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Postdoc mysteries

“Mysterious” is a word not often applied to postdocs. At the moment, however, it seems appropriate, as three recent developments raise puzzling uncertainties about postdocs’ present and future lives. First, the U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) new rule about overtime pay, announced 18 May, is sure to disrupt financial arrangements in many labs. Beyond that, two recent articles reveal apparent enigmas concerning postdocs’ motivations and future careers.

The overtime rule, as we reported, requires that, come 1 December, many professional employees—including postdocs—who earn less than $47,476 a year receive time-and-a-half overtime pay for every hour they work beyond 40 per week. Given the awkwardness of tracking postdocs’ long and irregular work hours and the risk of unpredictable overtime costs, many universities are likely to opt for hiking postdoc salaries to the threshold. Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Awards—which many consider a benchmark for postdoc pay—will rise “above the threshold,” stated National Institutes of Health (NIH) Director Francis Collins in an article co-authored with Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez. (Currently the stipend levels for the first 3 years post-Ph.D. are below the new limit.)

Collins and Perez didn’t mention, however, where the new money will come from or how or whether the change will affect the availability of NIH funds for other purposes, such as research grants. Postdoc salaries now average about $45,000, according to Collins and Perez. This means that although some already exceed the new threshold, many do not. Numerous principal investigators (PIs) and their universities will thus have to figure out how to come up with the money to cover increases or overtime.

“To date [postdocs’ wages] have been quite low, especially in light of the long hours … [they] work and [their] level of training,” writes labor force expert Paula Stephan of Georgia State University in Atlanta in an email to Science Careers. The new rule “makes them relatively more expensive and will lead to the hiring of fewer postdoctoral researchers.” 

Some may wonder whether universities could dodge the need for raises by reclassifying postdocs as students or through other bureaucratic sleights of hand—maneuvers that would also have implications for visas, health care, and other fringe benefits. It appears unlikely that such a subterfuge could work, however. DOL's guidance on the new rule clearly states that postdocs are “employees who conduct research at a higher education institution after the completion of their doctoral studies. Postdoctoral fellows are not considered students because they are not working towards a degree.”

So, across the country, PIs and administrators will be scrambling to rejigger their finances, and postdocs will be wondering whether they’re in for a raise or a pink slip. Prospective postdocs will likely find more lucrative—but fewer—offers.

As we've reported what seems like countless times, numerous reports and studies on postdocs’ plight have called for raising their pay to the neighborhood of $50,000 and reducing their numbers (while creating more staff scientist positions). Now, finally, as an inadvertent result of DOL’s action, change in that direction—though long resisted by many in the academic establishment and, in Stephan’s words, “fall[ing] short of” the recommended pay—appears imminent. It’s far too early to know how all this will work out, but it certainly adds a note of inscrutability to life in any lab over the coming months.

The mystery of motivation

Another enigma appears to lie at the very beginning of the postdoc experience. In “Why pursue the postdoc path?,” published 6 May in Science, Henry Sauermann of the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and Michael Roach of Cornell University explore the “complex, diverse rationales” that lead Ph.D. researchers to make that choice. The authors surveyed 5928 graduate students in the biological and life sciences, chemistry, physics, engineering, and computer science at 39 U.S. universities in 2010 and 2013.

Graduate students have a pretty good idea of how dismal the chance is of landing a tenure-track position within 5 years of finishing their Ph.D.s, Sauermann and Roach found. (It’s 10.60% in the life sciences in 2016, down from 14.30% in 2012, according to National Science Foundation figures quoted by the authors.) But many go on to do postdocs anyway, the authors note, perhaps because of “overconfidence” (at least among some life scientists) that they will beat the odds, or perhaps because the postdoc is widely seen as the “default” choice. Moreover, “78% of respondents in the biological and life sciences and 42% in other fields believed that at least 1 year of postdoc training was required for a Ph.D.-level research and development … position in industry in their field,” despite the fact that “there is little empirical evidence showing whether the postdoc benefits graduates pursuing nonacademic careers.”

In fact, there’s some pretty strong anecdotal evidence that this is not the case. Several years ago, for example, William Banholzer, at the time the chief technology officer and executive vice president of Dow Chemical Company—a firm that regularly hires Ph.D. scientists—told the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, “I don't think I need to hire postdocs.” Earning a Ph.D. with an outstanding professor is the only academic credential one needs to do research at Dow, Banholzer said, because the company provides new hires with training to do their jobs. University postdocs are nothing but “a capacitor to try to buffer between” the excess of Ph.D.s and the shortage of available jobs, he said.

And just last year, the National Academies concurred, as we reported at the time. Their report The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited states that, in the quest for employment outside of academe, “a new Ph.D. can benefit more from other types of work experience” than from a postdoc appointment. The great majority of postdocs will never obtain a faculty post, the report notes, and the training that they receive comes at the “very high price” of low pay during the postdoc period and future lost earnings.

But, according to Sauermann and Roach’s recent article, “[o]nly 62% of biological and life sciences students (56% in other fields) reported having thought about their careers to a large or great extent.” Students who considered the matter, however, “are less likely to plan a postdoc, especially in the biological and life sciences,” the authors found.  

Career riddles

If those weren’t riddles enough, another paper published on 6 May, this one in PLOS Biology, identifies a third: the kind of jobs postdocs move into after they finish. Noting the dearth of information on this topic, the team of authors from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), studied the professional destinations of postdocs who left the super-prestigious institution between 2000 and 2013. Although this sample is likely not representative of postdocs from a broad spectrum of universities, the data are interesting nonetheless. Of the 899 postdocs who moved on to jobs in the United States, 81% went into academic, government, or industrial research. An additional 12% went into “science-related non-research positions,” including communication, regulation, and policy. Just over a third of the 899 were in “faculty or faculty-like full-time research or teaching positions.”

“Faculty-like?” That’s yet another mystery. “[T]enure-track is not an accurate description of many academic faculty appointments in the biomedical sciences at research universities,” the authors write. “[P]ositions may be institution-funded or grant-funded (‘hard money’ or ‘soft money’) and may come with varying degrees of stability (either through a tenure commitment or other funding arrangement),” but many “postdocs do not recognize that the term tenure-track is over-applied and used colloquially rather than as an accurate description of a given faculty appointment,” they continue. And most universities fail to make these distinctions clear in “public-facing profiles,” the authors observe, which “exacerbate[s]” postdocs’ optimistic tendency to assume that the term “professor” always means a traditional tenure-track position, when it often denotes a job with much less security. “Academic faculty candidates negotiate increasingly nuanced and complex contracts that may not include tenure … and may not involve significant institutional commitment to salary,” the authors write, noting that 79% of the former UCSF postdocs who now hold faculty positions are nontenure track. So, the academic job market is even worse than many people believe, these data show, even for the postdoc alumni of an extremely elite university.

Postdocs clearly need and deserve “better transparency [about] career outcomes … and the nature of available positions [, including] more accurate application of the term ‘tenure-track,’” the authors write. Universities, they believe, have a responsibility to collect and share that information. This would be an important step toward dispelling at least a couple of the mysteries currently bedeviling postdocs.

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