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The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Postdocs balance the joys of pure research with tough working conditions.

Fresh from a Ph.D. in virology, Nancy Van Prooyen is carving her own scientific niche. She’s taking on the little-known fungal pathogen, Histoplasma capsulatum, as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, San Francisco.

Her graduate work on human T cell leukemia virus—supported by an HHMI Gilliam Fellowship at Johns Hopkins University—was interesting, but the virology field is saturated with seasoned researchers. As a young scientist, Van Prooyen wanted to do something new. Far fewer researchers study Histoplasma, which causes an infection called histoplasmosis.

The fungus also appeals to Van Prooyen because it is a real challenge to work with. No one has built genetic libraries or developed the standard tools that other scientists can rely on. Sifting through hundreds of Histoplasma to find interesting mutants is a puzzle Van Prooyen relishes.

Like many postdocs, she’s thrilled to focus her time on science alone—no classroom teaching or lab management to distract her. It’s an opportunity many professors would envy.

But Van Prooyen is also realistic about her position and she has no intention of being a postdoc—with the typical 80- to 100-hour workweek—for any longer than a few years. Her wages are paltry, as well, even with her recent postdoctoral fellowship from the A.P. Giannini Foundation.

Low wages are the norm. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) National Research Service Award stipend for starting postdocs, which many institutions use as a guideline, has been stuck in the mid-$30,000s since 2003. “We’re all in our 30s, we have a lot of education, and we’re still scraping by,” Van Prooyen says. Add to that the constant stress of the publish-or-perish lifestyle on what is usually a year-to-year contract. “It’s a sacrifice, I think, to do a postdoc.”

In part 1 of this series, readers learn how principal investigators find and train the most promising postdocs.
(See HHMI Bulletin, February 2011).

Once an optional pit stop on the road to professorship, a postdoc position like Van Prooyen’s has become a required apprenticeship. Because their positions are temporary, it’s easy for postdocs to go unappreciated, and some simply don’t receive the training they deserve. With these positions stretching four years or much longer, some enthusiastic young scientists molder in a kind of postdoctoral purgatory, hoping for a career that seems further away with each passing experiment.

Even so, a postdoc that doesn’t drag on is well worth it for the opportunity to untangle biology’s mysteries and a shot at the professor’s chair, Van Prooyen says.

Postdocs have won some victories lately, asking for and getting employee benefits and other perks with help from national associations and unions (see Web Extra, “Who Speaks for the Postdocs?”). But a big worry still looms large: what comes next? At the end of that long, hard slog, the desired reward may turn out to be just a mirage.

“Getting out of the gate continues to get harder,” says Sean B. Carroll, HHMI’s vice president for science education. With intense competition for grant monies, moving from a postdoc to a faculty position can take a few cycles to achieve funding and get a new lab going. He’s seen some talented young scientists faced with these frustrating facts forgo academic research for other options.

The Postdoc: Defined and Counted

“Postdocs are an invisible work force for a university,” says Elizabeth Johnson, president of the Postdoc Association at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, from 2004 to 2008. Today Johnson is associate director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences.

“They do science, write grants, mentor grad students,” Johnson says. “And yet they don’t have full status as core members of any institution.” Instead, postdocs inhabit a sort of career limbo—a vague midpoint between student and independent professional.

In 2004, Duke started working on its own postdoc policy. The first task was to figure out who the postdocs were. Johnson asked around for numbers and heard estimates as low as 70 and as high as 2,500. With postdocs often hired by a handshake and just as easily cut loose, no one knew. Once the committee defined who was and wasn’t a postdoc, and performed a head count, the actual number was between 600 and 700.

No one has a solid figure of the number of postdocs in the United States. A 2008 National Science Foundation (NSF) survey counted more than 54,000 postdocs, up 6.5 percent from 2007, but included only those at degree-granting institutions. The National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) cites a range of 43,000 to 89,000 postdocs. That includes scientists who got their degrees outside the United States; NSF data show 55 percent to 60 percent of U.S. postdocs are foreign citizens.

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Satinder Singh aimed high for an NIH Kangaroo Award and landed at Yale; Nancy Van Prooyen vows not to let her postdoc go too long; Elizabeth Johnson helped usher in Duke’s progressive postdoc policy. Photos: Singh: Chris Jones, Van Prooyen: Tom Kochel, Johnson: Jeff McCullough

One key advance, says NPA executive director Cathee Johnson Phillips, was defining what a postdoc is. In 2007, the NPA, NSF, and NIH agreed that a postdoc is a doctorate holder in a temporary research job, receiving mentoring and training needed for the next career stage.

Spotty Progress

In 2005, then-HHMI president Thomas Cech and others examined the needs of postdocs in the National Research Council report “Bridges to Independence.” The goal was to identify ways NIH and other funding agencies could help postdocs—who work under an advisor—transition to an independent position. The authors recommended, for example, that NIH allocate funds to support postdocs as individuals rather than as simply part of an advisor’s grant.

They also recommended that research institutions provide postdocs with more than a lab bench: they need mentoring and career advice. And with fellowships lasting longer, the authors suggested that there should be a time limit. To find out whether postdocs’ needs are met, the committee recommended that NIH collect data on the postdocs it funds, including whether they continue in research.


Who Speaks for the Postdocs?
Postdocs now have their own national association.

A Different Kind of Postdoc Experience
Zainab Jagani took a postdoc that let her explore the industry side of research.

Since the Bridges report, change has been spotty, says Cech, an HHMI investigator at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Some universities have implemented postdoc policies and support postdoc offices and clubs; the NPA reports that 160 institutions have acted on at least some of its policy recommendations. In 2010, NIH began requiring grantees to identify their postdocs by name, so it could track their appearance on subsequent grants.

Duke is ahead of the curve; the administration took seriously its postdocs’ plight and spearheaded the policy effort, Johnson says. Still, it took from 2004 to 2008 to craft a policy, which undergoes regular revisions. Now, all Duke postdoc slots are paid positions; no postdoc is a volunteer. They get vacation, sick leave, and parental leave, just like regular employees. They receive annual progress reviews. As recommended by the Bridges report, they won’t be postdocs forever; after five years, they cannot continue as postdocs but may be hired as regular employees. And while they’re postdocs, they get health care benefits and retirement savings.

Similar policies are coming together at institutions across the country. For example, according to the NSF’s 2006 Survey of Doctorate Recipients, 90 percent of postdocs received health insurance in 2006, up from 75 percent in 1986 (these data do not indicate how many postdocs must pay for their own insurance). The number receiving retirement benefits has risen from 30 percent in 1986 to 50 percent in 2006.

For the more than 700 postdocs that HHMI supports in the laboratories of HHMI investigators and HHMI early career scientists, pay is scaled to NIH and other postdoctoral fellowships, says Pamela Phillips, HHMI’s director of research operations. Starting HHMI postdocs make between $37,500 and $50,000, at their advisor’s discretion. They also receive health insurance and retirement benefits. Vacation time is at the advisor’s discretion, but Phillips notes that postdocs so rarely take time off that it usually isn’t an issue.

Financial Help Toward Independence

Satinder Singh, a former HHMI predoctoral fellow, put in her time as a postdoc at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland, working on the bacterial version of a neurotransmitter transporter. She divided her time between experimenting with cells and lipid vesicles, exploring the protein’s structure, mentoring students in the lab, and writing papers.

In 2007, Singh applied for the Pathways to Independence Award, one of the initiatives NIH launched in the wake of the Bridges report. Announced in 2006, the award, a K99/R00, is affectionately referred to as the “kangaroo” award. It provides five years of funding designed to bridge the end of a postdoc and the beginning of a faculty position. The idea, Cech says, is to wean postdocs from mentored to independent research. Each year, NIH offers between 150 and 200 of these grants, with various dollar amounts.

Just writing the application was a useful process, Singh says, because she had to organize her thoughts for an independent program. Her plan to study the human version of the transporter she worked on as a postdoc earned her a kangaroo award. And Singh suspects the award helped during her final interviews for faculty positions in early 2008; she already had evidence that her ideas were grant-worthy.

Singh got a job offer from Yale University, but she still wanted to finish up some papers in her postdoctoral lab and take a couple of neurobiology courses. With the kangaroo funding, she was able to work mostly independently in her postdoc lab, and Yale waited until she was ready to start. She used the extra time to collect preliminary data before starting the Yale tenure clock—with all its associated responsibilities in the classroom and on committees. Since July 2010, Singh has been living the postdoc’s dream at Yale: a lab of her own, with two of her own postdocs to train.

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A handful of current graduate students may realize that dream much faster. In 2010, NIH director Francis Collins announced the new Director’s Early Independence Awards. They allow superstar Ph.D. recipients to skip the postdoc and move straight to the principal investigator level. NIH plans to make 10 awards, each with a budget of $250,000 a year for five years.

Meaningful Mentoring

Neal Sweeney was a postdoc at Yale for three years. He had a good relationship with his advisor, but the advisor was always busy, juggling a lab with more than 20 people plus teaching and grant writing. “I didn’t really feel like I was getting enough mentorship that my research could move forward at the pace I wanted it to,” he says.

In 2009, to be closer to an ailing family member, Sweeney took a second postdoc at the University of California (UC), Santa Cruz. He’s now studying how stem cells morph into the neurons required for vision. He’s in a smaller lab, with fewer of the high-tech facilities Yale offered. But he’s been able to learn new techniques, achieve more responsibility, and practice grant writing in the cozier environment.

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.

At first he felt like he was starting over, Sweeney says, but he’s now excited about his new projects. He spends his days fiddling with DNA strands, growing cells in dishes, or sitting at the microscope. And he’s gotten involved as a leader in the UC union, the UAW Local 5810.

Finding a mentor is a big concern among postdocs and was one of the issues noted in the Bridges report. One of the UC union’s key interests in negotiating its new contract, Sweeney says, was to make sure postdocs get the mentoring they need for both their current research and their future career. “This is one of the things that came up again and again,” he says.

Some advisors don’t take their role as mentors seriously, treating their trainees as cheap hands in the lab. “Some fraction of postdocs do not get much career advice,” Cech says. “They’re mostly being employed for the purpose of doing a certain set of experiments.”

And that lack of training shows when postdocs apply for jobs, says HHMI investigator Celeste Simon of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. When she interviews applicants for faculty positions, she can tell when postdocs from big labs didn’t get all the help they needed in preparing their application and job talk. “Sometimes postdoctoral fellows can fall through the cracks,” Simon says.

UC postdocs and their mentors are now expected to design an individual development plan (IDP), with short- and long-term goals, and hold regular meetings to assess progress. Making an IDP is the greatest factor in postdoc satisfaction, according to a 2005 survey by the scientific research honor society Sigma Xi. For example, postdocs need to know what part of their projects they can take to a new job.

Postdocs who become professors also need to learn how to manage a lab. “You’re going from pure science to running a small business,” says Maryrose Franko, senior program officer for HHMI’s department of science education.

With its successful weeklong training course of new lab heads, HHMI—in collaboration with the Burroughs Wellcome Fund—turned the information into a highly popular book, “Making the Right Moves.” HHMI now works with partner institutions to support similar training on their campuses.

Where Are the Jobs?

None of those efforts, however, solves the most crucial issue: not enough academic jobs for the academically trained scientists out there. “I was not warned about this,” says Jennifer Rohn, a postdoc at University College London, who wrote a March 2 column in Nature News on the subject. She spends her days sorting through images of cells, looking for conditions that change their shape.

“We may be overproducing biomedical scientists,” agrees Shirley Tilghman, president of Princeton University and an HHMI alumna.

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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.”

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