On a tweet from @David_Dobbs I found this article in the World View column of the journal Nature by Jennifer Rohn entitled ‘Give Postdocs a Career Not Empty Promises” (Published online 2 March 2011 | Nature 471, 7 (2011) | doi:10.1038/471007a).
One of Jennifer’s points is that we have an over-abundance of post docs, too little funding for them (only going to get worse, BTW), and a vanishingly small number of faculty positions for them:
“In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.”
Quite. I’m with you 100% Jennifer. Thanks for bringing up this topic and I read your solution with interest:
“This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.”
“Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10–20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee.”
I’ve seen labs that have professional post-docs or senior scientists that act as lieutenants in the group – they do their own project, manage training of a grad student, and run certain aspects of the lab- and are completely scientifically and intellectually engaged with the PI. We already have a professional career track for such individuals, usually bestowed upon them when they are deemed ready for grant-writing, and it is has the title “Assistant Professor for Research” and sometimes “Assistant Professor, non-tenure track”, and sometimes ‘Instructor’.
And long-term these ‘Assistant Professor (R)’ positions are costly and unstable. The current NIH guideline for postdoc salaries for postdocs with 7 or more years experience is an annual salary of $52K. Add benefits to that and you are talking in the neighborhood of 70K/year in total compensation for a very experienced postdoc. And this number will only rise as years of experience rise. Start approaching 80-90K per year in total compensation and this is a big, big chunk of a single NIH grant. if the modular budgetary limitation of $250K/year applies. Furthermore, these positions are unstable when tied to the PIs research support- in that they last only 4-5 years- the length of a typical NIH grant. This grant uncertainty would make it very hard to keep that highly trained person that holds an important part of the lab’s scientific memory around for longer than that. This ‘instability’ issue has been discussed previously by Drugmonkey, who suggests that there may already be existing funding mechanism models (using the K05 as a model) that could be used to fund the salaries of such career research scientists. Maybe.
As for institutions chipping in with salary lines and such- while this is a lovely idea- it just doesn’t seem practical right now. Getting institutions to pay the salaries of their tenure track and tenured faculty these days is a challenge. The medical school standard in the US (and I fear that this is for generous institutions) is that they currently pay only 50% of a tenure track faculty member’s salary anyway. This is 1/2 a position. In the current economic downturn lecturers, instructors, and non- tenure track faculty are being laid off.
Anyway- I think Jennifer is on the right track that we have a postdoc oversupply- but I think we need to get down to the root causes. We are making too many post docs because we train too many graduate students. Right now every department I know of is running around madly recruiting young, fresh faced, un-aware of the rat race of science graduate student candidates. I see the numbers- 15 recruits here, 20 recruits there, 35 recruits somewhere else. I see all of this in the face (as Jennifer points out) of a dearth of tenure track faculty positions, reduced state funding in many places for education, and rock bottom NIH pay lines. So far I haven’t heard too much rational discussion about why we train the numbers of graduate students that we do- and any thoughts on where we expect these bright kids to go when they leave our programs. Do we have to train 50 students for each one who eventually makes it into a TT position, or could we be amazingly selective, train fewer and get a higher percentage into great post docs and eventually have those two gain tenure track positions? (I’m waiting for the sports analogy).