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There’s no quick fix. “Science would grind to a halt without all these people working,” Rohn says. She suggests that universities hire more permanent, nonfaculty scientists. These researchers—sometimes nicknamed “perma-postdocs”—offer huge value to a lab because, unlike trainees who come and go, they are always up to speed and able to assist newcomers, Rohn says. But they’re a bit different from a postdoc in that they have a decent salary and often work normal hours. “Once you hire a permanent scientist, you can’t treat them like a slave,” Rohn says.
The tight job market also means that postdoctoral periods can stretch for years. “It’s very, very rare for the postdoc training period to run shorter than four years these days,” says HHMI president Robert Tjian, who has seen postdocs stick around for six or seven years. It doesn’t help that publishing in top journals requires more data than ever before, he adds. “There’s a lot of pressure to knock something out of the park … to do something that will be the beginning of a whole career.”
The median length of a single postdoc in the life sciences is 2.2 years, according to the NSF’s 2006 Survey of Doctorate Recipients. But many postdocs string together multiple positions; 29 percent of postdocs who responded to a 2010 survey by Science Careers had held two postdoc slots and 11 percent had already done at least three.
“At first, it’s really fun,” Rohn says. “Once you get into your fifth or sixth year of the postdoc, one starts to get a bit anxious.” Plus, this extended training period comes just as researchers are reaching the age when they’d like to settle down, perhaps start a family. Yet they bounce from position to position, and who can afford day care on a postdoc’s salary?
The conflict between postdoc-ing and parenting is “just unacceptable,” says Tom Rapoport, an HHMI investigator at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Given the stark choice between science and family, many female postdocs leave the lab, Rapoport says. He suggests that subsidized day care would be the best way to keep talented women in science.
With the expanding postdoc timeline, Tilghman says, a scientist’s most creative years are spent toiling on someone else’s project. In 2009, the average age at which scientists got a first research grant was 42. On the flip side, science-loving undergraduates who observe graying postdocs look to other careers, such as medicine. “I was finding it harder and harder to convince the brightest young Princeton students to go into biomedical science,” Tilghman says.
In December 2010, NIH’s Collins proposed a working group to address the lopsided science workforce. He enlisted Tilghman to run the project. She plans to come up with a workforce model that better matches the nation’s science needs and uses financial incentives to alter the science landscape (see Perspectives & Opinions, "The Future of Science"). The group has yet to assemble, however, so recommendations are still to come.
Looking Beyond the Bench
Richard Ting is in the third year of his postdoc in the UC San Diego laboratory of HHMI investigator Roger Tsien. He came to Tsien’s lab because it was a multidisciplinary group with plenty of good ideas. Even then, Ting was thinking about his post-postdoc career. Tsien is a Nobel laureate, and as Ting notes, “It definitely helps to have some name recognition on your reference letters.”
Ting spends most of his time synthesizing new molecules that might be useful in positron emission tomography (PET) medical imaging. “The synthesis, by itself, is pretty boring,” he admits. “But being able to personally test the impact of these new molecules on a PET scanner makes the job worthwhile.”
Right now, things are going well—but the future is a big question mark. “That’s the stressful part,” he says. “You don’t really know what you’re going to do.”
Ting has applied for the kangaroo award. However, he’s realistic about his chances. If he doesn’t receive the funding he’s after, he’ll likely consider a career in the biotechnology industry as well.
In his hopes, Ting is like many of his compatriots. According to the 2010 Science Careers survey, 61 percent of former postdocs went into the apprenticeship aiming for a tenure-track professor job. Only 37 percent achieved that goal.
With the tough job market, many postdocs are considering more than one career. “We have to get away from thinking that we are only training postdocs to be professors,” Cech says. “That’s just a false premise.” Postdocs today have lots of options: journal editor, policymaker, patent attorney, and more. Van Prooyen, for example, is considering science writing. Ph.D.s would make great science teachers, Carroll adds.
Given the challenges of making it in academia, is it worth signing on for a postdoc? “I don’t want them to get discouraged by the fact that the slope is very steep,” Tjian says. “I still think that doing science is one of the most rewarding careers you can have.”