It’s a hard knock life for… Postdocs #TheStruggleIsReal

From Nature, an editorial on the plight of postdocs both in the USA and in the UK.  This has been a recurring theme on this blog, but the hyper-competitive atmosphere and low job security makes the current postdoc situation unlike years in the past. This editorial pinpoints data collected from two separate studies on the difficulties of post-doc life.  From the article:

Good science is tough. But is it also harsh and severe? And if so, does it need to be? At what point do the legitimate demands of competitive academic research tip into a demoralizing lack of job security and intolerable pressure? It has been said before, not least in these pages, but two reports published this week on either side of the Atlantic highlight perhaps the most common pinch point: the postdoctoral years. Although the lament of the postdoc may be a familiar cry, all who care about the current state of science and where it is heading would do well to look at the separate reports, which present a visceral and honest snapshot of opinions from life in the squeezed middle of academia.

Given a platform to complain, most people will. Both reports grumble about perennial problems that are perceived to run through research. Government funding is insufficient, external focus on journal impact factors stifles creativity, and bureaucracy and distractions mean that everyone has less time to spend on what they really want to do.

These are common legitimate concerns, but how about this: a whopping 58% of scientists in the UK report said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. Asked whether they felt this way themselves, just 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said yes; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third of those aged under 35. In the United States, postdocs consistently called themselves “the lost people” and “the invisible people”. The US report states that “junior scientists are primarily treated as cheap labor rather than as participants in a well-rounded training program”.

It is no longer acceptable for senior scientists to ignore such complaints. Research in 2014 is a brutal business, at least for those who want to pursue academic science as a career. Perhaps the most telling line comes from the UK report: of 100 science PhD graduates, about 30 will go on to postdoc research, but just four will secure permanent academic posts with a significant research component. There are too many scientists chasing too few academic careers.

That has been the reality for some time, but the message is yet to penetrate. The US report says that lab heads train scientists “in their own image, that is, for a career in academia, though only a small minority will obtain tenure-track faculty positions”. Postdocs say that an academic career is still presented to them as the default outcome. There is a “complete lack of information on number of postdocs”, notes the US report.

The studies mentioned in the article come from the U.S., following the Future of Research symposium (G. S. McDowell et al. F1000 Res.; 2014), and from a report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in the UK.

As someone who is just about to begin a Postdoc, I am increasingly wary about the current funding climate and the situation of the U.S. biomedical research enterprise.  It is incredibly important for these conversations to take place.


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