Postdoctoral Training and Intelligent Design
If we want to attract the best students to science and nurture their talent most effectively, we need to rethink the current system.
“Kids, I’m here today to tell you why you should become scientists. In high school, while your friends are taking classes such as the meaning of the swim suit in contemporary TV drama, you can be taking biology, chemistry, physics, and calculus. College will be the same, except the labs will take a lot more time. After that, it gets better. While your classmates who go to law school or business school will be out on the street in three years looking for work, you can look forward to seven to eight years of graduate study and research. Sure, many of your college buddies will be earning more than $100,000 a year, but a few will be scraping by on $60,000.
Don’t be impatient, because your day will come. When you earn your Ph.D. and celebrate your 30th birthday, you still don’t have to get a real job. You can be a post-doc. This means you can spend an additional three to five years working in a campus lab, but now you will be paid for it. That’s right, $30,000 or even $40,000 a year— almost half what your 23-year-old little sister with a B.E. in chemical engineering will be earning. You won’t have health benefits, but you will be so hardened by your Spartan lifestyle that you will never get sick. And you won’t be eligible for parental leave, but you won’t have the time or the money to have a baby anyway.
When the postdoc finally ends and you’re wondering if you’ll ever spend any time away from a big research university, salvation is nigh. You see, there are very few tenure track positions at the university, so you will have the opportunity to develop new skills and look for other types of jobs. While your hapless contemporaries are already becoming bored with their careers, anxious about their teenage children, and worried about the size of their retirement accounts, you will be fresh, childless, and free of the burden of wealth. There used to be a TV ad that promised that ‘Life begins at 40.’ For you it could be true.”
The past decade has seen a rising tide of concern about postdoctoral research appointments, and with good reason. The fundamental promise of postdoctoral study—that one would move into a tenure track faculty position at a research university after completing what was essentially a research apprenticeship—has been broken. For far too many talented and hardworking young scientists, the postdoctoral appointment has become an underpaid and overworked form of indentured service that seldom leads to a faculty job and is poor preparation for alternative careers. Although no one has bothered to collect detailed information on what happens to these young people, the best estimate is that only 10 percent grab the golden ring of a faculty position in a major research university. What happens to the rest is open to conjecture.
In a country where everyone believes that science and engineering are vital to the nation’s economic prosperity, national security, and personal health, where we make enormous efforts to give the very young the skills to succeed in these fields, where we agonize at our inability to attract enough students (particularly women and minorities) to scientific careers, and where we provide a demanding undergraduate and graduate education to weed out the less qualified and less motivated, how is it possible that we treat this rare and precious resource of gifted, disciplined, and motivated Ph.D.s as so much worthless flotsam and jetsam? Is this is an elaborate and extended practical joke, a case of monumental cruelty, an instance of collective insanity, or simply a stunning example of human stupidity?
And what about the noncitizens who comprise 60 percent of the postdocs? Is this the latest version of inviting the Chinese to build U.S. railroads? They slave in U.S. labs for five years and then are sent home. Are they finding research faculty jobs in their home countries? Are they helping their domestic industry innovate? Who knows?
The responsible response
Well, perhaps this is a bit overstated. Fortunately, you can find a much more level-headed and rigorous discussion of the topic in Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers, a report from the National Academies’ Committee on Science, Engineering, and Public Policy (COSEPUP). This report acknowledges the critical role that postdocs play in university research, the need for extensive training to prepare researchers for the demands of modern science, the understandable desire of principal investigators to make the most of limited research funds, and the pleasure and satisfaction that young scientists derive from devoting all their time to cutting-edge research. But it also emphasizes that in too many cases postdocs are exploited—underpaid and under-trained. The report finds that a successful postdoctoral system provides postdocs with the training they need to become successful professionals, with adequate compensation, benefits, and recognition, and with a clearly specified understanding of the nature and purpose of their appointment.
In the four years since the COSEPUP report was published, universities, federal agencies, and professional societies have taken actions to improve working conditions and compensation and to acquire more information about the treatment and career trajectories of postdocs. But as COSEPUP chair Maxine Singer points out in an article in Science (8 October 2004), stipends and benefits are still often inadequate, information about post-docs is still lacking, and far too many postdocs are not receiving the training and mentoring they need to be prepared for independent careers.
The lack of independence is of particular concern. In the early 1970s, the number of postdocs with fellowships to conduct their own research was about equal to the number that worked for a principal investigator. Today, about 80 percent of postdocs work for a principal investigator. This can be a valuable experience and good preparation for an independent career if it is properly managed, but we do not know how many postdoctoral appointments are well managed, and we hear too many reports of those that are not. Some scientists can still be stuck in postdoctoral positions when they turn 35. That’s old enough to be president of the United States. It should be old enough to manage a small research project.
No one intentionally designed the current postdoctoral system. It grew by accretion in response to short-term needs or opportunities, and the result is evidence that natural evolution does not always produce ideal outcomes. Perhaps we’ve finally found a place for “intelligent design” in education.