The Intersection

Plight Of The Postdoc


This week I’ve composed my first column at Science Progress called ‘Plight of the Postdoc: Is modern American science strangling its young talents in the cradle?‘ The piece explores some illuminationg–and troubling–figures about the arduous road ahead for many early career scientists.

At first glance, it might seem that American science finds itself in a kind of golden age. According to the National Science Foundation, the United States is graduating more Ph.D.s in science and engineering than ever before, with 29,854 in 2006 representing an all time high. Meanwhile, we spend more on research, employ more scientists, and publish more peer-reviewed research than all competitor nations. There’s no end in sight, either: Just last week, the House of Representatives voted to boost the budgets of four key science agencies by $337 million.

Appearances, though, can be deceiving. Mounting evidence suggests that looming institutional shortcomings are eroding the ability of the so-called “science pipeline” to produce a healthy future national science infrastructure–and unless we shift the traditional paradigm rapidly, the consequences could be dramatic. Two recent studies underscore this point: One, from the National Institutes of Health, reports that the current generation of young scientists may be turning away from careers in research due to funding issues and the need for institutional change. Concurrently, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences’ new report, “ARISE: Advancing Research In Science and Engineering,” concludes that early-career researchers face greater challenges today than ever. The continual and grueling search for funding, the Academy suggests, fosters overly conservative decisions about laboratory research directions, which in turn impede the impact of government-funded science and thwart the careers of younger talents.

You can read the entire column here.


  1. #1 Dan
    June 27, 2008

    Someone needed to get people to understand what’s going on for PhD students like me. You wrote a good article. Thank you.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    June 27, 2008

    as a former postdoc who cannot find funds and also cannot find work, this article really doesn’t even begin to discuss the er .. “challenges” .. that scientists face when struggling to stay alive, fed and housed and off the streets. it’s a national disgrace to see how america’s most highly educated people are treated .. it’s no wonder people opt for selling drugs on the street corner instead of a formal education! they’re the savvy ones.

  3. #3 Walker
    June 27, 2008

    I thought you were going to do a blog series on this a few blog posts back. The key thing is understanding whether it is good to have more PhDs, and if so, what can we do about it.

    First, if the purpose of a PhD is simply to get a tenure track position, then it is well known that we produce too many. There simply are not enough openings in universities. And as the Echo Boom (for which the college-aged peak was last year) moves on, there will probably be even less. Forget what you hear about competitiveness; we are not going to see more students at the university than we have now. Expect quite a few SLACs to shut their doors over the next 20 years.

    Right now, the solution has been to let as many people who want get PhDs, but let natural selection eat them in the job market. And the problem is that post-docs prolong this pain. The initial purpose of the post-doc was a good one. Allow the researcher to develop a publishing record (if they were in a field like mathematics that has a low publishing record prior to the PhD) and to learn how the grant game works (which is hard to do as a student). But this requires one post-doc. Every time I see someone on their second or third post-doc, I get worried. It is often in that case that we are just using soft-money to delay the inevitable.

    The problem is that the post-doc is an okay tool for what is was designed: the pursuit of a tenure track job at an R1. It just sucks at everything else. Want to teach at a SLAC? Wrong model. Want to work in industry? Wrong model. What we need is better career guidance before the PhD. If you want to go into industry, then what adjustments do you need to make to your research focus? If you are going to a SLAC rather than a R1, what do you have to do to prove to them that you are a star teacher? Just what are your options anyway?

    The good PhD programs are starting to do this already. But I just see a lot of PhD programs that do not care, and it makes me sad; they just care about the wonders of grant overhead charges.

    Trying to address this at the post-doc level is too late. You are what, around 30 the time you enter the post-doc game? Hell, you need to be thinking these decisions BEFORE you go to graduate school. I will not even write recommendations anymore unless the student talks to me about his/her long term goals. Yes, we need to rethink the “science pipeline”, but our responsibility starts at the undergraduate and (early) graduate levels.

  4. #4 Walker
    June 27, 2008

    There is also a separate issue here that is not being addressed at all (which is why I mention it in a second post):

    Funding right now sucks. It sucks for everyone. Unless you have a military application (this is my number one source of funding right now, in addition to an NSF that everyone tells me I was damn lucky to get), you are dead.

    But this is a separate problem from the post-doc issue.

  5. #5 BioInfoMiner
    June 27, 2008

    I have been reading and talking to people before taking the plunge in to a Ph.D.

    Thanks, Walker for the insightful comments, and I agree with you on guidance before and not after the Ph.D
    Could you tell me what you mean bySLAC is? I don’t think you’re referring to the Stanford Linear Accelarator Center

  6. #6 JEM
    June 27, 2008

    I beg to differ. Post-docs are not a separate issue from funding. In a funding limited environment, hiring a post-doc is an less expensive option than hiring a “regular staff” and a more productive option than hiring a student. In short, hiring a post-doc is a way for research staff to get work done “good, cheap, and fast” while they waste their own time securing more funding.

    In other words, what I see is a situation where you have two choices. You can have funding, but no time and not enough money to do the work yourself, so you hire a post-doc. Or, you can have no funding. Either way everyone loses.

  7. #7 Walker
    June 27, 2008

    Thanks, Walker for the insightful comments, and I agree with you on guidance before and not after the Ph.D
    Could you tell me what you mean bySLAC is? I don’t think you’re referring to the Stanford Linear Accelarator Center

    This is Chronicle-speak for Small Liberal Arts College. An institution where teaching is considered more important for tenure decisions than research. Then are not as focused as R1 universities (Research 1, an official designation conferred by the funding agencies in determining funding priority). Sorry about the confusion; there are a lot of acronyms that you accumulate in the biz.

    I beg to differ. Post-docs are not a separate issue from funding.

    I believe that funding will get better. But even if it does, the “all PhDs should go the post-doc route” needs to change. Especially if we continue to produce the same number of PhDs as we do. That is all I meant by this statement.

    When I got my PhD in 2000, NSF started the VIGRE program. It was intended to increase the number of post-docs available in certain STEM areas. It was a rousing success in terms of funding post-docs. Tons of places had post-docs that year; it was like they were giving them away. But all it was doing was kicking the can down the road; all those people still had to compete for jobs 3 years down the road. It would have been better if they had just entered the job market directly.

    This is what I am worried about if funding returns. In my humble opinion, programs like VIGRE have been a huge failure. All these post-docs are doing is delaying the inevitable. We have to teach PhD students when to “walk away”. I do not care how many years of your life you have invested in the program, sometimes you just have to get on with your life. And if you are creative and open, you just might be able to do something that still requires your training.

    I speak from much experience on this. My career has been very “nontraditional”. I turned down all those VIGRE post-docs to take a job at a largely unknown SLAC, left the SLAC when they had to buy out tenured faculty (and let go many non-tenured faculty) because of major problems with the endowment (they don’t teach you about that stuff in graduate school), and then ended up on my feet as a program director at an R1.

  8. #8 John Mashey
    June 29, 2008

    re: rethinking the science pipeline

    This may be yet more depressing, but all this misses the elephant in the living room, i.e., the combination of {Peak Oil+Gas and Climate Change and GDP}:

    1) Investment in science is a good long-term investment.

    2) Rich societies do it, poor ones can’t. Many countries need 50% of their people doing farming, the US has 2%, but only due to cheap oil, which is going away. That small 2% number has a lot to do with the high investment the US has been able to make in research.

    3) While there is a 2:1 difference in energy efficiency (say between Japan and US), in general wealth ~ work (= energy used * efficiency). Historically, England got the Industrial revolution going with coal; the US got rich by early exploitation of oil.

    4) We’re likely at the plateau of Peak Oil, and Peak Gas is coming in a decade or two. Worse, EROI (Energy Return on Investment) decreases for fossil fuels, because sensible people use the best first. US oil in 1930 was 100:1, it was 30:1 by 1970, and thee days, it’s maybe 10-20:1. All this means we get less net energy (wealth) back. Economists like Charles Hall and Robert Ayres/Benjamin Warr make a pretty good case that continuing GDP growth depends on intense efficiency improvements and widespread deployment of renewable energy supplies. Otherwise, US GDP growth slows and maybe even stops over a long period, not something we have a lot of recent experience with.

    5) So, a challenge for the next century is to totally rework the world’s energy infrastructure to replace the 60% of our energy that comes from oil+gas, without burning too much unsequestered coal.

    This is going to be very expensive, and it’s nontrivial to get people to make short-term sacrifices for really long-term benefits … like funding for research. Likewise, just dealing with the already-committed effects of global warming (like sea level rise) will cost.

    In particular, building sea walls and dikes is expensive, and doing it with little or no petroleum will be really expensive, even for the 1-2meters expected for 2100. Moving sewage plants uphill, or running more pumps, or moving major highways, is expensive … and those needs will compete for money used for research.

    [Local governments in the SF Bay Area already worry about all this.]

    6) Given all that, I would think very hard about the likely trajectory of US funding for research:
    – in general
    – and by discipline

    If someone wants to do a PhD
    – they should pick their discipline very carefully, because it’s hard to believe we’ll be able to keep the current level of investments in longer-term R&D in all disciplines.
    – if they want to do a PhD in an area whose applicability to this century’s set of problems is unclear, they’d better be among the *very, very best* in that area, because funding for anyone else seems unlikely.

    7) When I was an undergraduate, I was planning for a PhD in physics, but fortunately got entranced with computing, and ended up doing MS/PhD in computer science. I say fortunately, because in 1973, when I was finishing up, having been recruited by Bell Labs with choice among half a dozen good jobs, my old physics friends were having a terrible time. Smart people with good skills and several pre-PhD publications would send out hundreds of resumes, and maybe get one or two nibbles from SLACs. Very sad.

    Bell Labs, of course, was the exemplar of an industrial research organization that thought long-term and invested in basic research. At its height, we had 25,000 people, with a lot of PhDs. Monopoly money helps, but with the breakup of the Bell System, that went away, and Bell Labs downsized.

    8) One must be very careful projecting business-as-usual trends across major inflection points, and cheap oil (not oil) is gone, and that will have serious ripple effects into funding, I’m afraid.

  9. #9 Ethan Siegel
    June 30, 2008


    I don’t know how to respond except to say that, as someone who just quit their job as a postdoc to try and find a career that made me happier, yes, young scientists are not treated very well overall.

    Thanks for raising this issue, and for bringing attention to the fact that the assumption that the best scientists will choose to remain scientists despite the obstacles is not necessarily true.


  10. #10 Reasonable Kansan
    June 30, 2008

    And all along I thought all our troubles were due to the Intelligent Design people.


  11. #11 Samia
    June 30, 2008

    I love science and have wanted to be a professor for a very long time, but lately everything I’ve been reading and hearing re: academia has been about as discouraging as this post. I’m definitely going to be talking to some of my mentors about long-term career plans before thinking about the doctorate. Thanks much, Ms. Kirshenbaum. 🙂

  12. #12 Madhu
    January 3, 2009

    This is a very sad situation, but I was happy to see others reflect what I am going through. Feel like a caged bird, very ambitious but afraid that a prolonged rough situation will make me mellow and run for cover. I am simply under the hope that these tough years make me strong, but only time can tell.

New comments have been disabled.