By Swagata Basu
A recent paper in Nature Biotechnology shows how postdoctoral training in biomedical sciences can affect early career outcomes. Despite a dearth in available academic tenure-track positions in and a drop in National Institutes of Health success rates, there has been sustained growth in the number of biomedical postdocs due to an abundance in supply of biomedical Ph.D.s.
In this study, Shulamit Kahn and Donna Ginther analyzed biennial longitudinal data from the National Science Foundation’s Survey of Doctorate Recipients from 1981-2013. First, they found that postdoc duration stably averaged 4.5 years with “no long-term trend in average duration,” contrary to the popular belief that postdoc training periods were growing. They then analyzed the factors contributing to the dramatic rise in postdocs from 1987 to 1997 and again in 2001 to 2009. This rise was attributed to an increase in the number of women and those on temporary visas choosing to do postdocs in the U.S., along with a rise in NIH funding. Some factors that showed a positive correlation with starting postdoc positions included age and family and immigration status. People in the U.S. on temporary visas during their Ph.D.s were more likely to start a postdoc in the U.S. than U.S. citizens. With respect to age and family status, older graduates and married women, with or without children, were less likely to start postdoc positions.
Next the authors analyzed the career outcomes of biomedical Ph.D.s 10 years after their degree was awarded. Over 35 percent of people who did a postdoc and moved on were employed in industry, over 27 percent in tenure-track research jobs and nearly 15 percent in non-tenure track research positions in academia. For Ph.Ds who skipped postdocs, 44 percent were employed in industry and were more likely than former postdocs to have government or nonprofit jobs. Although the unemployment rate for Ph.D. graduates is low, it is higher among those that held postdoc positions.
Perhaps, the most important piece of information for trainees is that postdoctoral training is not tied to a positive financial return, at least for the first 15 years after Ph.D. Postdocs are paid nearly $30,000 less per year for the first four years after receiving their Ph.D. than those who directly entered the workforce. The salary gap eventually narrows coming to a close after 13 to 15 years. The authors acknowledge that there is “a substantial financial penalty for starting biomedical careers in a postdoc” and suggest that “postdoc education is inconsistent with a model of human capital investment”.
Given these dire numbers, the authors suggest that most Ph.D.s would have greater financial success if they bypassed postdoc training. Increasing postdoc compensation and creating high-paying staff scientist positions would be one way to make sure we retain talented, young experimentalists in research. Some universities have been enforcing postdoc term limits, which encourages postdocs to devise a career path and exit at the appropriate time. The present system of training more and more graduate students and postdocs is unsustainable and perpetuating it only continues to harm young research scientists.
Swagata Basu is passionate about communicating scientific knowledge and making it accessible for all. She received her Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Dallas and is currently a Science Communications Fellow at Inscopix, Inc. She can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or on Twitter (@swagatarc21).