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Too many postdocs and PhD students?

Posted by , on 23 July 2010

There was a nice piece on the Naturejobs site this week, written by postdoc Katherine Sixt. She describes how she started to realize that not every postdoc will eventually become a professor. There simply aren’t enough positions available, so postdocs should look at other careers. But as a postdoc, and even as a PhD student, you are being trained as if you were aiming for a job similar to the one your supervisor has, and anything else is considered strange and different. Katherine writes: “I feel as though I have to sneak off to careers seminars where scientists describe their non-traditional paths. Thoughts of alternative career choices are still dirty secrets for some.”

Over the past few years, I’ve read many similar articles. Some from the position of the postdoc looking for work, others more reflective and distant – considering ways in which to deal with the simple truth that there are far more postdocs than there are academic positions for them to fill.

What do you think: Should there be fewer postdoc and PhD positions? Or different kinds of trainee positions, where some include training for scientific careers outside of the lab? Have a read through the following articles and blog posts to see what others have to say about it:

In Which I Dream of Revolution – Jenny Rohn
Quote: “Yesterday morning I woke up and realized that the entire logistical edifice underpinning the scientific profession is flawed. What’s more, I didn’t just see the problem; I had a glimpse of its solution.”

Do We Produce too Many Biomedical Trainees? – Jeff Sharom [Link to PDF]
Hypothesis Journal, 6(1), 17-29 (2008)
This is a review article that looks at evidence for and against the idea that there are too many trainees.
Quote: “Paradoxically, while research aims to recruit rational individuals, research may not be a rational career choice”

Are we training too many scientists? – Bijal Trivedi (in The Scientist, 2006)
Quote: “With rising numbers of newly minted life science PhDs, fewer tenure track positions open, and bulging ranks of increasingly frustrated postdocs, many want to know why the number of PhDs and the focus of their education is out of balance with job prospects and career expectations.”

Are there too many PhDs? – Jason Hoyt (on the Mendeley blog)
Quote: “Only then, do students realize the road that lies ahead is dotted with pit stops leading, not to Nobel glory, but a journeyman career with salaries well below that of their friends who went into business, law, or medicine.”

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Categories: Careers, Discussion

16 thoughts on “Too many postdocs and PhD students?”

  1. I think we need to ask this question in a different way. Instead of asking if we are training too many scientists, we should ask what is the purpose of scientific training. If we believe that a PhD is simply a vocational qualification for academic research then its easy to argue that we are training too many. Likewise, we would should slim down business schools if an MBA is simply a qualification for CEOs of blue-chip companies. But I think scientific training should be viewed in a broader context. The skills learned in research – project management, communication, critical analysis, creativity – are highly valued and needed in a diverse range of jobs. What better way to acquire these skills than in research? I’d argue that the more people who are trained in a research environment that end up pursuing careers in other sectors, the stronger the economy will be. For example, I find it deeply worrying that currently there are only two members of the British parliament that have a PhD. How can we hope to develop and nurture a “knowledge economy” if an understanding of science and scientific training does not ramify throughout the economy. We, as the academic science community, need to stop thinking that the only acceptable career route leads to a tenure committee at an ivy league university and that anyone not achieving this goal has failed or quit. Instead, we need to promote the benefits of a PhD and research experience to all employers. At the same time we should stop dividing the world into “science” and “alternative” careers and look to expand the range of career choices available.

  2. I completely agree with James Briscoe when he writes “We, as the academic science community, need to stop thinking that the only acceptable career route leads to a tenure committee at an ivy league university and that anyone not achieving this goal has failed or quit. Instead, we need to promote the benefits of a PhD and research experience to all employers.”

    Law or masters of business administration degrees in the United States are often used in other career paths that have nothing to do with law or business. It would be ideal to invite to our local academic seminar series, science Ph.D-holders of our acquaintance in these other career choices (patent law, politics, fiction writing, you name it) to discuss such options and make it at least appear like we more entrenched residents of the ivory tower consider it normal and desirable to diversify the career options available to younger trainees.

    The European Union has some online resources for job offers (though they currently appear essentially academic) here and the French Association Bernard Gregory is nearly entirely devoted to private sector jobs attainable by science Ph.D’s, but the site seems to be down for maintenance this summer. Check the link in a month to see if it works once more, but it’s a long-standing resource (since 1980) so I don’t believe it has disappeared permanently.

  3. James, Heather – Thanks for weighing in. I also completely agree that a PhD should be of more value outside of academia, but the stigma still exists that you “fail” if you don’t go that route. I’ve had my thesis committee members say things like “yes, but when you have your own lab…” as if it was certain that one day I would have a lab, when I already knew I was going the writing/publishing route.

    But you both have students and postdocs in your labs – how do you make sure that they are aware that their degrees are not just a stepping stone to a life of academic research, but have a broader value? (Maybe we should ask Natascha to weigh in =) )

  4. Just moderated a career panel for high school students last week. We tried to send the message that the education is a means to an end, and that one’s eventual career path can take many turns, or even a straight line to an uncommon or unexpected point. This whole stigma has to go away. I always point to my friend in patent law who makes much more money than I ever will, and has a fulfilling and important job. However I do think that most of my lab only sees the academic research path. On the other hand I see more and more new students coming in with their sights set straight at industry. So perhaps there is change coming. In terms of numbers of PhDs, just like the MBAs, this is becoming a standard for a decent job in science, so I think more is not bad.

    However, and feel free to lash out at this comment, I do think that many PhDs are given out to people who should have been failed, and are given a pass just because they did the time. That is a great disservice.

  5. Let me rephrase the last comment: Some (not many) PhDs are given out to people who should have been failed. But what this does is diminish the value of this degree, and contributes to the amount of people out there with PhDs in biological sciences who are disillusioned by the scarcity of employment of their liking. The PhD defense is very often a subjective exercise, and in some cases carries no weight at all. Too often I have witnessed PhD candidates who could not properly defend their own research, let alone place it in context. There should be better mechanisms to determine if these individuals would be better served with a Master’s degree and a quick exit, so that their talents can be applied elsewhere.

  6. Interestingly, it doesn’t seem to work the same in every field and country. I’ve heard of fields in Holland where there are 70 applicants applying to one PhD position (they’re jobs there, not studentships) and surely more than one of them is a suitable PhD candidate. My sister is currently having a hard time finding a PhD position, and she’s a better researcher than I ever was, but in a field where there aren’t as many PhD positions as in the molecular life sciences.

  7. I believe that the problem has its shades and colors depending on the country or region. For example, here in Chile we have a great potential for opening more positions and creating more research centers. We have a country with many natural resources (biotech), many species to study, energetic challenges, and so on. I guess in many small countries, there are opportunities. The problem here is funding. The funding for science is still small, because indeed there are many PhD programs, and despite the high number of universities, the lack of funding for postdocs, for starting a new lab, and for starting a research project.

    I don’t think that the world is making more scientists that the necessary. There are so many open questions in science, so many challenges, specially in medicine, energy and environmental issues. The path to the post-doc is full of research which is necessary anf fruitful for understanding our world.

  8. Sorry… I wanted to finish the idea. I don’t think that there are more scientist that are necessary. But I believe that the system of funding, as a whole, should be reviewed. For instance, to promote the creation and development of international teams of postdocs, in universities and other research facilities, to help to incorporate scientists in countries with lack of high-level graduates but with lack of funding. For example, the wealthy countries, which sometimes don’t have enough positions for their graduates, can fund their students to make research in small countries.

  9. Pablo’s last idea is interesting. Would people really go for it, though? Currently, it’s more that people from smaller, less research-intense, countries desperately want to do research in a bigger country. Their home country hopes that they come back after that, but many get lured in by bigger labs, nicer equipment, more money, and don’t go back to their tiny labs back home. (“Brain drain”)
    That’s less likely to happen in Pablo’s plan: if the home country is the well-funded one, people probably will return after doing a stint in a smaller lab. But what’s in it for them? Why would a student from a wealthy country (spoiled with the fanciest lab equipment) *want* to go to a smaller country?

    In any case, this might be a good time to plug the Development travelling fellowships, that fund travel and accommodation for students and postdocs who want to do research in a lab in another country, or just very far in their home country.
    A few successful applicants have written for the Node, and there are some more stories coming up in the next few months.

  10. I do think we need to get over the idea that nothing short of an academic career fulfills the ideal goal of our students and post-docs. Most of the folks I went to graduate school with are not in academics anymore, yet they have meaningful and successful careers.

    Having said that, one of my pet peeves is that there is too little room for scientist who excel at lab work but who do not necessarily wish to become PIs. The NIH granting system does not allow for the pay scales necessary to keep senior people in the lab for any length of time. Imagine a lab with 3-6 bench scientist, with PhDs and 10-20 years experience doing all kinds of experiments. You could get a whole lot done very quickly. Instead we rely on a continuous cycle of trainees. In a way this is very inefficient for getting things done.

  11. I agree with Greg. The conventional salary structures that most publicly funded research bodies use perpetuate the idea that there is a single linear, hierarchical career ladder. In addition, I do not believe they are an honest reflection of the reality of how research is accomplished. More flexibility is what’s needed and the acknowledgment and encouragement of a diversity of career routes and development paths. In the same way, I think its very unhelpful when senior members of the life science community publicly state that only people in their 30s and 40s can be successful, productive PIs. However, this might be an issue for another thread….

  12. Hi!
    Eva, the idea that I proposed would be something like this: to create grants and fellowships to incentivate the creation of research groups composed by two or three post-docs, in small countries. One of the postdocs should be a citizen of the small country, and the other two could be from big countries.

    Regarding to the question “Why a post-doc shoudl bother into going to a small country and start a lab if in USA/Europe/Japan they have fancy equipment?”, well, the answer is in this post: there are no enough positions available in big countries, whereas in small countries, there are many small-to-middle universities with opportunities to grow, but without funding and people. Of note, here there are funding to incorporate PhD and postdocs in research companies and industries, and to incentivate the participation of foreign researchers into projects.

    I truly believe that collaborative research is the next step in science. The number of PhD and postdocs is expected to increase, and the positions will be the same. But in small countries, research is welcomed, and every country have special topics. The only, big problem, is funding: small countries lack of enough funding, but some countries have enough money to incentivate to their graduates to explore in new frontiers of science.

    Once, I met a girl from Netherland. She was doing a research travel here in Chile in a Genetic’s lab. She told me “My country pay to us to be here in another country doing our training, because in my country, it’s just no enough space for so many students”. Well, that would be the idea. An opposite of “brain drain”: brain overload. But including local scientists to keep the locals with a job.

    1. I did my undergrad in the Netherlands, and also got funding to go abroad (4 months during MSc and a fraction of the first year of my PhD. I stayed in Canada without Dutch funding after that). It’s true that they promote it very heavily for MSc level students, but only for a short time. Usually no more than 6-12 months, and not past MSc.

  13. To be honest I am thinking about leaving science all together.

    I’ve done the whole tract now. PhD, 5 years of postdoc’ing, and there is just no future.

    Unfortunately there aren’t many options outside the academic scene for me. I am looking at non-academic career option only which all require some form of re-education and learning a new language. All options mean several years of financial hardship, unless I go for the unskilled labour option, which will also mean a severe cut in pay.

    Of course I could go desperately looking for a job in science, try to extend my postdoc career in a frantic manner, but I really feel like it is just postponing the end. A pointless exercise.

    What bugs me most is that doing a good job wasn’t enough.

    So I am 40 now and still need to fill another 25 years in a meaningful manner. I need to start all over again and wonder whether it was worth it, especially in light of the fact that the last year was professionally the worst year in my life.

  14. As many others, I got my PhD, spent two years as a postdoc and now?
    I don’t want to pursue the classical academic career, but lab life is the only working environment that I have ever exeprienced. The dilemma hurts, the in-between doesn’t exist. Ok, PhD-holders are a valuable resource for science, but why do I find only advertisements for young researchers, that must be also experienced, enthusiastic and most of all committed to an independent career? I wonder who can change this trend.


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