Here's a call to make something different out of the postdoctoral position. Says Jennifer Rohn in Nature News:
". . .we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.
Consider the scientific community as an ecosystem, and it is easy to see why postdocs need another path. The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30–40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between. . .
The scientific enterprise is run on what economists call the 'tournament' model, with practitioners pitted against one another in bitter pursuit of a very rare prize. Given that cheap and disposable trainees — PhD students and postdocs — fuel the entire scientific research enterprise, it is not surprising that few inside the system seem interested in change. . .Few academics could afford to warn trainees against entering the ring — if they frightened away their labour force, research would grind to a halt.
Her proposed solution is to reduce the numbers of people being trained as graduate students, and staff up some permanent non-lab-head research positions. We'll debate the merits of that idea in just a moment, but right off, I have a hard time seeing how this could (or would) ever be adopted. Basically, it's asking academic research departments to act against what they see as their own interests. Those relatively cheap workers that you bring in every year, push along, and move out the door? Why don't you replace them with more expensive people who never leave?
No, even if too many people are going through graduate programs, I think that the only way to see real changes is for the people responsible to believe that those changes are desirable - that they're something they want to do, something that's beneficial for them. If the current system can trundle along, taking in fresh students and excreting PhDs, then it probably will continue doing just that. The whole academic research system runs on bringing in grant money (and its overhead), and for that you need bodies in the lab. Bodies generate results, and results are what you need for grant renewals, which give you money to hire more bodies as the earlier crop leaves.
Leaves for what? Well, "when the rocket goes up, who cares where it comes down?" What the graduate students (and postdocs) go on to is, from the university's perspective, not really their problem. And that's why I don't see this proposal going anywhere: it's asking the academic research establishment to do something for the postdocs of the world, to which the answer will be an eloquent indifference.
OK, even if it's not going to happen, should it (in some other world)? Actually, in several labs I've known, it already does. I think many of us have seen "perpetual postdocs", people who just seem to hang around the labs forever, acting as right-hand-assistants to the boss. To be honest, I've always seen the situation these people are in as sort of sad, but compared to unemployment, I suppose not.
But that brings up another aspect of this proposal - its near-total academocentricity. Read it, and you'd never get the idea that there's anything outside the university research environment. The whole point of life is to become a lab head, bringing in the grant money and taking on graduate students. Right? This is the world view of someone who's been in academia too long (or at least bought too thoroughly into its culture). There are places to do research outside of the ivy-covered walls. Not as many of them as there were a few years ago, true, and that's another whopper of a problem, one that gets discussed around here with great frequency. The traditional answer to "I can't find a faculty position" has been "Go and find a job, then". If that part of the ecosystem is permanently broken, then post-docs have even more trouble than the Nature column is imagining. . .