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The not-quite-stated, awful truth

My dictionary defines “gaffe” as an embarrassing social blunder. In Washington, D.C., gaffe means something a little different: It’s when a political figure unintentionally speaks an impolitic truth—that, at least, is how it is defined by political journalist Michael Kinsley. Avoiding such faux pas without uttering provable falsehoods is thus a skill highly valued in the nation’s capital.

The report on postdocs issued by the U.S. National Academies in December appears to follow this tenet of local etiquette. The penetrating analysis in The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited comes all the way up to, but does not actually state, some inconvenient realities: For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career. If graduate students had accurate information about what lay ahead, many would—and should—choose not to become postdocs.

For all but a small percentage of aspiring researchers, doing a postdoc at a university is a lousy idea because it will neither result in an academic job nor otherwise advance one’s career.

Though the report stops just short of this Q.E.D., it upholds the National Academies’ scientific standards by providing all the evidence needed to reach that conclusion. “[T]he number of postdoctoral researchers is out of equilibrium with the number of available positions that require advanced training,” it states. “[A]n increasing fraction end up in nonacademic or non-research careers that do not require the years of advanced research training provided by the postdoctoral position.”

“For some careers, particularly for faculty positions in the physical and biomedical sciences at research universities, the postdoctoral experience can be very helpful,” the report states. For the nonacademic occupations that the great majority will follow, however, “a new Ph.D. can benefit more from other types of work experience.” The report’s authors are clear on one point: The notion of the postdoc as the “default step” after the Ph.D. must end.

The price of trying

The report recognizes the “continuous need for researchers with advanced training in the U.S. research enterprise. Postdoctoral researchers are playing a crucial, but often unrecognized, role in that research. … However, some principal investigators hire postdoctoral researchers to fill the need for advanced researchers in lieu of permanent research staff, instead of as a symbiotic practice that provides advanced training.” “[P]rincipal investigators are currently under no obligation to provide opportunities for development” so “in many cases, any training that occurs is a byproduct of work.”

A “relatively small percentage” of the nation’s postdocs have a much better situation, however, because they work not at universities but in “important roles in research groups at national laboratories, in government and in industry,” the report continues. Compared to their academic counterparts, these nonuniversity researchers generally “earn more, have shorter appointment periods, and receive training and guidance with direct relevance to their career aspirations.” More importantly, they even have “a reasonable chance that [they] will eventually be hired for permanent employment” by the organizations where they work, because companies and government agencies often use postdoc appointments not as a source of cheap, disposable, temporary labor but as opportunities to try out prospective long-term employees.

The scientists who do postdocs at universities “pay an extremely high price” for any training they may receive, the report states. They earn “approximately 40 percent less per hour” than a bachelor’s degree graduate of the same age. When they finally enter the nonacademic job market, their financial “sacrifices … are not compensated later in their careers. On average, [they] start at lower salaries than … graduates who entered similar jobs immediately after earning their Ph.D.”

Despite the disadvantages, some people take a postdoc in hopes of landing a scarce faculty post. “Doctorate recipients are adults who have the right to choose a career path and accept low wages if they think that it will eventually lead to a satisfying career,” the report notes. They’re as free to shoot for the job of their dreams as anyone else pursuing an unlikely ambition—say, to become a major league baseball player or a violinist in a major orchestra.

“The difference is that we don't support” would-be pro athletes and budding virtuosi with federal tax dollars, notes report committee member and Georgia State University labor economist Paula Stephan, in an interview with Science Careers. Another difference, she adds, is that the long odds against reaching the majors or a symphony chair are widely understood in the sports and music worlds—unlike the academic world, where many graduate students lack accurate information about career prospects.

Ending the mismatch

The “mismatch” between the number of postdocs and the number of available career positions requiring that kind of training creates “a need to reexamine the human capital needs (i.e., job structure, salary practices, and career pathways) of the research enterprise,” the report states. “Some of the work now being done by postdoctoral researchers might more appropriately be done by permanent research staff [receiving] the salary, benefits, and job security commensurate with full-time employment [as is] common in government, industrial laboratories, and outside the United States. The postdoctoral experience itself should be refocused, with training and mentoring at its center.”

This evidence certainly implies—although the report does not explicitly state it—that the number of postdocs needs to shrink. Such a conclusion is “not for us to say explicitly,” the report committee’s chair, Gregory Petsko of Weill Cornell Medical College, has told Science Careers. For Stephan, on the other hand, that conclusion is obvious and necessary. She believes that fewer postdocs need not imply less research, because science can be effectively conducted under a number of organizational models, as demonstrated by institutions in the United States and abroad that do not use university-based models. There is no reason, she says, that research must be tied to training or take place at universities.

Stephan believes an effective way of reshaping the research enterprise is altering the incentives that drive the current system. Among the recommendations in the report, one she sees as especially crucial is assuring that graduate students, starting early in their graduate work or even before, get information about the career outcomes of Ph.D.s and postdocs that is accurate, specific, and timely—and, as the report states, “broken down by field and institution.” (As we’ve noted, the Royal Society, which serves as the United Kingdom’s national academy of science, recently made a similar recommendation.) Providing this information, as both Stephan and the report emphasize, will require collecting much better data on scientists’ professional fates.

Equally important, Stephan says, is the report’s proposal to substantially raise postdoc pay, which, given today’s static federal funding, will automatically reduce the number hired. “As long as they are dirt cheap,” lab chiefs will continue using excessive numbers of postdocs, she adds. The report proposes hiking the minimum National Institutes of Health Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award payment, which serves as a de facto national standard, to $50,000 a year (in 2014 dollars), with adjustments for inflation. Pay should be higher “where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate,” and fringe benefits should be “appropriate to [postdocs’] level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees,” it adds.

Stephan believes that the “shock to the system” from the current severe funding crisis is causing the need for change to sink in among academic science’s leadership. Not everyone concurs, however. Academies reports are ordinarily consensus documents, but a footnote reveals that two committee members “do not support” the $50,000 salary floor as a “prescriptive ‘salary standard’ based upon one particular field [(biomedicine)] and funding agency [(NIH)].” The two did, however, agree that salaries should be “fair and fit rationally within the spectrum of salaries for researchers in that discipline, at that institution … well above that of a graduate student and significantly less” than those of staff scientists and faculty members.

The painful reality, Stephan says, is that “not everyone bears the cost equally. … I feel terrible for the cohort that’s been caught” in the current crunch. It may be too late to help them, but if the academic science community can reach the conclusions implicit in the report and make the appropriate changes, future generations of young scientists may have much smoother and less painful transitions to satisfying and productive careers.

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