Postdoc Plan B – The elephant in the lab
Kathryn Lougheed on the difficult career choices facing postdoctoral scientists.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Wellcome Trust.
October was a milestone for me; a milestone that, in the darkest moments of failed experiments and contaminated cultures, feels as if it will be metaphorically tied around my scientific career and pushed off a bridge. This is because October marked the ten-year anniversary of starting my PhD and, simultaneously, the point at which scientific funders deem me too experienced to apply for a junior fellowship.
I’ve been a postdoc for six years and have known for some time now that, as much I love the freedom to focus on research without the pressure of writing grant applications or teaching undergraduates, this isn’t a permanent career option. A postdoc is meant to be a stepping stone on to bigger and better things – a fellowship, a lectureship, a lab of your own. But with less than 10 per cent of postdocs reaching this next stage, what happens to everyone else for whom the stepping stones run out?
Too many postdocs, not enough jobs
The postdoc problem isn’t something that is easily fixed. One of the cornerstones of UK scientific research is all the new ideas and enthusiasm brought in by the constant stream of new scientists making their way through the PhD system and into the big wide world of three-year contracts and ‘I need a solo Nature paper’-panic. According to my friend Dan, also a postdoc, making PhD programs more selective would help. “A research PhD is not really necessary for anything outside of a research career and if there are not enough long term jobs for qualified researchers then we do not need so many.”
The idea of funding less PhDs in favour of more later stage positions is not something new. But if we moved the bottleneck to the PhD level, wouldn’t we just lose people who aren’t a finished product at 23 years old?
An alternative solution could be to introduce more permanent postdoc positions funded by research institutions. But, unless universities start printing money in their basements, this would be at the expense of some of the current contract positions. It might solve the problem of expertise being lost from a lab every time an old postdoc is replaced by a shiny new one. But, talking to others, the majority consensus was that this would simply produce a small number of ‘Dr Technicians’, which would do little to help the overall situation.
James, another postdoc, thinks the problem all comes down to funding. As unfair as it often feels, there just isn’t enough money to pay for even all the good scientists. And the cut-throat nature of securing research funding is a necessary evil – after all, we are being paid by the taxpayers to do a job we love and competition is necessary to ensure the best science gets the money. But do the best people really succeed? You don’t need to look far to find scientists like James, who “couldn’t have done anything better but my job isn’t guaranteed”. Another postdoc, Laura says, “you do have to have the talent to take it forward, the problem is lots of us do!” She explained that part of being successful is “luck, who you know, and using all the fashionable keywords”.
The subject of ‘Who you know’ was something that all of the postdocs I spoke to talked to agreed on. This is because our futures post-postdoc are strongly influenced by the success of our principle investigator. Choose the right PhD supervisor and, while nothing is guaranteed, it certainly makes things a lot easier if you find yourself in a lab with a high turn-around of publications, even better if they support you in grant-writing attempts.
Breaking the stigma
There’s an elephant in the lab in the form of an overwhelming sense for shame and failure associated with not securing a permanent position despite the odds being so heavily weighted against us. Maybe this is the problem. Dan told me, “it should be made clear to PhD students that they are embarking on a very specific career which most of them will not progress in despite years of training.” But honest conversations between postdocs and principle investigators about the likelihood of succeeding in academia are as rare as the centrifuge breaking on the day that you don’t desperately need to use it.
The Postdoc Development Centre at Imperial College London think that it’s about time we saw a change in attitude so that PhD students and postdocs stop thinking that a career in the lab is the only way they can be successful. Dan says, “I feel I am ill-prepared for alternative careers, in fact one of my main problems is knowing what I am going to do and if postdoctoral training will be of an use in finding a job.”
In the end, it is the postdoc’s responsibility to face this problem head on. But that doesn’t mean that institutions, funders and principle investigators can’t play their part in easing the transition from lab to big wide world. “Universities could help by promoting career services and career development courses for postdocs and helping educate postdocs on the transferable skills they have that will be useful in finding work outside of academia,” Dan says. The Postdoc Development Centre would like to see funding bodies ring fence money aimed at educating postdocs and making them well aware of their options much earlier in their careers.
In the end, I don’t know if trying to educate postdocs on the realities of science is actually too little too late. But anything that gets people talking about this is surely a good thing?
Names in this article have been changed to protect PubMed identities.
Dr Kathryn Lougheed is a research associate at Imperial College London. She works on a Wellcome Trust-funded research project studying latent tuberculosis.