Plight of the Post-Doc

“The more that you learn, the more places you'll go.” - Dr. Seuss

It is quite common, and expected, that after receiving a PhD, graduate students will move onto a post-doctoral training position. But the situation for post-docs has changed over the years due to an ever-increasing number of PhD graduates, leaving a huge ocean of post-docs looking for a few deserted islands where the faculty positions are. What then, is the realistic future for the majority of post-docs?
For decades, the typical path was the one where graduate students become post-docs, and then post-docs become PIs (Principal Investigators). Most people know that this is no longer the case, yet in practice and in training, PIs that have graduate students and post-docs expect this path for all their trainees. This is even expressed as disappointment by PIs when anyone strays from this path. The formal training regimen for most post-docs outline this as the defined career path: you are trained to do research, you are trained to get grants, you are trained to present your data at meetings, you are trained to become a PI.

Today, the fate of most post-docs does not lead them to a tenure track academic position. As published in Nature1 in 2011, only 15% of Biology PhDs get a tenure track position within six years of getting their PhDs and the percentage is decreasing yearly. Where do the rest of the post-docs go then? Currently, of all the employed PhDs, 20% hold non-tenure track academic positions, 19% hold non-research scientific jobs, 6% hold government research positions, 18% hold industry research jobs, and 14% hold non-science jobs. In 2012, an alarming 10% of PhDs consider themselves unemployed, up dramatically from 2% in 20102. On the bright side, even if post-docs have difficulties in finding that perfect tenure track position, there are many possible alternative careers for PhDs, which we covered in a past blog.
Compounding the plight of the post-doc is the salary. The NIH pays post-docs at a defined stipend based on years as a post-doc, starting at $42,000/year, going up to $55,272/year (for 7 years or more)3. Most other institutions, be it academic or for-profit tend to follow these numbers, typically following in line with the NIH standards for post-doc pay. Considering the skill level and education level of post-docs, it is clear that the pay does not match the quality of the labor. Furthermore, post-docs may not be offered full benefits, requiring more out-of-pocket expenses for healthcare, dental, child care, etc. If the average salary wasn’t bad enough, don’t ask women, because if and when they do become professors, will be paid on average 16% lower than their male counterparts4.
Today’s highly successful labs tend to have large numbers of post-docs that do the majority of the research work. It is not likely that you will find a well-known, well-funded lab that does not have several post-docs for each PI. This is the way the system runs now. And once those post-docs move on, there are many more looking to fill their spaces, a seemingly endless supply of cheap, highly skilled, and disposable labor.
Should we change the system? Many might argue that the system is not broken and that the post-doc is a period of training, in which post-docs are provided opportunities to prove themselves. But if the system is designed to provide a certain outcome for its trainees, but does not deliver for 85% of the trainees, then one can only conclude that the system must be broken or at least extremely ineffective.
What should be done?
  1. If your call is to be an independent PI, try to go to a lab with a history of support to post-docs, if you can. Find where postdocs go after leaving that lab, or even try to talk to former postdocs. After about 3 years in the lab, discuss with your PI a plan for independence. Better to plan in advance than too late. Also, be aware of the choices you have, such as the Pathway to Independence Award (K99/R00) from the NIH.
  2. Universities need to train PhDs for careers outside of academia in addition to the academic track. Many schools are already doing this.
  3. PhD candidates should go into the program being aware that chances of getting a job outside of academia are much higher than that of getting a tenure track research position. Be open-minded and realistic. Get mentoring from PhDs who are not in academia.
  4. Post-docs should stand up for themselves and speak with one voice. Check out the National Postdoctoral Association.

Listen to our podcast on this area with post-doc Francesca Soncin here.

Contributed by Dzung Nguyen, PhD.
  1. Education: The PhD Factory
  2. The Postdoc Experience: High Expectations, Grounded in Reality
  3. NIH Grants Guide
  4. The Scientist: Salary Survey
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