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The case of the disappearing postdocs

Almost 15 years ago, Science carried a warning from three prominent members of the biomedical community: A “crisis of unfulfilled expectations” was developing among postdocs increasingly “dissatisfied with the apparently limited career opportunities” available in the overcrowded faculty job market. If left unchecked, wrote Susan Gerbi of Brown University; Howard Garrison of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB); and John P. Perkins, now deceased, of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, the “perception that the postdoctoral period is a holding pattern” and not the route to a faculty career could drive young scientists away from academe and threaten a crucial source of skilled personnel for the academic research enterprise. The existing “high-risk, ‘up or out’ system of graduate and postdoctoral education will not remain an attractive option for the brightest students,” the authors predicted. 

To reduce the surplus of young scientists seeking faculty posts and thus help to ease the crisis, the article proposed creating “‘nonreplicating’ staff scientist positions … as part of a legitimate career track.” This track would offer decently paid, long-term careers in academic research that did not entail faculty status. Failing this and other steps, the authors feared, research would cease to be “a rational career choice for bright, talented, highly motivated young people,” who would take their abilities into other career fields. If this happened, the authors warned, “our ability to maintain and renew the scientific workforce” could be “seriously damaged.”

Ex-postdocs who take nonacademic employment start out earning less than contemporaries who took jobs right after their Ph.D.s, and their incomes never catch up.

Now, in a new article published in The FASEB Journal in October, Garrison and Gerbi, along with Louis Justement of the University of Alabama, Birmingham, present data suggesting that the prediction is coming true. “After >3 decades of steady growth, the number of biological and medical science postdoctorates at doctoral degree-granting institutions recently began to decline,” they write. This “notable departure from the previous long-standing increases” in the postdoc population marks “an end to the era of expansion.” What’s more, “[a] continued loss of postdocs without an alternative source of talented research personnel” for university labs portends harm to the “quality and quantity of our biomedical research,” making the need for reform more urgent than ever.

Accelerating decrease

“From 2010 through 2013, the most recent survey years, the postdoctoral population decreased from 40,970 to 38,719, a loss of 5.5%,” the October article states. The drop affected both genders and U.S. citizens as well as foreign postdocs. It resulted both from fewer people choosing to become postdocs and from those who did make that choice spending less time in the job. The group that showed the largest decline—10.4% over the period—was American men.

One of the challenges to drawing conclusions from a study like this one is the lack of exact data on the U.S. postdoc population, which means that the precision of the quoted numbers is probably misleading. As last year’s National Academies report, The Postdoctoral Experience Revisited, notes, “[n]o single data source measures the entire population of postdocs, and some parts of the population are not systematically measured at all.” By its estimate, 60,000 to 100,000 postdocs are at work in the U.S.

The data for the October article come from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates in Science and Engineering (GSS), which, as the article acknowledges, provides an incomplete count of the nation’s postdocs. Nonetheless, the change that the article records very probably indicates that something real is happening, because the methodology of the GSS is relatively consistent from year to year. Moreover, the drops occur in every one of four consecutive years, and each exceeds the preceding one in size.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

If you like this story, you can read more Taken for Granted columns here.

What is causing the change? Not “a decrease in qualified applicants, … a technical change in employment titles, [or] a diminished demand for postdocs,” the authors argue. Instead, they believe that more and more Ph.D.s are “making decisions to pursue other career options” after completing their degrees. For a young scientist with a new doctorate, “eschewing a postdoc reflects a rational response to a tight labor market with low compensation and uncertain prospects for success,” the authors write.

The 2014 National Academies report, as we’ve noted elsewhere, provides further strong support for the rationality of that decision. “[A]n increasing fraction [of postdocs] end up in nonacademic or non-research careers that do not require the years of advanced research training provided by the postdoctoral position,” it states, and “the sacrifices made by postdoctoral researchers in salary and benefits are not compensated later in their careers” outside of academe. Ex-postdocs who take nonacademic employment start out earning less than contemporaries who took jobs right after their Ph.D.s, and their incomes never catch up. “Employers appear to be sending a signal that the time spent in postdoctoral research is not valued in many job markets,” the report observes.

The fact that American men, long the demographic backbone of U.S. science faculties, are leading the way out of the postdoc is also suggestive. Research shows that, on average, income influences men’s career choices more strongly than women’s. This preference may explain why American men, who, unlike foreigners, have full access to the nation’s job market, appear especially likely to pursue other, presumably more lucrative and promising, possibilities.

Listening to the signal

Scientists’ career aspirations also often change as they progress through their training. According to a study of biomedical postdocs in the U.S. published in November, most said in a survey that when they began graduate school they were aiming for academic faculty careers, but that goal became less attractive as they advanced through their studies. “Postdocs from all social backgrounds reported significant declines in interest in faculty careers at research-intensive universities and increased interest in nonresearch careers,” compared to their feelings early in grad school, write Kenneth Gibbs, Jr., of the National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Maryland; John McGready of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland; and Kimberly Griffin of the University of Maryland, College Park. 

Since starting their Ph.D. studies, the respondents said, they had become better informed about career options but less clear about their career goals. Most reported having opportunities for “structured career development at their postdoctoral institutions, but less than one-third received this from their graduate departments,” the authors write. This result suggests that people not really interested in faculty careers may be taking postdoc positions because, at the time they are finishing their Ph.D., they lack the knowledge or skills to seek opportunities outside of academe. Although the survey data can’t definitively show this to be the case, the authors suggest that receiving better career development information at earlier stages of their training, preferably in graduate school, would better equip scientists “to start their careers with greater clarity” immediately upon completing the doctorate. With better career information, in other words, even more new Ph.D.s would probably choose to skip a postdoc, the authors believe.

So, at long last it appears that at least some young scientists are listening not to the traditional blandishments of an academic system in need of their cheap labor, but rather to an unmistakable economic signal urging them to improve their personal situations by seeking careers outside of academe. This change very well may, as Garrison, Gerbi and Justement suggest, create problems for academic institutions long accustomed to staffing their labs with an unlimited supply of low-cost, highly motivated postdoctoral “trainees.” Developing “an alternative source of talented research personnel” and convincing them to stay in academe is likely to require creative thinking and concerted action from university leadership—probably in the form of some real and attractive career opportunities. Until they provide that, it also appears that increasing numbers of those able, well-educated young people will be seeking their futures elsewhere.

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