Postdocs reimagined

In keeping with my recent theme, which might be summarized as, “PhD, heal thyself,” I will use this blog post to draw your attention to the current issue of the journal Science.  Earlier this year, Science magazine (via their feed at twitter.com/sciencemagazine) posed the question, “Is the idea of the postdoc position obsolete in today’s scientific landscape?” 

Before we get into it, I would just like to point out that Science has often reported on obsolescence.  A search of the word “obsolete” on www.sciencemag.org shows that Science has previously examined the uselessness, outmodedness, and/or extinction of:  scientists, human spaceflight, scientific awards, copyrights, livestock cloning, and even the scientific method itself and hypothesis-driven science (future discoveries will emerge from mining “big data” for patterns).

And the list goes on!  It turns out that almost anything can be proclaimed obsolete!  But, what about postdocs?   Science has now published excerpts from the answers provided by postdocs themselves here: www.sciencemag.org/content/349/6243/24.full

The answers are thought provoking, to say the least.  Out of more than 300 submissions, about 100 of them felt that postdocs are indeed obsolete!  (Who are these people?)

A major theme represented in submitted answers was that postdocs deserve more respect and recognition.  Agreed, respect and recognition are nice…but what about cold hard cash?  To readers of the iJOBS blog, it will likely come as no surprise that postdocs feel that their salaries are not super-lucrative.

Submissions also point out that a combination of several factors makes it difficult for postdocs to raise a family.  The expense of child-care is difficult to afford on current postdoc salaries, and many postdoctoral fellowships do not permit family leave.  One respondent proposed that postdocs should be eligible for child-care financial aid or pre-tax payment plans, and that postdoctoral fellowships should allow family leave.  This response also suggested allowing a 1-year extension on the “postdoc clock” of eligibility for NIH Pathway to Independence awards, similar to extension of the “tenure clock.”

Several answers suggest that staff scientist positions should be more available in academia to provide a realistic long-term alternative to faculty positions.  As long as compensation is reasonable, such positions might become desirable career options for many. Perhaps staff scientist positions, as imagined by these respondents, would remove some of the stigma of long-term postdoc positions (I’ve heard them disparagingly referred to as “permadocs”).

According to some of the responses, a system in which postdocs could obtain consistent or long-term dedicated funding–independent from a faculty PI– would allow them to bring more new ideas to fruition and minimize their own “exploitation.”

Several responses also highlighted the need for specialized postdoctoral training in skills such as management, teaching, industry research, or administration.  While such post-doctoral positions do exist, they may not be plentiful, and many postdocs are not well informed about them.  If you are interested in the iJOBS program here at Rutgers, you are already aware of this and some other new opportunities in this regard.

Here’s the important part:  THE DEBATE IS NOT OVER!  What do you think?  Are postdocs obsolete? Ideally, academic research training should prepare us for careers in academia, big pharma, little pharma, science writing, entrepreneurship, biotech, non-profits, policy, intellectual property, and more.  I think one thing we can all agree on now is that our academic training could be improved.

Here’s a way to make your voices heard, and help steer the scientific endeavor:  TheNextGen VOICES surveys (on Twitter with the hashtag #NextGenSci).  NextGen survey series is an excellent venue for young scientists to share their views on a range of topics, so you should visit them often!  This is where postdocs provided their views on their own obsolescence.

The current NextGen survey asks young scientists to propose a novel scientific endeavor or direction for the future.  BTW, this may be the quickest way to get into Science, as they will publish excerpts of the best answers in their Oct. 2, 2015 issue.

Post YOUR ideas by Aug. 14th here:  scim.ag/NG_16

 

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