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Postdoc Plan B – The elephant in the lab

28 Jan, 2013

Scientist looking at sequencing autorad.

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.

Kathryn Lougheed

Dr Kathryn Lougheed is a research associate at Imperial College London. She works on a Wellcome Trust-funded research project studying latent tuberculosis.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. 28 Jan, 2013 6:27 pm

    Great post, certainly the case in my field of archaeology/ human origins research. Although it took me over 2 years after my PhD, I finally got a postdoc through the EC funded Marie Curie fellowships. This represented a great chance to work outside the UK (mobility is key aspect), but they also have much higher success rate than anything I could apply for here- 15% compared to about 5% for things like British Academy or Leverhulme Early Careers Fellowships, incidentally the latter are tough to even apply for because they don’t offer full grants, so many University departments won’t take them.
    It does seem that not only is competition intense, but there are fewer things to apply for: a look at jobs.a.c..U.K. shows many PhD scholarships, bursaries & funding attached to larger grants, but there’s a real dearth of general postdoc funding. I agree that more ringfencing for early careers posts is vital, & like the Marie Curie assessments, they should take into account that not everyone can publish huge amounts straight after a PhD, if they’re also working part time.
    Thanks for the article.

  2. Amit Rai permalink
    30 Jan, 2013 4:20 pm

    Reblogged this on Xplorigen: The Next-Gen Biotech – New Delhi and commented:
    really interesting & own-looking write up,so I go for re-blog,

  3. Lampros permalink
    31 Jan, 2013 5:08 pm

    After 6.5 years as a postdoc I came to realize (well, better late than never) that my PhD was the most stupid thing I did in my life. In my field (and yours if I got it correctly) biomed research the options are extremely limited. At least, in the US where I work, if you want to make it to the next step as an Assistant professor you need two things: a grant (good luck getting the preliminary data needed when you’re swamped working on your PI’s project) and networking, not necessarily in this order. What matters is WHO you know and NOT WHAT you know. It is not uncommon to see PI’s with less and lower quality publications than mine, not to mention severely less technical and scientific abilities. Actually, by now, it is the norm…
    Most of the jobs advertized are nothing but garbage since the jobs are already given to someone even before the jobs were posted online! What a waste of time, applying for academic jobs if you don’t already know the department chair personally beforehand and he has promised you the job.
    Another humilliating step you have to take is that you have to provide 3-4 letters of recommendation! It really feels like they recruit graduate students instead of future colleagues. If you made the mistake of disagreeing with your postdoc PI at any point or ask for a letter from someone who doesn’t know or is not willing to write a really flamboyant letter on your behalf, you’re out of luck once more.
    So, I decided that the Academia was not for me and it’s time ot move to the industry. I have to say that after so many years in the academia I have “burned all my bridges” to the industry. Nobody wants to hire an ex-postdoc, and I even had this confessed to me on a phone interview! If you want to have a chance you must come from the insdustry. I wish instead of wasting my time with postdocs I had taken an internship at any pharma/biomed company right after my MS. This is the average profile of the people hired these days in the industry: an MS in immunology/oncology/pharmacology and 1-3 years of industry experience and cGMP training/experience.
    After seing how many job ads have “no PhD’s please” written in the job description, I now have revised my resume to hide the fact that I have a PhD and hopefully get a job somewhere close to my family (I only found my current postdoc 1000miles away from my wife and 2 yr old son). Having sent out more than 250 resume’s I don’t hope that much anymore but hey, hope dies last right….
    So, as a piece of advice to new PhD’s I would say:
    Find a GOOD mentor for your postdoc. Not necessarily someone who has a lot of publications but someone who has experience mentoring SCIENCE postdocs, is ready and willing to show you how you can progress (HOW to write a grant, how to network, etc) and already has a good solid network. Avoid at all costs Medical dostors as PI’s since 9 out of 10 do not know how to help you. My first postdoctoral PI was a fantastic scientist and physician but he really had no idea what to do with me since all his previous postdocs were physicians looking for a quick publication before they started their residency…
    If you have not established a solid, extensive, network within your first year of postdoc (and by that I mean people willing and able to offer you positions!!!) cut your losses and take an internship (even unpaied if you can handle it) in the industry. It’s an investment that has higher probability of payback than any postdoc.
    If none of these works, cut you losses even further, admit your mistake and move to something else (high school teaching, consutling, marketing research, driving a taxi cab…). Remaining a postdoc for life is not an option!
    Sorry for the huge comment.

  4. Lampros permalink
    31 Jan, 2013 9:46 pm

    I wonder what happened to my HUGE comment here. I posted it this morning and until now (late afternoon) it’s still not here. Is it because I said that my PhD was the biggest mistake of my life? :-)

  5. 5 Feb, 2013 2:37 pm

    All postdocs – PLEASE scroll through the posts and articles on these facebook pages!

  6. 5 Feb, 2013 2:38 pm

    Ideas for expanding opportunity and innovation in science careers
    by National Postdoc Union on Sunday, July 22, 2012 at 4:30pm ·
    1) Put an annual limit on the amount of total federal grant dollars that one person (principle investigator) can be given for research (this would not include small business, education and other types of grants). This would allow more grants to be funded, which would benefit younger scientists – give us a toe in the door by spreading the funding a little wider. It would also incentivize institutions to hire MORE scientists (especially more independent ones who can apply for funding) and also incentivize scientists to pursue PRIVATE funding as well as commercialization (entrepreneurism?) of products resulting from their discoveries.

    2) Expand the number and size of common core facilities for various research needs (analytical chemistry cores, sequencing cores, animal facility cores, etc.) and the number of stable career staff scientists positions (‘permanent’ with benefits) – but have them report not to an individual PI or faculty boss, but to the department as an institutional resource (not the property of an individual PI).

    3) Make the identity submitter of grant proposals and manuscripts unknown to the reviewers and decision makers as much as possible.
    4) Create/fund a much wider variety of permanent/stable staff scientist career track positions at institutions geared toward Ph.D.’s – particularly for core research service facilities (which should be expanded greatly).

    5) End the system of tenure for faculty, it’s a concept whose time has come and went.

    6) Mandate twice per year surveys for trainees (students and postdocs) paid on grants to be sent directly from the agency to the trainee and directly back to the institution. These should focus on career outlooks, career services provided at the institution, human resources grievances/complaints, and especially (the bulk of the survey) should focus on the quaity of mentoring they are getting. Mentoring scores should be utilized to evaluate future grants in which a PI requests funding for trainees.

    7) Mandate that all institutions eligible for federal funding allow postdocs (and possibly graduate students) to be sole Principle Investigators on grants which they write if they choose.

    8) Forbid the hiring of scientists/researchers/faculty based on marital status. This practice is nepotism: it is deplorable, without merit, greatly reduces innovation and productivity in science and probably also violates equal opportunity laws – certainly in spirit if not in letter.

    9) Remove “trainee” (student and postdoc) salaries/stipends from research grants and make them all competitive fellowships, or (but this second one has some problems) give the money to institutions to pay student stipends with so that individual professors do not do the hiring or control the trainee’s employment/salary/benefits directly.

    10) Fund “Innovation Incubators” for postdocs (but with independent researcher titles) to work in common labspace, no offices, and using core facilities to pursue our research without a faculty boss. These researchers could do a lot with such limited resources, as long as we have independence. We could pursue our own funding and even stay in those positions if we don’t feel the need to seek higher titles – just remain productive in that job indefinitely. Those of us who want a larger lab of our own can use the position to create preliminary data and apply for grants to do it – either to “earn” more lab space at the same institution or apply for positions at other institutions.

    11) Limit the number of employees that an individual faculty scientists (or “permanent” scientists in federal agencies and national labs) lab can have – limit on grad students, postdocs, and technicians. Possibly only limit trainees (grad students and postdocs). This will allow faculty scientists to actually focus more on science and less on administration of large laboratory empires. Often the lab bosses are disconnected from much of the research going on in the largest labs. This causes an ackward situation whereby the indepdent scientist (postdoc, etc.) who conceived and conducted the research must add the boss to a senior position on the grant or publication artificially, thus making it impossible to distinguish whose ideas they were and who did the work, further exacerbating the difficulty for the employee to get their own independent position and lab. This situation has a severely negative impact on the innovation per dollar of federal funding.

    Like · · Share
    Peruvistan Longaray likes this.

    National Postdoc Union ALSO: all employees should be paid the full amount budgeted in the original grant. When they write grants, the ybudget X amount for a postech, for a studentech, etc. However, they don’t advertize the salary and try to negotiate it down. That’s a farce because the agency GAVE them that money FOR the person they hire, so that person should be paid all of it.
    July 22, 2012 at 4:31pm · Like

  7. FlowJockie permalink
    7 Feb, 2013 4:05 pm

    Hey Lampros, you hit the nail on the head. I could have written an identical post based on my experience. Another point of advice for someone who insists on getting a Ph.D., if you want to teach, get a postdoc designed to provide you with teaching experience. If you want to become a PI do not apply to advertised postdoc positions. Most advertised positions are a PI who has a specific project that they are already funded to do and want to throw a postdoc at. As Lampros said, you will have no time to work on your own project/grant. Only apply to labs that have a track record of “graduating” their postdocs. Ask your potential PI, “who has come out of your lab and where are they now?”. Don’t throw your career away in order to build up someone else’s.

  8. brobr permalink
    20 Feb, 2013 11:54 am

    The over-the-years repeated incentives for academically trained and apt people to leave science when they do not aim for a PI position (more or less repeated in the above blog), together with other aspects (see e.g. and associated comments) begs the question whether these are signs that the current academic career structure needs serious revision.

    With increasing demands at various levels (research, teaching, grant-writing, proper managing people, tracking the ever-increasing amount of literature) is it not very odd that an academic is still expected to be able to deal with this all by him- or herself? They might be very clever in their field of expertise, but not necessarily able in all the other aspects of running a group or department.

    Are these not significant stress-signs suggesting that funding-bodies and universities should refocus and maybe start to support and fund collaborative teams instead of sole PIs in the current feudalistic structure? The everlasting, wasteful battle for necessary resources might yield some good science but not necessarily as much or good as would be possible when more time and energy could be directed at the science itself.

    Any change, however, will probably have to be instigated outside academic institutions as the people who have been successful in the current system will state that ‘It has always been this way’. They have the feudal faults of academia, that seem crashing in ( ), in their blind-spot.

  9. GG Allen permalink
    23 Mar, 2014 10:18 am

    As I always say, I repeat, if PhD does not give you what you want, get out quickly and early. The longer you hang around as a postdoc, the more difficult it becomes to make a carrier switch.
    Maybe you can learn from me. I work in reg affairs permanently and on what you would call a decent salary (at least an associate prof salary 5 years after PhD in biomed science). And it gets better. I was recently approached by a local university (a SLAC) to teach first year students as a temporary staff in the evenings (another few years contract). My job is to transmit what I have learned in the industry to young undergraduates (in business, accounting/finance & IS) so that they can make good career choices. Great that business/IT faculties can see value in me as a scientist and wants my outlook to make their graduates even more marketable. They want to know how I have made the transition and the soft skills I have developed along the way.
    It is so sad that places and colleagues I did PhD with in biomed sciences would not even touch me or reply my emails because I was considered a failure for leaving the rat race of publish or perish. In all honesty, who is a failure when you consider the overall picture? .

    The moral of the story: PhD/postdocs in sciences does not prepare you for the real world. If you aspire to be relevant and employable outside the research lab, vote with your feet and move on, even if your PI/the system considers you a failure. He/she is not responsible for your future, you are.


  1. Postdoc Plan B – The elephant in the lab | Innovation through Institutional Integration (i3)
  2. Postdoc Plan B – The elephant in the lab! | ECR Group

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