Postdocs treadmilling in science careers

I recently read Jenny’s outstanding and insightful commentary entitled “Give postdocs a career, not empty promises” published on March 2 (in your nth favorite weekly science journal beginning with the letter N).

First, I want to voice my absolute support, for what it’s worth, with Jenny’s comments about changing the structure of the scientific pyramid. I agree completely that this competitive system is cruel and a real waste of talent and experience to have highly trained postdoctoral fellows unable to find suitable jobs, and to treat the scientific workforce–-students and postdocs–as though they were disposable pipettes.

I agree completely with Jenny’s philosophy that one of the duties of a mentor is to give an indication to students and postdoctoral fellows in the laboratory as to what their chances are of obtaining faculty positions in academia. I think that is absolutely a vital and necessary thing for every mentor to do.

However, I think that the problem actually goes quite a bit deeper than that. For example, I find that newly recruited students into graduate programs in the sciences often have very little or no idea at all what they are getting into. In my institute, we have our own departmental program for graduate students, as well as an umbrella program that is used to recruit students to the Institute, and they have their choice of which departments and laboratories to rotate in. I frequently find myself interviewing students who would like to be accepted into either of these programs and I have the opportunity to discuss with them their career goals and see exactly what they know and what they would like to do.

For the most part, I find that the students have very little idea of what they intend to do and even what their options are once they graduate. Students seldom seem to have any idea of what is expected of them in the course of their graduate work in order to obtain permanent positions or jobs once they graduate. In fact, they often seem only interested in how to obtain their PhD degrees and have very little concern at this point as to what they will do with the degree once they have obtained it. It seems as though nobody has spent the time to counsel them on what constitutes a successful graduate degree and successful graduate career and how they can use that in order to obtain jobs in the future.

Many of the students seem to come with the idea that the very most important thing for them is to achieve high grade point averages in the courses that they take at the beginning of their PhD programs. Rather than sit and explain to them the nuts and bolts of my own research program when I interview them (as some of my colleagues do), instead I find it important to discuss with them what their future goals are and what they intend to extract from the PhD experience. I find that they seldom have any idea that when they complete their PhD and graduate that they will be assessed by their scientific abilities: their publication records, the techniques they have mastered, and importantly, recommendation letters from the mentor and other faculty that they have worked with.

So I would go even further than Jenny and actually say that the mentor’s role is critical in educating prospective students and/or postdoctoral fellows so that they will understand exactly how the system works.

A key issue raised by Jenny in her article is the idea of professional scientists or professional postdoctoral fellows. Jenny correctly points out that after all of the training in doing science, and the laboratory work that postdoctoral fellows have done, many of them are either not suited or really do not necessarily want to do the kind of work that a principal investigator needs to do. This includes grant writing, administration, teaching, dealing with overall bureaucracy and of course the rat race in trying to obtain funding to allow a laboratory to continue its research. Really, a principal investigator, is never actually trained in the mess of bureaucratic activities that she/he spends so much time dealing with.

Principal investigators actually learn on the job to do all of the sorts of human resource-related bureaucracy and deal with issues of personnel, etc. For this reason many new investigators find themselves in shock when they realize that their progress in academic institutes as new investigators no longer depends on their prolific ability to generate data at the bench, but rather stems from their skills as administrators–something for which they have never been formally trained to do.

Jenny has proposed that it would be a good idea to have “career tracks” that are available for postdoctoral fellows who have gone through so much training so that they may stay in the laboratory and continue their productive and experienced research studies. Personally, I think that this is a wonderful idea and have been advocating this myself for many years. The problem, of course, is the issue of money. And at least in the United States the system dictates that each laboratory is its own entity and is responsible for funding the individuals who work within the confines of a laboratory. This means that in order for an investigator to be able to hire such a super postdoctoral fellow he or she will need to be able to finance such a person in the laboratory.

Would a research institute give up on constructing a new “center” or building (with donors names and golden plaques for key contributors) to fund a pool of talented “senior researchers” to be ‘awarded’ to successful laboratories–with the goal to be able to attract additional funding? After all, without the prospect of some ‘return‘ on the investment, research institutes are unlikely to support such an idea. Would the donors and contributors be satisfied with their names on the backs of these senior researcher’s shirts? It would be great, but are we kidding ourselves?

But I’m with you, Jenny–lead on…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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10 Responses to Postdocs treadmilling in science careers

  1. stephenemoss says:

    Steve – good idea to post a follow-up to Jenny’s original article. I totally support the idea of a ‘career post-doc’, and although it’s impossible to see how such a scheme could be funded in such financially difficult times, the topic fully merits discussion. Something along these lines is more or less what happens in France, though (having worked there) I would say with mixed results. Key thing is that the bar should be set high.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I have a friend who has such a position in France, and I know that the competition for them is probably greater than that of full-faculty positions. There are exams to take, proposals, publications, interviews. It sounds daunting.

      In Israel, there are many “so-called” technicians who are really PhD/postdocs who either could not go abroad for “real postdoctoral training” for family or other reasons, or were not suited to be principal investigators anyway. This is obviously very helpful in a country where it is hard to attract foreign postdocs, but it goes back to the same problem–they are really being “used” by the system–underpaid and not receiving the respect that they have earned.

      When I was still considering a career there, and interviewed for positions, I was offered such-and-such start-up and “half a technician”. I couldn’t hold in my cynicism, and asked “The legs or the torso?”

      Seriously, one way to promote more positions for qualified postdocs (in the US) would be to grant funding to such researchers for use as their salaries in someone’s laboratory. I’m sure there are ways to promote this, but it’s all a question of money…

  2. Although I totally agree with Jenny about much of what she says, as well as Steve’s views on the importance of serious mentoring at an early stage, the individual post-doc when setting out has to take some responsibility for researching the career ladder – or lack of it. Individuals need to feel ’empowered’ to seek advice, to work out what the strands of a career in university science really look like and whether they like the stuff that takes them beyond the bench. (See the Athena Forum’s bookmark for the key questions we believe post-docs need to ask.) It isn’t sufficient to sit back and think that once on the post-doc ladder in essence that should mean a straight path to professor. So, I think it cuts both ways.

    That said, I think there is a crying need for career post-doc positions for those who don’t want to write grant applications etc, but do want to keep the crucial instrument running and generating novel results and insight. Very few such positions exist, to the detriment of the individual and the lab that loses them at critical junctures. And there is also no doubt, many talented individuals are lost due to the hopelessly pyramidal structure of academia. I am not sure how different the various disciplines are, but I suspect in the UK there is a higher proportion of individual fellowships coming through funders such as the Wellcome in the biomedical sciences, which actually makes the problem of the system spitting out individuals from fellowships at a relatively late stage particularly acute.

    • Steve Caplan says:


      Thank you once again for your thoughtful comments. I agree entirely that postdoctoral fellows must be empowered to take control of their own careers. As mature adults, this is surely the way things ought to be.

      When I was a student some 15 years ago in Israel, it seems to me that things were very different. For the most part students really understood the career paths available to them and what it would take in order to “make it” in a given career path. I don’t know whether this is simply because things were different 15 years ago, or because Israelis in science were generally more mature having spent at least three years in the military before beginning academic careers. With less time to waste, perhaps people were automatically more focused.

      I can tell you that I firmly believe that PhD students who graduate from my laboratory and from the department that I’m in are going to be well aware of their career prospects and what they need to do as postdoctoral fellows if they intend to continue along an academic track. However, with regards to your comments about postdoctoral fellows being in control, we have many postdoctoral fellows coming from foreign countries, particularly from the Far East. Many of these people have really had no counseling and no opportunity to become fully aware of how the system works in this country and in other Western countries. In addition, it seems to me that a number of them may have been more interested in first obtaining entrance to the US rather than plunging forward in a scientific career. For this reason, while I agree with you, I do think that even some the postdoctoral fellows need to be counseled carefully with regards to their futures in science. Ultimately, it is their responsibility, but good mentors should really ensure that they are asking the right questions at the right times.

  3. stephenemoss says:

    It’s OK to discuss in a vague way the idea of career post-docs, but what form would these take? Would they be completely independent, with their own research budget and free to work on whatever they liked? Or would they still be like regular post-docs, working in the lab of a PI who would decide the direction of the research, take responsibility for mentoring, be senior author on the papers etc? If, as Athene suggests, they might keep crucial equipment running, retain key skills in the lab etc., in what way are they different from the senior tech posts that exist in many of the top research institutes?

    And what would be the expectations of these posts? If such post-docs take on some teaching, and are running an independent research programme, then how do they differ from ‘regular’ PIs. It’s all very well to speak up in support of the career post-doc (and I am also in favour of these posts), but some thought needs to be given as to exactly how such a post would be defined.

  4. Steve Caplan says:


    Well it looks like I’m being put to the test. I haven’t actually anticipated having to give specific answers to such questions but seeing as it put me on the spot let me try and come up with a few ideas. First let me speak about the US because I’m less familiar with the system in the UK and the rest of Europe. So what I could envision is a situation where a pool of money were to be available for highly qualified postdoctoral fellows could apply and receive a sponsorship for, let’s say, a period of five years. The idea would be that this sponsorship would be hopefully renewable. The postdoctoral fellow, or “staff scientist” as we could call him/her, would then identify a laboratory in which to carry out his or her research.

    The criteria for obtaining such a fellowship or sponsorship would have to be based on research ability, which of course would rely heavily on such a fellow’s publications. In the new position, this staff scientist would then have his or her primary duty to carry out research and obtain publications. Depending on the situation in the particular laboratory that he or she joins, this staff scientist might also be in full in training and mentoring younger PhD students and postdocs, and of course publications coming from these ventures would further fortify this staff scientist’s curriculum vitae. After a period of five years, there could be an evaluation of the performance and the staff scientist could be able to renew his or her sponsorship and perhaps be given a promotion of sorts for solid performance.

    This is just one possible way in which such a position could be envisioned. There are many other possibilities that I could think of and of course, if it were possible to actually have such a program I think it would be a great idea to have a think tank of sorts with people more experienced than myself in these matters to iron out the details.

  5. Thomas Hayes says:

    The argument of the stronger man is always the best.

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