Postdoctoral Training: a European Perspective


Postdoctoral research positions were originally conceived as a training phase intended to promote the professional development of recently minted researchers. It was considered to be a period of advanced professional apprenticeship, particularly for those aiming for full-time academic or research positions. There is no doubt that the postdoc position has fulfilled this role in the past. But times have changed, and postdocs have seen a dramatic alteration in their fortunes.

Although it is difficult to find statistics covering Europe as a whole, there is no reason to think that the academic world here is not evolving along the same trends as in the United States (even with the inevitable delay of a few years). In the United States, the number of postdocs in science and engineering has risen about 50% since the early 1980s, while the number of scientists holding faculty positions has increased by just less then 5%. The resulting bottleneck is the principal reason that many of today?s Ph.D.s are consciously turning to postdoc appointments--not because they desire a higher level of training, but mainly as a form of temporary employment (not necessarily underpaid) while waiting for other career options.

Meanwhile the remaining people, those who opted for a postdoc with a less clear vision of reality, will be forced to accept their almost dead-end situation when, up to two or three 'training periods' later, they lose their rose-tinted spectacles. Thus depending on one?s personal wishes, or experience, the same postdoc training may be considered either as a parking area or as purgatory--a "postdoc holding pattern."

When one considers also the lack of interest shown by industry in these "overspecialised" scientists, it seems obvious that the actual number of postdocs--and by extension the European Commission?s postdoctoral system--is oversized. It is certainly my feeling that postdoctoral fellowships, particularly those offered within the European Commission framework, have lost some of their shine. The people who obtain these prestigious fellowships are skilled in lab techniques, are thinking of and designing experiments, and can even be the sole person responsible for the success of a laboratory. But from the point of view of the host laboratory, postdocs are very often considered to be cheap (the EC pays for them) and easy-to-get labour. As far as the university and the professor are concerned, it is not necessary to worry about their careers at the end of the fellowships.

This leads to a situation in which, all too often, postdocs suffer from a complete lack of feedback on their scientific progress, thereby losing part of the original meaning of postdoc training. Instead of general skills and expertise, they get a very specific high-level preparation that is of little value outside academic research and sometimes even inside.

A change of attitude on the part of all of the major European players (governments, industry, funding bodies, and educational institutions) is needed. (For a discussion, see for example Next Wave?s earlier article ?The Postdoctoral System Needs Reform".) But even if such a movement starts tomorrow, it will, unfortunately, only benefit future researchers. Meanwhile, the trainees actually involved in today?s uncertain adventure, must battle on. And in Italy and Spain, postdocs, as well as Ph.D.s, face peculiar problems.

Newly graduated Ph.D.s in those countries face a dilemma: Should I try to improve my scientific abilities by opting for a postdoc position abroad, or should I have to try to remain at the same university, even the same laboratory? Due to the rigidity of the academic systems in these countries, once a Ph.D. leaves his or her home university for training in almost any other laboratory, the possibility of coming back is quite limited. In other words, from the very beginning of his or her career, a Ph.D. has to decide between an eventual academic position in the home country and developing scientific skills and contacts on an international level.

The management of postdoctoral apprenticeship within the EU certainly requires some type of general reform, which should include such elements as the following:

  • The setting of a total time limit for the holding of postdoc fellowships

  • Required standard minimum pay

  • The availability of career advice and job placement services

  • Mandatory improvement of regular evaluations of both postdocs and their supervisors.

At the same time, such reform cannot be ignored in the context of the creation of an interactive and synergistic European Research Area, which starts with the development of a European dimension in national degree and postdegree curricula and depends on the further development and strengthening of the mobility of scientists: not only between academia and industry but also within the pan-European academic world.

Massimo Lazzari received his Ph.D. in Macromolecular Chemistry in 1996 from the University of Torino (Italy). He has undertaken postdoc research in Japan and is about to begin another 2-year European Commission fellowship in Spain at the University of Santiago.

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