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Gregory Petsko

Courtesy of Weill Cornell Medical College

The National Academies revisit the postdoc experience

Gregory A. Petsko is the Arthur J. Mahon Professor of Neurology and Neuroscience and director of the Helen and Robert Appel Alzheimer's Disease Research Institute at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. Petsko served as chair of the National Academies’ Committee to Review the State of Postdoctoral Experience in Scientists and Engineers, which yesterday issued The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, the sequel to the seminal 2000 report, Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers.

Science Careers asked Petsko about the new report, its recommendations, and how they might be implemented in an interview conducted by e-mail. You can read Science Careers’ summary of the report here. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

We CANNOT, in my opinion, train too many STEM Ph.D.s.

—Gregory Petsko

Q: What are the most important changes the committee found in the situation of postdocs since Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience was published in 2000? 

A: The most important change is that there hasn’t been enough change. Some institutions implemented some of the recommendations of the 2000 report, but not enough did enough. Moreover, the culture of the profession is not the same in 2015 as it was in 2000. Jobs are scarcer, funding is much harder to get, the pressure to publish in certain places is higher, and the bar for such publications is much higher. This has increased the level of anxiety of principal investigators as well as postdocs and contributed to an increase in hiring of postdocs, longer postdoc periods, and less time for mentoring and training.

Q: The Ph.D. is excellent training for many different kinds of jobs, it is suggested, but the postdoc is specifically for training researchers. Is that a fair reading?

A: Exactly. We are not training too many Ph.D.s. We CANNOT, in my opinion, train too many STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] Ph.D.s. It’s an ideal preparation for a technologically sophisticated, rapidly changing world. But we can have too many people just defaulting into postdoc positions who don’t need to do so—and we do.

Q: If postdoc training is advanced research training, does that mean there should be at least a rough equivalence between the number of postdocs trained and the number of research positions available?

A: Maybe, but that’s not for us to say. Different fields and different classes of employers need to figure out how many trained people they need and at what level of training. As I said in my Boston Globe interview, fields ought to be having those conversations. But it’s certainly true that in a properly functioning labor market, there would be more of an equivalence than there is now.

Q: Any ideas about how that might be achieved?

A: It’s hard. If the conclusion is the number has to go down then because we don’t have a proper market, we have to look at what is setting the number and manipulate that. Right now, the amount of grant money available for postdoctoral salaries is largely determining the number of available postdoc positions. If we want fewer of those, the simplest way to do that is to raise the minimum postdoctoral salary, thereby reducing demand until supply and demand are more nearly equal. I’m hoping all funders will look at that seriously.

We can and should also attack the supply side. If we give grad students proper career information early, fewer of them should default into postdoc positions. I think this approach actually is more likely to get implemented widely.

Q: We’ve been hearing, mainly in the context of discussion of the recent Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article by Bruce Alberts et al., that not everyone is convinced that the status quo isn’t working. If I’m a senior scientist with a lab full of affordable, highly productive postdocs, I might not think things are all that bad.

A: And they might not be—for you. But this isn’t about you; it’s about the people you are supposed to be training and what happens to them and to other young scientists. There are more things in heaven and on Earth than may be dreamt of in your philosophies.

Q: Furthermore—correct me if I’m wrong—these recommendations are in many ways similar to those made by the 2000 committee.

A: Somewhat, yes. I think we are more candid, frankly, and more precise in defining what the various stakeholders need to do.

Q: How do we make it happen this time?

A: Well, the Bible says the seeds have to fall on fertile ground. I think the ground is more fertile for change now than it was in 2000. 2000 was just at the end of the doubling, and people were fat and complacent. We’ve had 10 lean years now, and no end in sight, and I think that ought to make people more aware that the present system is unsustainable and give them more of an appetite for change. But as I said, I also think it helps that we have laid out very explicitly what the different groups, from the postdocs themselves to the funding agencies, need to do.

Q: Are you hopeful?

A: I’m always hopeful. “Hope,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “is the thing with feathers - / That perches in the soul - / And sings the tunes without the words - / And never stops- at all.”