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The top 5 challenges for postdoc researchers

By: Roche Life Sciences

Posted: February 03, 2016 | Career & Lifestyle

So you've finished grad school and entered the mysterious and tantalizing world of the postdoctoral researcher. You're now ready to face the scientific community as you transition to an independent investigator. Right?

The reality, however, is less than glamorous. In fact, you are now embarking along a quite treacherous, winding career path with little if any certainty in its destination. A once traditional journey from graduate school to postdoc and then a tenure-track academic professorship has given way to a protracted training period muddled with career uncertainty, limited salary, and fewer tenure-track positions available. Indeed, the current landscape of biomedical science includes a backdrop of plateaued federal funding, increasing numbers of graduate PhD students and the continued need for postdocs to provide the cheap scientific labor force for principal investigators. Simply put, the supply of postdocs is outpacing the demand for academic professorship positions.

The National Institutes of Health estimates there are somewhere between 37,000 and 68,000 postdocs in the U.S. Combined with the nearly 56,800 graduate biomedical PhD trainees,1 these challenges will become increasingly apparent. Below, we highlight the top five challenges faced by post-doctoral researchers:

1. Finding a job. This is on the mind of every postdoc across the country. As mentioned above, there is a substantial imbalance in the ratio of graduate PhD trainees and postdoc researchers to available academic jobs, a bottleneck that continues to squeeze inextricably tighter each year. The discipline's apprenticeship-style training means that most principal investigators running labs in today's academic culture are instructing far more researchers than there will ever be academic positions to obtain. This problem is compounded by the continued expansion of graduate PhD trainees. The NIH estimates that in 1979 there were approximately 30,000 graduate PhD students. In 2009, that number nearly doubled to 56,800.1 What is even more sobering is that in the 1970s and 80s, investigators received their first major federal funding (or RO1 equivalent) by ages 34 to 36. Fast-forward to 2011, and it is taking researchers nearly a decade longer to obtain similar funding, where the average age of a PhD researcher receiving an RO1 equivalent is 42 (or 44 for an MD/PhD). According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, there are approximately seven postdocs for every available tenure-track professorship in the U.S.2 This can be a difficult pill to swallow for those enduring a second or even third postdoc, which brings us to challenge No. 

2. The era of the second (or third) post-doc. Yes, there indeed is such a thing. Let us repeat: a second or third postdoc. To some, this feels like getting congratulated for completing six to seven years of graduate training and potentially a half-decade of fellowship by being slapped in the face with a hot beaker. It reflects the lack of available senior researcher or tenure-track academic positions and has essentially created a holding tank for biomedical postdocs by maintaining a steady state of career limbo while simultaneously supplying the cheap labor force of academia. This protracted period of training is arguably no longer "training" and is rather the most economical way to sustain research labs as universities continue to churn out graduates.

3. Limited salary and benefits. Now let's get to the nitty gritty of the postdoc life. The NIH stipend for a postdoctoral fellow ranges from $42,000 for a starting postdoc to $55,272 for someone in his or her seventh year. There are no merit- or education-based differences, just an incremental annual increase. As a postdoc, your position is often as an outside contractor or a similar designation. That is, you are often not entitled to the benefits of a typical employee like comprehensive health insurance or retirement plans. This may not have been a deal breaker in undergraduate or graduate school, but postdocs are often entering the period of life where they start families, have young children and begin to plan heavily for the future.

4. Obtaining stable funding. The substantial reduction in federal funding over the past decade has had dramatic and long-lasting effects on day-to-day life in labs across the country. While this has appeared to plateau in recent years, the era of plentiful multi-RO1 labs may have been over for some time. Investigators across the U.S. are facing increased competition for federal grants and looking elsewhere to obtain the necessary funds to maintain their labs. Indeed, this has opened the doors to less-traditional methods of obtaining funds, such as foundation awards, infrastructure or facilities grants, disease-specific private foundations or organizations, and even industry partnerships. There are also governmental funding opportunities from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, the Department of Agriculture and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

5. Burnout. After reading about the challenges listed above, it's not difficult to imagine that there are indeed high rates of burnout among U.S. postdoctoral fellows. After completing an average of six to seven years of graduate school, then a two- to four-year postdoc, followed by potentially a second or third two- to four-year postdoc, burnout happens. Indeed, coupled with limited and highly competitive job offers and uncertain career trajectory after one to two decades of training, many postdocs get overwhelmed from time to time.

So what does the future have in store for tomorrow's researchers? In a 2014 article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bruce Alberts and colleagues described our current system as unsustainable and hypercompetitive, and even a deterrent to attracting the best and brightest.3 Alberts and his colleagues argued for a reconfiguration and overhaul of our current practices to create a sustainable infrastructure for the future. This is just one example of the diverse and lively discussion about our current climate of biomedical science, the nature of trainees and the need to redefine what it means to create a holistic and productive landscape for research labs in the 21st century.

3. Alberts et al. Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2014 Apr 22;111(16): 5773-7.


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