiving grant and fellowship monies.

  • Establish innovative funding programs like the Burroughs-Wellcome Fund Career Award in Biomedical Sciences or our organization?s new Career Transition Fellowship, which facilitate the transition from postdoctoral training to faculty appointment. While these awards are highly competitive and limited in number, they nonetheless represent a step forward that will help bridge this tough career transition.

While there are some steps that funding agencies can take address the question of postdoc production, there are limits. Funding agencies cannot:

  • Regulate the numbers of Ph.D.s produced in the United States. While funding agencies provide substantial support for graduate education, the number of Ph.D.s produced ultimately rests with academic institutions. Any attempt to control Ph.D. production by withholding or reducing support for graduate students would likely fail and could in the long term do more harm than good.

  • Mandate that institutions treat postdocs like permanent employees. Funding agencies can encourage institutions to treat trainees equitably, but ultimately the decision of how to classify a postdoc rests with each institution.

  • Force institutions to create more academic staff positions as an alternative to faculty appointments. Funding agencies can adopt policies that support such staff positions on research grants, but the creation of such positions lies with each institution.

Ultimately, all of the stakeholders bear responsibility for solving the career challenges faced by postdocs.

Prospective graduate students and current graduate students must become more proactive in evaluating their career decisions and actively plan their post-Ph.D. career. Simply focusing on completing the Ph.D. is insufficient. Individuals need to be mindful of the challenges they will face if they choose an academic research career and should plan their postdoctoral training accordingly.

Mentors must pay greater attention to training the fellow for a career in science and should also be open to helping postdocs find career options beyond the traditional career track. All too often, postdocs are discouraged from thinking about alternative careers because mentors cling to the myth that a research career is the only legitimate option for someone with a Ph.D. Such attitudes only exacerbate the problem of postdoc production.

Academic institutions should adopt consistent policies regarding postdoctoral training, should be willing to create staff positions for senior postdocs, and should make career counseling available to postdocs so that they can explore options beyond the laboratory.

Postdocs should continue to organize themselves and make their voices heard. The growth of postdoc associations on university campuses is a positive step and should continue.

The challenge facing the postdoc community is significant. Addressing the problems and working together to implement solutions will take time. However, I am confident that the ongoing conversation will benefit the scientific community at large.

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