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Posted: 9 May 2011
Give postdocs a career, not empty promises
Author: Jennifer Rohn

Categories: careers

“Give postdocs a career, not empty promises”, which appeared in Nature News on 2 March 2011 discusses the postdoctoral position as a career option.  The author, Dr. Jennifer Rohn, provides additional commentary on postdoc career structure.

Today’s post-doctoral fellows in the life sciences are likely be bombarded with mixed messages. Researchers are increasingly urged to go forth into the community and entice young people into science careers. On the other hand, claims of shortages clash with the real-life experiences of young scientists in many countries, who find themselves competing with dozens if not hundreds of their peers for one job, fellowship or grant. As the number of permanent lab-head positions stays stagnant or actually shrinks, you don’t need a PhD in mathematics to see that the status quo – each lab head producing dozens of replacements in his or her lifetime – is unsustainable.

And things may be set to get worse. According to a recent meta-analysis in Nature (http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110419/full/472276a.html), the number of doctorates awarded in most countries around the world has increased over the past decade, with many countries even stepping up production.

So we are faced with a generation of skilled, highly trained scientists headed for disappointment, and the swelling legions of the next generation behind them. Intense competition, in turn, tends to weigh disproportionately on the already disadvantaged: older post-docs who are assumed to have passed their “expiration” date, and people – frequently women – who have taken time out of their career to raise families. The suboptimal post-doctoral pay package adds insult to injury, and leads to the inescapable conclusion that scientific advancement comes at the expense of disposable pawns.

So what’s the solution? Science must regulate its own ecosystem, and align it more realistically with the job market. Cutting back the number of PhDs is probably inevitable, but reducing the number of starter post-docs and creating more permanent research positions – experienced, autonomous scientists who work in labs under the patronage of a principle investigator – would also help. Such scientists would cost more, but a smaller lab comprised of a mixture of trainees and permanent staff could be just as efficient and cost-effective, while bringing badly needed continuity to an environment often impaired by high turnover.

It’s not going to be simple, but arguments like “It will cost too much” or “It’s always been like this and it’s impossible to change” are just too unimaginative. If we can strive to prevent a virus as complex as HIV, surely we can attempt to cure our own profession.

Jennifer Rohn is a cell biologist at University College London. In her spare time, she is also a freelance science writer, broadcaster and pundit. She blogs about the scientific lifestyle at Mind The Gap and has published two novels about scientists. Find out more on her website [http://jennyrohn.com].