Problems and solutions in #science education and postdoc training @NatureNews

This week Nature has a number of editorials, commentaries, and news features examining graduate education and postdoctoral training. They are all extremely interesting and make TONS of good points!

My favorite, in part because I am living it, is a piece by Jessica Polka (@jessicapolka) and Viviane Callier (@vcallier)- Fellowships are the future. I have to be honest, I could not agree more with this article… even if I wrote it myself. A must READ!!

If postdocs receive greater independence, PIs will lose some control, so they may have to find other resources to conduct their research. But this could be good for science: having postdocs strike out away from the beaten path will bring fresh ideas and approaches to the table. For both of us, getting a fellowship enabled us to cut a path that was separate from the dominant research area in each of our mentors’ labs. The experience of trying to define a new scientific direction has been most useful for us, even as our paths diverge.

Next an editorial – Make the Most of PhDs – highlights the need for graduate education reform, for the good of science and graduates.

The number of people with science doctorates is rapidly increasing, but there are not enough academic jobs for them all. Graduate programmes should be reformed to meet students’ needs.

Last, Julie Gould’s news feature – How to build a better PhD – addresses the problems in scientific graduate education and how to improve it to build better PhDs.


What is the future of the postdoc?? Kendall Powell has the grim reality and some possible solutions! #science

Check out this amazing Nature piece by Kendall Powell – “The Future of the Postdoc.” Powell spells out the grim position of the current postdoc, but also discusses a number of options to help solve the postdoc crisis!

These highly skilled scientists are a major engine driving scientific research, yet they are often poorly rewarded and have no way to progress in academia. The number of postdocs in science has ballooned: in the United States alone, it jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012. But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking (see Nature 472, 276–279; 2011). Many postdocs move on to fulfilling careers elsewhere, but those who want to continue in research can find themselves thwarted. They end up trapped as ‘permadocs’: doing multiple postdoc terms, staying in these positions for many years and, in a small but significant proportion, never leaving them. Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years (see ‘The postdoc pile-up’).

After reading, be sure to participate in the the Nature poll about how to fix the broken postdoc system (embedded in the story).


How do we gauge scientific productivity?

Last week, I was fortunate enough to have lunch with the scientific director of intramural research at NHLBI, Dr. Robert Balaban.  At one point, he asked our group of about 10-15 postdocs and postbacs to raise our hands if we wanted to continue on the academic track… and I was shocked to see that only ONE person in our group raised their hand.

But then again, I wasn’t that shocked…  At CauseScience, we have posted several times on the current crisis facing the biomedical research enterprise, and how difficult it is to pursue a career in science.  There are several flaws in the current system, including too many trained scientists for too few academic positions.  Another flaw that has spawned from this hyper-competitive atmosphere is how we acknowledge the productivity of scientists.  Currently, there is this unrealistic expectation that one must publish in a high impact journal (what does the “impact factor” mean?) in order to obtain a tenure track position- that a high impact publication signifies high quality research that is superior to publications in other journals.  But this method of evaluating research is broken and detrimental to all in science (not to mention other side-effects that stem from this, such as fraud and publishing costs). In order to navigate our way out of the current unsustainable biomedical research system, we must change the way in which we gauge scientific productivity.  Several scientists have come together and signed the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) supporting this notion that a journal impact factor should not be the judge of ones scientific contributions.  That being said, how then, do we gauge scientific achievements and productivity?

One idea is to gauge productivity, not by the impact factor of the journal the work is published in, but instead by its actual impact.  Independent of the journal it is published in, is the scientific work novel? Does it contribute to the field? Is it well done? Many agree that these are the questions to ask when determining the value of ones scientific research, but how are these questions converted into a tangible metric to evaluate research?  An idea is to examine how often a finding is cited in relation to the impact factor of the journal it’s published in.  For example, if one publishes a research finding in a low impact factor journal, but this work goes on to be cited numerous times, far more times than suggested by the impact factor of the journal, the actual value/contribution of the work is much higher.  Conversely, if one publishes in a high impact journal, but the finding is not cited often at all, that should also be noted. This way, one measures actual impact. The NHLBI has begun to adopt some new methods to evaluate scientific productivity, and Dr. Balaban discusses these in the Journal of General Physiology.

Dr. David Drubin, at UC Berkeley, also discusses ideas on how to measure scientific productivity without using the impact factor scale.  For example, the NIH has been taking steps to change the format of the CV or “biosketch” in grant applications.  To discourage grant reviewers from focusing on the journal in which previous research was published, NIH decided to help reviewers by inserting a short section into the biosketch where the applicant concisely describes their most significant scientific accomplishments.

Furthermore, Dr. Sandra Schmid at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, has conducted a search for new faculty positions by asking applicants to submit responses to a set of questions about their key contributions at the different stages in their career, rather than submitting a traditional CV with a list of publications.

While there is still work to be done to implement these types of metrics for evaluating productivity on a larger scale, it’s refreshing to see that steps are being taken to address this problem and potentially fix it. 

Same problem, different day #PostDocStruggle

Summarized in Science Careers, a new report on the postdoctoral training system covers familiar ground.  As we’ve mentioned before (here), the current set-up for training postdocs is incredibly flawed.  The report, out in the U.S. National Acadamies press, highlights similar topics:

The postdoc experience in the United States continues to need significant reform, the report states. Only a minority of the postdocs working in university labs have opportunities to receive high-quality training from eminent senior researchers, develop their own research ideas, gain experience in lab management and grant writing, acquire contacts and a publication record and, ultimately, move into a tenure-track position at a research institution.

For the majority of postdocs, however—those supported by professors’ research grants and working in university laboratories—the postdoc years generally do not provide high-quality mentoring, movement toward scientific independence, adequate compensation and recognition, or guidance toward establishing a permanent career.

The report proposes several methods to improve the system, some of which have been suggested various times before:

  • “Postdoctoral appointments for a given postdoctoral researcher should total no more than 5 years in duration, barring extraordinary circumstances. This maximum term should include cumulative postdoctoral research experience, though extensions may be granted in extraordinary circumstances (e.g. family leave, illness).”
  • “The title of ‘postdoctoral researcher’ should be applied only to those people who are receiving advanced training in research. When the appointment period is completed, the postdoctoral researchers should move on to a permanent position externally or be transitioned internally to a staff position with a different and appropriate designation and salary.”
  • “Host institutions and mentors should, beginning at the first year of graduate school, make graduate students aware of the wide variety of career paths available for Ph.D. recipients, and explain that postdoctoral positions are intended only for those seeking advanced research training. The postdoctoral position should not be viewed by graduate students or principal investigators as the default step after the completion of doctoral training.”
  • “The NIH [National Institutes of Health] should raise the NRSA [National Research Service Award]postdoctoral starting salary to $50,000 (2014 dollars), and adjust it annually for inflation. Postdoctoral salaries should be appropriately higher where regional cost of living, disciplinary norms, and institutional or sector salary scales dictate higher salaries. In addition, host institutions should provide benefits to postdoctoral researchers that are appropriate to their level of experience and commensurate with benefits given to equivalent full-time employees … [including] health insurance, family and parental leave, and access to a retirement plan.”
  • “Host institutions should create provisions that encourage postdoctoral researchers to seek advice, either formally or informally, from multiple advisors, in addition to their immediate supervisor. Host institutions and funding agencies should take responsibility for ensuring the quality of mentoring through evaluation of, and training programs for, the mentors.”
  • “Every institution that employs postdoctoral researchers should collect data on the number of currently employed postdoctoral researchers and where they go after completion of their research training, and should make this information publicly available. The National Science Foundation should serve as the primary curator for establishing and updating a database system that tracks postdoctoral researchers, including non-academic and foreign-trained postdoctoral researchers.”

The proposals in the new report have all been made before. But circumstances have changed, and awareness and acceptance of the issues addressed in the report have never been higher. Whether these recommendations will have a greater effect than in the past remains to be seen.

As a future postdoc, all I can say is PREACH!

Gary McDowell – STEM postdoc researchers are highly trained… for what? @ConversationUK

STEM postdoc researchers are highly trained, but for what?

By Gary McDowell, Tufts University

The STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics supposedly suffer from a shortage of graduates. Conventional wisdom says there’s no one for employers to hire for science and engineering jobs. This STEM shortage myth has even figured in the immigration debate in the US.

But look again. There are actually plenty of STEM graduates; the US is just training them the wrong way. It’s true there are many professional STEM vacancies but there are also many STEM grads who could fill them. The problem is the current training pipeline doesn’t direct graduates to these non-academic jobs.

STEM students aren’t prepped for the professional world. Instead, they are guided toward an academic workforce that has expanded through a dramatic rise in the number of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Graduate researchers and postdocs – that is, researchers with PhDs carrying out advanced research – are part of the academic career track originally designed to lead to tenured academic research positions. As renowned engineer Vannevar Bush advised President Truman in 1945, while advocating for the creation of a National Science Foundation:

The plan should be designed to attract into science only that proportion of the youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science in relation to the other needs of the nation’s high priority.

However, the number of permanent – that is, tenured – jobs has not increased since that time, leading to hyper-competition and a massive pool of postdocs. Junior researchers are shamed by a culture that perceives leaving academia as a betrayal. Colloquially non-academic jobs are referred to as “alternative” careers. But when only 10% of PhD students end up in tenured positions, the term “alternative” is highly misleading.

Training relevant to other career tracks is either not forthcoming or culturally discouraged. And there’s not even adequate training for the managerial responsibilities academic researchers will be saddled with – if they’re lucky enough to secure an academic position. Practical science, and the accumulation and publication of data is where training is directed.

Postdocs joining forces

A group of Boston postdocs, led by Jessica Polka and Kristin Krukenberg at Harvard Medical School, organized the Future of Research Symposium to bring graduate students and postdocs together to discuss these problems facing young academics and to come up with potential solutions. Attendees outlined the position of junior scientists in Boston and proposed a wide range of possible solutions in the categories of connectivity, transparency and investment.


Graduate students and postdocs should talk. Being a postdoc can be a lonely business. Most postdocs are from abroad and move out of their former networks to entirely new regions, so there are both social and academic reasons for greater connection between scientists.

These junior scientists must interact with institutions, making use of graduate student councils and postdoctoral associations, to ensure adequate training and benefits are provided. They should connect with learned societies and nominate themselves for committees that include young scientists, to make their voices heard.

Organizations including the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and National Postdoctoral Association allow nationwide interactions. Postdocs in the University of California system have unionized, and junior scientists around the country have noted the resultant benefits, which include greater connectivity throughout the community across different campuses.


Nobody knows how many postdocs there are in the US; this is unacceptable. The National Institutes of Health only recently began tracking researchers on training grants. Institutions should monitor how many junior scientists they have and their career outcomes and make this data available.

Junior scientists lack career awareness: they need to wise up to career realities. But also institutions must be transparent about career outcomes of their trainees. We must stop telling all PhD students they will become academics; most won’t.


We postdocs don’t necessarily want more money. Doubling of the NIH budget in 2003 led to this crisis in the first place. Instead we call for more funding of graduate students and postdocs through training grants that give more power to the junior scientists to develop their own careers.

Graduate students currently need permission from their advisors to graduate; I know many who have been trapped in the lab by advisors reluctant to let go of students when they’re most productive. In the UK, my PhD was funded by a training grant: my advisor had no way to delay my graduation and indeed there was a limit of four years to submission before the funding council would actually impose penalties on future grant applications. These measures ensure security for students in their training timelines.

Continuing the conversation

This is a worldwide problem. In a report examining the culture of scientific research, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics revealed that out of 100 PhD students, 30 will get postdoctoral positions, and 4 will end up with permanent academic research positions in the UK, showing that the situation is even worse than in the US, with an added bottleneck at the PhD to postdoc transition. And this is not just a science problem: there are increasing numbers of postdocs, and particularly adjunct faculty, in the humanities.

Public money is being wasted by directing people towards nonexistent jobs. If junior scientists aren’t going to be trained for non-academic careers during PhD and postdoctoral research, the number of people in the system simply must be reduced. However, if we accept that PhDs and postdocs can and should be trained for other career paths, then we can produce highly-skilled professionals with analytical and communication skills, able to influence technology, policy and business to the benefit of society.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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.