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Too Many or Too Few? The Postdoc Production Policy Debate

It?s not just your imagination--the postdoc population is indeed increasing. In the United States alone, the number of biomedical postdocs, as of 2000, was growing three times faster than the rest of the nation?s labor force, and post-Ph.D. workers of one kind or another are fixtures in research units around the world.

But are there really too many postdocs?

Next Wave has been keeping careful tabs on this perennial question for some time now. To assess current state of affairs, we presented postdocs, principal investigators, academic leaders, workforce analysts, and funders with a summary of the latest statistics (see our Policy Papers below) before asking them to respond both to the big question and to its corollary: If so, what should be done to remedy the situation?

In addition to positing answers to the numbers question, the essayists also addressed other salient topics, such as the definition of ?postdoc,? concerns about compensation, and the dearth of information about viable career alternatives to the academic tenure track.

Well-informed though they most certainly are, we doubt that the essayists will have all the answers. So, if you have an observation or an opinion that you?d like to share, we invite you to join the discussion on the Postdoc Network listserv. And be sure to check back here on 13 September 2002, when we?ll post another set of opinions!

The Postdocs

In her essay, Karen Christopherson argues that ?the burden of controlling postdoc population growth falls on the shoulders of the government,? but she also concedes that ?it is the individual who is ultimately responsible for the career choices? he or she makes.

Jonathan Dando finds the term ?postdoc? to be ?slightly insulting.? He points out that after receiving their degrees, Ph.D.s are still often considered students, unlike in other professions. But Dando declares that, as postdocs, ?we should stop complaining? and instead channel positive energy to effect change.

Clare Davies has been a postdoc both in the United States and in the United Kingdom. She says that the question ?are there too many postdocs?? is the wrong one to ask. Instead, Davies suggests five questions of her own that scientists, funders, and government representatives should ponder.

Postdoctoral scientists should be given the status of regular employees, according to postdoc Avi Spier. This would ?encourage more of the best science graduates to enter and stay in the profession, improve the quality of science performed, and help to ensure a great scientific future.?

Massimo Lazzari foresees trouble for those postdocs considering opportunities away from the Ivory Tower. He feels that ?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 for academia.?

The Principal Investigators

A PI himself since 1983, Jonathan Yewdell admonishes his peers for ?taking advantage? of postdocs in his essay called ?An Enron of Our Own.? In fact, Yewdell thinks that if a Martian were to arrive to Earth today, it ?would conclude that PIs typically run their laboratories like owners of fast-food restaurants.?

Sharon Milgram, associate professor at the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, and adviser to the UNC Office of Postdoctoral Services and the UNC Postdoctoral Association, is no stranger to the issues facing postdocs today. One piece of advice she offers is that postdocs look before they leap: ?postdocs ... should consider the training record of their mentors and evaluate the educational programs available to them when choosing a postdoc.?

Academic Leaders

Trevor Penning, associate dean of Postdoctoral Research Training, acknowledges that few postdocs will actually be hired as tenure-track faculty. So, he encourages scientists ?to recognize that there are many rewarding career options for our postdoctoral trainees? and ?to prepare all postdocs for their individual career choices.?

Too many postdocs and not enough faculty slots in your country? Come to Canada! Martha Borgmann Crago, dean of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies at McGill University, says that between now and 2010, ?Some 30,000 professorial posts will ... need to be filled.?

Although it isn?t ?practical? for universities to control the postdoc numbers, Richard Cherwitz and Teresa Sullivan of the University of Texas, Austin, assert that there are ?some things that universities can do, or at least help with.? As an example, they describe their institution?s Intellectual Entrepreneurship Program, which helps grad students develop professional skills.

Workforce Analysts

Having extensively studied the numbers, Richard Freeman of the National Bureau of Economic Research at Harvard University says there are in fact too many postdocs. Worse, he predicts that ?the forces of supply and demand are unlikely to improve the economic situation of postdocs in any plausible time period.?

Geoff Davis, an mathematician and long-time watcher of postdoc trends, suggests that the science community should ?send in the economists!? Davis explains that economists have much to offer in this debate, particularly because ?the biggest changes in the scientific labor market over the past decade have all been driven by economic ... factors.?

The Funders

David Clark, director of Research and Innovation at the United Kingdom?s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, says that although it?s possible that too many scientists are on short-term appointments, ?one could never make the case that the nation is producing too many Ph.D.s.? Academia, he points out, is not the only acceptable path.

In her essay, Rita Colwell, director of the U.S. National Science Foundation, reflects on her organization?s commitment to postdocs and suggests four specific postdoc issues that should be discussed within the broad scientific community.

Canada is on a mission to move up to fifth place in research and development and is looking for talented people. Karl Tibelius, director of Research Capacity Development at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, provides the perspective of Canada?s largest biomedical funding agency.

Torsten Wiesel, secretary-general of the Human Frontier Science Program and a Nobel laureate, reflects on a recent meeting of influential funders from around the globe--they concluded that postdocs should see science not as a unidirectional pipeline with only one desirable outcome, but instead as ?a tree with ... a network of roots and branches reflecting the broad range of inputs into the scientific enterprise and the wide range of career opportunities for students.?

In his essay, Tim Coetzee, director of Research Training Programs at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, describes what funders can and cannot do to ?help resolve this ?crisis of expectations? among the postdoc population.?


For more links to reports and other articles on the plight of postdocs, visit our Resources page.

Policy Papers

Read the policy paper we presented to our essayists in the United States and Canada.

Read the policy paper we presented to our essayists in Europe.

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