About this Author
DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

Chemistry and Drug Data: Drugbank
Chempedia Lab
Synthetic Pages
Organic Chemistry Portal
Not Voodoo

Chemistry and Pharma Blogs:
Org Prep Daily
The Haystack
A New Merck, Reviewed
Liberal Arts Chemistry
Electron Pusher
All Things Metathesis
C&E News Blogs
Chemiotics II
Chemical Space
Noel O'Blog
In Vivo Blog
Terra Sigilatta
BBSRC/Douglas Kell
Realizations in Biostatistics
ChemSpider Blog
Organic Chem - Education & Industry
Pharma Strategy Blog
No Name No Slogan
Practical Fragments
The Curious Wavefunction
Natural Product Man
Fragment Literature
Chemistry World Blog
Synthetic Nature
Chemistry Blog
Synthesizing Ideas
Eye on FDA
Chemical Forums
Symyx Blog
Sceptical Chymist
Lamentations on Chemistry
Computational Organic Chemistry
Mining Drugs
Henry Rzepa

Science Blogs and News:
Bad Science
The Loom
Uncertain Principles
Fierce Biotech
Blogs for Industry
Omics! Omics!
Young Female Scientist
Notional Slurry
Nobel Intent
SciTech Daily
Science Blog
Gene Expression (I)
Gene Expression (II)
Adventures in Ethics and Science
Transterrestrial Musings
Slashdot Science
Cosmic Variance
Biology News Net

Medical Blogs
DB's Medical Rants
Science-Based Medicine
Respectful Insolence
Diabetes Mine

Economics and Business
Marginal Revolution
The Volokh Conspiracy
Knowledge Problem

Politics / Current Events
Virginia Postrel
Belmont Club
Mickey Kaus

Belles Lettres
Uncouth Reflections
Arts and Letters Daily
In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

In the Pipeline

« It's Worth It to Know That There Are Others | Main | Science: Good For Anything Else? »

March 3, 2011

A Postdoc's Lament

Email This Entry

Posted by Derek

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. . .

Comments (69) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Academia (vs. Industry) | Business and Markets


1. Nate on March 3, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

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. . .

Well, yeah. Maybe the private sector looks like a good option when you're an organic chemist, but what is a biologist supposed to do? Even in fields that are traditionally used in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries, the ratio of postdoc positions to "real jobs" is terrifying. Go look at Nature Jobs and search for "crystallography", for instance. Perhaps over-specialization is part of the problem, but I don't think there's a shortage of candidates in any other sub-field either.

Permalink to Comment

2. Dennis on March 3, 2011 10:15 AM writes...

"Read it, and you'd never get the idea that there's anything outside the university research environment."

That's not that much different from the impression I get reading your blog. I'm still a grad student so my understanding of the industrial job market isn't as informed as many of your readers, but "academia or bust" seems no less rational than starting a career as an industrial scientist when every other week you read news of a large industrial site closing and layoffs of thousands of scientists.

Permalink to Comment

3. Anon on March 3, 2011 10:15 AM writes...

I don't see why this can't work. Biologists have been doing this forever, they are called Lab technicians. While some may not have PhDs a bunch of others do. They are typically cheaper than postdocs and give the lab stability. I am not sure why they haven't caught on in chemistry (maybe the work is too tedious).

Permalink to Comment

4. JD on March 3, 2011 10:24 AM writes...

Most of postdocs these days earn salaries around 30-50k. I believe lab technicians are more expensive than that.

Permalink to Comment

5. Smar Anon on March 3, 2011 10:25 AM writes...

If scientists are so smart, maybe they should look at the dismal landscale and either get the heck out of basic research if wanting to live in the uS, or hightail to Asia where education and research is actually valued. I made a career transition out of research, very glad that I did. All this infinite training for being paid a pittance or at the very best extraordinarily poor career flexibility is a very bad idea. All those of you who are considering grad school, please do yourself a favor and stay out. Prospects are nothing but dismal in the real world. You will probably be better off becoming a plubmber or electrician right now.

Permalink to Comment

6. Anonymous on March 3, 2011 10:54 AM writes...

haha, I loved that Tom Lehrer song. "When the rockets go up, who cares where they come down? It's not my department, says Werner Von Braun."

Also, I liked the footnote Mort Sahl appended to his autobiography. He titled it "I aimed for the stars", to which was added "...and sometimes I hit London"

Permalink to Comment

7. Pete on March 3, 2011 11:06 AM writes...

"Once the rockets are up..." is one of my favorites and I managed to work it into a lecture on tautomers (at which Germans were present) in New Mexico back in 1999. It actually says a lot about corporate IT departments and I used the quote in that context.

Another favorite Lehrer quote (also relevant to the inner workign of the scientific establishment) is:

"I am never forget the day I first meet the great Lobachevsky.
In one word he told me secret of success in mathematics:

Let no one else's work evade your eyes,
Remember why the good Lord made your eyes,
So don't shade your eyes,
But plagiarize, plagiarize, plagiarize -
Only be sure always to call it please 'research' "

Permalink to Comment

8. milkshake on March 3, 2011 11:12 AM writes...

Pharma companies too are warming up to postdocs labor. You get a fresh and maleable person on temp basis, one if front of which a permanent position can be dangled. And the price is hard to beat.

Permalink to Comment

9. Pete on March 3, 2011 11:19 AM writes...

On a more serious note it can be instructive to look at differences between the medical and scientific professions with regard to the over-supply issue. You don't see a lot of out of work medical doctors.

Permalink to Comment

10. SP on March 3, 2011 11:20 AM writes...

Larger research institutes are relying on a staff of professional scientists, paid more comparably to industry salaries than postdoc levels.

Permalink to Comment

11. Kay on March 3, 2011 11:28 AM writes...

When I was in grad school, there was one professor who had a lab setup like this. He had several technicians (I think he called them research associates) who were permanent employees, paid out of grant money. And he had a handful of grad students to supplement them. Evidently he was productive enough that the university let him run his lab his own way - he was German and he said he thought the setup was more productive for both the technicians and the grad students. One reason it may have worked is that we were located in a very cheap area, so he could afford to pay reasonable salaries for the area and still have plenty of money left over for research.

The problem with simply cutting back on the number of PhD students (which is probably the best solution) is that academic research depends on using those students to do the lab work. This seems to be increasing instead of decreasing, with more pharma companies forming "partnerships" with academia. (I suspect part of the rationale for expanding these partnerships is that they can get the research done while paying minimum wage salaries to grad students and no benefits.)

Permalink to Comment

12. Endocannabinoidz on March 3, 2011 11:35 AM writes...

Derek's right; the incentive for established PIs to tap the inexhaustible well of graduate and postdoctoral labor is so great that they certainly won't support curtailing the number of trainees. However, I think there are a few things that could be done ranked from most difficult to least.

1) A strong postdoctoral union. (Probably impossible given the practice of threatening foreign scientists with their visa status).

2) Building a pseudo-guild system, as exists in medicine, with discipline-specific "board" exams to exclude the hordes of incompetents who scrape along the bottom in academia and depress wages.

3) Giving postdocs PI status and thus allowing them to apply for large NIH grants. This would surely drop the paylines and the resultant crisis would result in senior PIs pushing to limit postdoctoral abundance thus improving job prospects.

Currently I advise promising students to get an MD and then transition to research; it seems to work out much better that way.

Permalink to Comment

13. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on March 3, 2011 11:54 AM writes...

Why do people feel compelled to try and micromanage the education pipeline? If you try to choke off the flow of students going into chemistry, where would you steer them? Shouldn't people have the right to receive training in the field that interests them? Are you guys advocating a managed economy?

Tell me, what fields have excellent career prospects these days for someone coming fresh out of college? I personally know people in every imaginable field (chemistry, biology, engineering, finance, law) and trade (plumbing, electrical, construction) that have lost jobs over the past 3 years, and spent extended periods out of work. If you try to restrict the number of people going into chemistry, where would you point them? And really, who has the right to mandate the "correct" number of people that should be allowed to receive PhDs in chemistry?

The current graduate students that read this blog should ask themselves, "what else would I enjoy doing besides chemistry"? If you have an answer, you still have time to change, if the market for that other pathway looks better. If your answer is "nothing", continue to pursue your dream. It will be difficult, but you can build a career.

Permalink to Comment

14. RM on March 3, 2011 12:03 PM writes...

I'm surprised that people seem to think that if you're in an academic lab, you're either a PI, a postdoc, or a grad student.

In many of the labs I've worked with there's been staff scientists/senior scientists. These aren't just perpetual postdocs - they're actual employees who were hired to be with the lab long-term. They aren't "lab techs" either, as they're performing their own research and writing grants, not just washing glassware and prepping reagents. Given the ones I've meet, I find nothing "sad" about them. They're often more in-touch with the research than the PI.

That said, increasing the number of staff scientists probably isn't going to help much. For one thing, you're going to have to pay them more than the subsistence-level wages given to grad students/postdocs. Secondly, if we assume that each PI trains a dozen people over their career, and half go into industry, that means at equilibrium each lab should have one PI and five staff scientists. Assuming a 36 year career, a 6 year Ph.D. and a 3 year postdoc, that's a lab of one PI, five staff scientists, two grad students and one postdoc - quite a bit different than current lab makeups.

Permalink to Comment

15. john on March 3, 2011 12:06 PM writes...

Derek says that the post doc is preferable to unemployment, which I would admit is true.
We are right now grappling with underemployment as a huge problem in our society, so I ask the question. When does a post doc become underemployment.
It is after all supposed to be a form of training, though you can contend that a PhD is trained 3 years in and the rest is just padding the publication record). I guess my other issue is its a bit of a shot between the legs to train all that time and end up on a salary that's obtainable with a B.S and five years experience. I know you don't do it for the money, you do it cause you love it, but at the same time you have to earn a living to save for retirement and put kids through college etc.

Permalink to Comment

16. govtscientist on March 3, 2011 12:28 PM writes...

As budget cuts loom, government labs are drastically upping their numbers of post-docs as well. It's relatively cheap labor, and it gets around hiring freezes.

Permalink to Comment

17. Anonymous on March 3, 2011 12:39 PM writes...

David - micromanagement of the education pipeline is already going on, and is the cause of this problem. Congress falls for the ACS's lies about America's "shortage of scientists," increases funding for research, and causes the universities to pump out more PhD's that industry doesn't want. If we stopped micromanaging the pipeline, PhD production would fall into line with market demand.

Permalink to Comment

18. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on March 3, 2011 12:56 PM writes...'d prefer to see NIH research budgets cut? PhD production will slow when people no longer want to earn PhDs in science. But like I asked before, where else would you steer these people? How many baristas and Wal-Mart greeters do we need? Do we need more lawyers? Do we need more financial wizards? Wouldn't you like to see the brightest of our students go into science and engineering?

Permalink to Comment

19. Hap on March 3, 2011 1:01 PM writes...

If you're funding the training of lots of people who won't be able to get jobs in the field you're training them for, then there should be some sort of societal benefit to paying for people to learn technical skills that they can't directly employ (analogous to the general side benefits of education). If that's not the case, then all those government grants are paying for the training of disposable labor, losing both the money that paid for their training and the future tax money from training people who won't be employed.

The question that has to be asked is whether the research funded by training future unemployables is worth enough to worth the money paid for it and the costs of the excess of people you're training. If not, the funding system generating the labor oversupply benefits only tenured professors and universities and no one else.

Permalink to Comment

20. watcher on March 3, 2011 1:05 PM writes...

Very similar to many academic depts and labs with a senior professor running a group with permanent lab staff, instructors, grad students etc. Certainly, a model that can be successful and useful for some, but will not help the majority / excess PhDs already in our world, and may be short sighted for the greater balance of needs in the future.

Permalink to Comment

21. Smart Anon on March 3, 2011 1:08 PM writes...

Amen Hap. I think you are spot on.

David, there is little future in doing basic research in a society that worships quick profits. As to what they should do, most of the people who can become scientists are smart. Learn a trade and set up your own small buisiness seems to be a lot more attactive and profitable to me than getting let go and scrambling for jobs that are on a downward spiral.

Note, I am not saying that basic research is not valuable. On the contrary, it is the avenue to propel the US to economic success. All I am saying is that the foundatuion and will does not exist anymore.

Permalink to Comment

22. passionlessDrone on March 3, 2011 1:10 PM writes...

Hello friends -

Interesting discussion. 17 / 18 have hit on what was striking me as paradoxical about this; we seem to get told again and again that the lack of science majors in the US is metric of our upcoming inability to compete with places like Asia or India.

Is it a function of too many people actually trying to get a PhD? And is that a problem with the fact that the jobs for people with bachelor or masters in science are no longer primarily housed in the United States?

- pD

Permalink to Comment

23. Hap on March 3, 2011 1:12 PM writes...

1) You're assuming a symmetry of information that doesn't exist - while professors and employers know the status of the (un)employment pipeline (or at least have better and more information), students don't have much in the way of reliable info. Also, a PhD is a long-term, almost irreversible decision (going back once you leave is difficult) so there isn't much flexibility once you decide to get one, and you can't be employed acting as an MS or BS, so you're ratcheted once you get one.

2) NIH, NSF, etc. could do research with staff, but it wouldn't be as cheap - so cutting NIH isn't necessary to cut down on the pipeline.

If there aren't any prospects in science and engineering, and we don't value them (or aren't willing to hire people to do them), then encouraging people to enter those fields by spending large amounts of money to training them for unemployment seems counterproductive. At some point, lots of underemployed people with training tends to generate surplus consciousness - if they can't use their training for our benefit, they will use it for our detriment.

Permalink to Comment

24. Anonymous on March 3, 2011 1:16 PM writes...


Americans are voting with their feet which is why academia lobbies so hard for ever more imported talent to fill those growing number grad student and post doc positions. With such a high percentage of foreign scientists in the post doc and grad student ranks, it is really the foreign talent pool who is trained at US tax payer expense and who now is being thrown into the rash bin by their professors or must return to their mother country to find employment.

Alternatively because foreign scientists are forced to go home after US paid training, a severe shortage of scientists in the US has developed and in order to now tap that talent pool, jobs must be off-shored. See 3M CEO comments below:

Buckley (3M CEO) also criticized the country's immigration policies. He said 68 percent of U.S. science PhD candidates are from outside the U.S. and would like to stay here, but they have a difficult time obtaining visas. The result: 3M is "exporting our science" overseas, he said. Indeed, a recent Business Journal report illustrated how nearly half of 3M's R&D operations are now outside of the United States."

Read more: 3M CEO bashes Obama, U.S. immigration rules | Minneapolis / St. Paul Business Journal

You are all whiners. Getting a PhD means you are tough enough to bend over and take it up the.....

Permalink to Comment

25. pete on March 3, 2011 1:18 PM writes...

I'm all for decreasing the amount of PhDs in training -- which should have follow-on effects of decreasing the Post-Doc pool and - ideally - of increasing the ratio of scientists to open science jobs. For the PI in academia, this may mean trimming the number of different projects pursued by any one lab, however. That's not a bad thing, but it may mean that the angst level of pre-tenure Profs is increased due to the sense that the stakes have been "upped" on the fewer surviving projects.

Permalink to Comment

26. Pharmaheretic on March 3, 2011 2:21 PM writes...

Here is something on that "find another job or career" bullshit.


Permalink to Comment

27. RKN on March 3, 2011 2:21 PM writes...

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).

I tend to agree. Where I received my PhD it was usual that the grad students in our department went to lunch with the invited seminar speakers. I remember one lunch where the speaker was asked to discuss his rise in academia. (I'm paraphrasing from memory): "Well, he boasted, after my graduate and post-doc training, and my extensive publication record, I might have decided to go into industry and, well, you know, get the big boat the second home and all the trappings of a big salary (he paused here to laugh). Instead, I wanted to do science so I took the academic route."

My first thought was: Why do you assume you would have been successful had you gone into industry? And do you mean to say "science" is not conducted in industry?

I got up and left before finishing my lunch, evidently much to the chagrin of some of my fellow grad students, who later complained to the department head that "certain students" we're disrespecting the speaker by leaving lunch early.

Permalink to Comment

28. Pharmaheretic on March 3, 2011 2:23 PM writes...

and something on that whole "stable careers" bullshit

Permalink to Comment

29. Hap on March 3, 2011 2:32 PM writes...

It seems more than a little disingenous for a CEO to complain that he's had to outsource his science because he can't find enough domestic people qualified to do science. Look at what he makes and what his scientific people make (or made, before he and others sent them away) and what they'll both get if they get fired or laid off, then ask again why there aren't as many native US people as foreign students choosing to go into science and engineering.

Unlike Peanuts, there is apparently a limit to how many times Charlie Brown will decide to try and kick the football out of Lucy's hands.

Permalink to Comment

30. Andy Dufresne on March 3, 2011 2:55 PM writes...

As we all know Dr. Lowe, the rate limiting step in this process is the 'concentration' of bodies willing to enter into PhD programs or post-doc type positions to be transformed into 'institutionalized dependents'.*

You blithely (but correctly) assume there is an unlimited supply of bodies to enter the cue to a painful process with limited financial rewards.

The worker must thus view this as an oversupply issue. The reason there is an oversupply is that universities are exempt from limits on our various visas such as the h1-b and L-1, etc. Without them the US sciences would come to a grinding halt. They serve as a buffer against any challenges to the existing system.

The false assertion made by academics in the past is that there exists ‘a shortage of scientists’ is the real issue. ( ‘Rising Above the Gathering Storm’ by the National Academy of sciences’ is a typical piece of self serving propaganda).

I believe that the typical academic would be very happy if they could fill 100% of their labs with easily managed foreigners who are virtual slaves on the master’s estate. That’s the diabolical condition University academics and administrators are now pursuing.

This in part works because the foreigners don’t care about the science, they primarily want a visa or green-card (another reason why innovation in the USA is diminishing).

Since the academics way of life is dependent upon the US taxpayers largess, the only way to confront this issue is to contact your Public officials and complain. You would really need a national organization that embraces all the sciences to depose the despotic elite that now speak for the general population of scientists.

How about ten thousand scientists protesting on the national mall?

*’ The Brook’s Hatlen Shawshank dependency’ process mentioned by another poster.

Permalink to Comment

31. Mr. Freeze on March 3, 2011 3:20 PM writes...

The system is definitely in need of fixing. At minimum I hope that today's students are doing their homework before embarking on graduate school, so they know what their actual career prospects look like if they take that path. Graduate schools should also be more willing to spell out alternative career paths & be up front about the competition for academic positions, instead of pigeon-holing everyone into the academic mold.

Permalink to Comment

32. Another John on March 3, 2011 3:21 PM writes...

The fundamental issue is that productivity has not increased as in other fields, while new product value has often gone negative since the 1970s.
It costs just as much today to bring a new drug to market, using analytic techniques elucidated by 1979 and synthetic techniques current in 1939.

Cause for optimism: approaching fundamental instrumentation breakthroughs in optics/photonics. More (cheaper, faster) data will improve understanding of reactions and pathways, in silico models, etc.
How about live video as viruses inside a living cell react to your compound, or direct nanoscale observation of reactions and structures?

Permalink to Comment

33. BrooksPhD on March 3, 2011 3:46 PM writes...

"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."

This is exactly what Dr. Rohn says in her article. Did you miss it? She calls for the community to enage and discuss, she not jst some whining postdoc complaining how it isn't fair.

"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."

Did you even read the article? I'm sorry to be blunt, but you seem to have utterly missed the point of it. Dr. Rohn points out that there are plenty of non-academic jobs, and there are plenty of us who found a great (if not better) life outside the lab. However, her article aim is directly at the postdocs who wish to stay at the bench.

I'm going to assume you didn't read the article clearly enough, rather than being deliberately obtuse to garner page hits.

Permalink to Comment

34. Jonathan on March 3, 2011 3:54 PM writes...

It's funny, export chemist's jobs overseas is bad bad bad, but importing floods of cheap bio labor over here is just A-OK?

And these jobs these postdocs are supposed to go into? Lets examine that.

First off, if you have a PhD, you're almost certainly going to find work somewhere. Current unemployment stats for PhDs are about 4%, which is really pretty good.

But, here's where the problem is: postdocs go into a postdoc maybe wanting a full time academic research career, maybe not. But all they're going to learn during that time is how to be an academic, because that's all their PI will have known, and their PI almost certainly came up through the system before the NIH doubling, and before the structural flaws in the way the US trains scientists was exposed to the degree it has been.

Back in 1980, 25% of NIH R01s went to researchers under 35. That figure is now less than 2%. Every year, the average age a researcher gets their first R01 goes up a year. So it's currently at 48 or 49. Right now, around 20% of postdocs will get a tenure track position, but that's trending downwards, will probably be 1 in 10, especially with the funding cuts coming. 20-30 years ago you didn't even need to do a fucking postdoc unless you specifically wanted to be an academic. Now (perhaps with the exception of chemists) it's mandatory. You try graduating with a PhD in pharmacology and getting a job in industry. Does. Not. Happen. What was once a 1-2 year stop along the way for some scientists is now a 2-4 year mandatory holding pattern.

At the same time, universities pit senior faculty against junior faculty for the same (now diminshing pool of money) and the senior faculty win, because they have the name and the publication record and know how to work the system. That's great for the next few years, because advances in medical science (!) have meant you can work into your 80s if you have tenure, but pretty soon they're going to start dying, and because they spend all their time in competition with their junior colleagues, they're not mentoring or passing those skills on.

Universities and PIs love cheap postdocs. J-1 visas are limitless, you don't have to pay them benefits (beyond healthcare if they're on a visa) and they cost far less than a technician with a masters degree. And if you don't like the one you have, throw them back on the boat and get another one, because if you're Chinese or Indian and want to come live in America the only real way you can do it is to get a PhD and apply for a postdoc.

So, for the 80% who won't get that tenure track job, what do they do? Most have had no preparation for anything else, because their PI only knows about being a PI. "Go into industry" you say. ROFL. The same industry that we read about week in and week out closing research sites and sacking scientists? Yeah, how's that working out?

Slowly word filters out that having a PhD gives you transferable skills, and you can be a science writer or a medical writer or a patent attorney or a management consultant or an analyst or whatever, and if you're motivated about your own career (which you should be, because no one else will be, it's your life) or your institution is enlightened and holds alternative career seminars etc, you'll find a way out. But that doesn't stop it being true that the way that we train young scientists in this country is both broken and unsustainable. The NIH doubling resulted in a rate of growth that could never be kept up, and this is the end result.

As for the academocentricity of this argument, I'm sorry Derek, but have you forgotten where that PhD of yours came from? Your distain for the ivory tower is well known, but all scientists were students at one point, and GSK and Pfizer aren't handing out diplomas. As I mentioned above, for bioscientists (who constitute the bulk of the PhD graduates) a postdoc isn't an option, it's necessary.

Now, there's a real argument to be made that the US is either minting too many PhDs, or, and this is controversial (and highly ironic given my background), the US is importing far too many foreign postdocs. But as you identify, it's in the interests of the research universities to keep bringing them over, because they're cheaper than the alternative. THe US academic system is modeled on 19th century Germany's, and that might have been fine back then but nowadays, when there are 100,000+ postdocs working in the US, it just doesn't work.

Still, as scientists we're in a much better boat than kids emerging today from law schools with 6 figure debt and the illusion of a 6 figure corporate law job that might maybe just exist if you were top 1/3rd of your class at one of the top 10 schools.

I do find it funny that you see the problem with the unsustainability of the Pharma/biotech relationship, but don't see the parallels here or really, in any of a number of industries and sectors where the MBAs in particular, and baby boomers in general, have pulled the ladder up behind them and broken the system.

I do hope you'll not be offended, when next you post of a site closure and the sacking of hundreds or even thousands of industrial scientists, with the witty retort "Go and find a job, then."

Permalink to Comment

35. Jennifer Rohn on March 3, 2011 4:45 PM writes...

Thanks for commenting on my Nature piece. Just to correct two misconceptions:

1) If you read the piece more carefully, you'll see that I did not advocate reducing "the numbers of people being trained as graduate students." The article is about post-docs, and actually states that reducing grad students is not necessarily recommended.

2) The article was specifically about academia, which is why it was "academocentric". To complain that this is the case would be as strange as complaining that an article about baseball didn't mention football.

I have worked outside academia for many years, but even from the perspective of someone who hasn't "been in academia too long", it's clear that academia has a problem and that this problem is worth discussing. To judge from the hundreds of messages of support I've received since the piece was published, I'm probably not the only one who thinks this.

Permalink to Comment

36. Sili on March 3, 2011 4:50 PM writes...

. . .we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.
*cough*cough*unionise*cough* Permalink to Comment

37. Jonathan on March 3, 2011 4:58 PM writes...

@Sili: I don't know if you've looked around recently, but postdocs have been unionizing. The UAW (in what I think was a fairly underhanded manner) unionized the entire UC system. As supportive as I am of the right to collectively bargain, when you think about it carefully the union model does not fit the postdoc model at all.

60+% of postdocs working in the US are foreign nationals here on visas, and if they were to strike that would place them out of status and they would be required to leave the country (in anywhere from 10 to 30 days depending on the visa type). Secondly, 30% of postdocs who have their own fellowships. How, exactly, is a union supposed to bargain with the NRSA mechanism? Postdoc unions are a great source of revenue for the parent union, but I remain to be convinced they offer any benefit at all to the scientists.

Permalink to Comment

38. David Formerly Known as a Chemist on March 3, 2011 5:32 PM writes...

@#19, Hap, you're stating that NIH is handing out grants to train scientists for positions that don't exist. Grants are awarded to fund research and new scientific innovations that aren't directly related to a particular product (basic research). Sure, these funds are used to pay salaries of graduate students and postdocs, but that's not a requirement. Many permanent lab technicians are paid from these grants. The intent of this grant money is to foster new scientific discoveries that become the basis of tomorrow's technologies and industries, not to train students. If students get trained as a result, I see no downside.

Again, if these science students weren't to go into chemistry, biology, etc, where would you prefer they go? If your son or daughter told you they intend to major in chemistry, would you try to persuade them to do something different? If so, what? Medicine? That always sounds good, but not EVERYONE can become a doctor!

English? History? Math? Business? Engineering? Every field is tough from a career perspective.

My advice? Do what you have a passion for.

Permalink to Comment

39. Hap on March 3, 2011 5:47 PM writes...

Lots of grants are specifically for training - I was trained under one, for example. The academic system is predicated on cheap grad student and postdoc labor (otherwise the research which gets people grant money and tenure doesn't get funded) which is in turn predicated on the status of postdocs and grad students as students. So, most of the people are being trained to do something, and most of that is paid for through grants. It's hard to say the generation of a large trained workforce isn't the point of those grants.

Grants could be used to pay for professional positions as well - but the labor isn't as cheap, and there's lots of grad students and postdocs in the pipe. Like the research in general, no one wants to pay for profession research positions here that are likely to be expensive and long term when there is cheap labor to be had elsewhere.

CEOs don't work on passion alone - they expect to be paid. I don't know why that's unreasonable for others.

Permalink to Comment

40. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on March 3, 2011 5:48 PM writes...

Nobody that matters cares about this issue.

Who in academia outside of a few honest souls is going to say we should spend more money on salaries because post-docs cannot have a real life on their meager wages? Post-docs are the stepchildren of the research group and are treated as such.

If you don't like the lifestyle of a worker or a pair of hands for the scientific establishment, just leave the scientific plantation like I did. It felt good to quit my post-doc early.

I don't care about how post-docs or graduate students are treated because no child of mine is going into science. Let these niave 22-year olds get used up. It cuts down the competition found in other fields where their talents may have found real use. There's a graduate student born every minute!

CEO's are just LMF's! They spout the same self-serving BS as the academics do. When did these people ever not complain about a shortage of workers? The glut of people works for them as they can always select the pick of the litter from the scientific puppy mills.

Permalink to Comment

41. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on March 3, 2011 6:01 PM writes...

@24 I guess you are not whining because you liked it up the @ss.

@38 David, how's your passion working out for you? Do what you're passionate about is just a useless cliche unless you don't mind poverty.

Permalink to Comment

42. Nick on March 3, 2011 6:22 PM writes...

@34 said -

"Slowly word filters out that having a PhD gives you transferable skills, and you can be a science writer or a medical writer or a patent attorney or a management consultant or an analyst or whatever, and if you're motivated about your own career (which you should be, because no one else will be, it's your life) or your institution is enlightened and holds alternative career seminars etc, you'll find a way out"

Those statements are false and delusional. You are less qualified as a PhD to enter into the careers you specified than a BS or MS candidate.


You are still blinded by a non-existent prestige factor that only snobby academics value. You got a PhD because you could conform and take crap. That's the filter you passed dude.

Most likely your potential boss outside science will not have a PhD and does not want the assumed attitude he thinks you will possess. He will also not want to pay you the money you believe you are owed for your bogus time spent in the lab (in fact he will not hire you because he thinks your career choice is 'second' to what you really want.) Unless you get a gig with Mckinsey (only people with Ivy degrees need apply), no one's going to hire you as a consultant.

A PhD in the sciences is a dead end with few transferable skills.

High school teacher in better times, perhaps burger jockey now. I don't care if you wrote twenty papers and a half dozen grants as a grad student or post-doc. Your PI always gets the credit for your accomplishments.

Permalink to Comment

43. anon on March 3, 2011 6:27 PM writes...

"If your son or daughter told you they intend to major in chemistry, would you try to persuade them to do something different? "

I would beg my son to do something different. Anything different. There are very few, if any fields where you blow the best years of your life, slaving a way for a degree that is useless. I envy my friends who had fun during there twenties and now are commanding 6 figure salaries with job security, where I have to send out my 200th resume in the hopes of getting a phone interview.

Permalink to Comment

44. Zach on March 3, 2011 7:14 PM writes...

Most of postdocs these days earn salaries around 30-50k.

Is that right? Those friends I had in grad school who went to postdocs (generally at national lab-type places) made closer to $70k, and I'm making significantly more than that as an academic postdoc in Australia. I can't imagine taking a $30k position after 6 years of grad school.

Permalink to Comment

45. Jonathan on March 3, 2011 7:51 PM writes...

@Zach: I don't know why that surprises you. About 30% of postdocs have their own funding, and the bulk of that is through NIH's NRSAs. Here are the current stipends (plus a few thousand for healthcare and incidentals, but healthcare in the US is not cheap):

Years of Experience:








7 or more

For the 70% that exist on soft money, including the majority of the 60% who are not US citizens or permanent residents (who are ineligible to apply) you'd be lucky to be making that much. Oh, and you can forget about retirement or anything like that.

It's not like this is only just coming to light:

Permalink to Comment

46. Anonymous on March 3, 2011 7:56 PM writes...

If only there was a national chemistry society that could stand up for us chemists in difficult times. Sigh...

Permalink to Comment

47. Hap on March 3, 2011 9:25 PM writes...

I don't expect that anyone deserves money for being in science, but I think that business and most in academics have made it pretty clear that, at best, they care about scientists at best the way a rancher cares about cattle. Love is generally best when reciprocated, and despite all the talk about innovation being the engine for growth, there isn't any evidence that anyone is willing to do any innovating here. There will be some entrepreneurs among science people, but probably not enough, particularly when the spoils aren't likely to go to them, anyway, but to their funders. No money, no societal respect, no security, and lots of work (ten years after high school, at least) doesn't sound as much like love as an abusive relationship.

The massive importation of foreign grad students stems from this in part, and keeping some of them here with their training and intelligence would be good, but even that will diminish as we send their jobs elsewhere too. If chemistry and biology become physics, so it goes, but I don't know where where anyone hopes to come up with innovation without technical knowledge. It'll have to be hard to come up with new ads for wakefulness and sexual health "supplements" over and over again.

I don't know what I'll do if my daughter likes chemistry. I'm wondering if her future will involve a change cup and a cardboard sign on a highway median in Mumbai or Shanghai.

Permalink to Comment

48. Chris D on March 3, 2011 9:25 PM writes...

Jennifer, I think your idea is terrific, and I think that Derek is forgetting the potential benefits to the PIs to have highly skilled staff scientists on board. All grad. students and post-docs are NOT created equal. I would suggest cutting out the lower rung of potential grad. students (who are unlikely to stay in the field anyway), and using the money to fund highly skilled staffers who could continue to perform innovative research while earning a reasonable salary. These folks would have similar freedoms and responsibilities to assistant professors in the Japanese system, though perhaps without the potential upward mobility. Ask Prof. Suzuki where he would be without Norio Miyaura...

Permalink to Comment

49. Cellbio on March 3, 2011 9:39 PM writes...


Will read your piece tomorrow, so not informed fully, but would like to ask if you think academia has an obligation to train post docs for industry careers. A few years back, Science published data that showed recent PHDs fate split 25% academia, 25% Industry, and 50% no longer pursued their field of training. With those numbers, probably worse now, not discussing the industry side is not like baseball not being football, but like talking about the merits of a left handed pitcher without knowing if you're facing a left handed hitting line up, it is just incomplete analysis. Maybe great, I look forward to reading, but perhaps forwarding a one sided mindset that is another problem too.

In advance of my reading, job well done and thanks for posting.

Permalink to Comment

50. gippgig on March 3, 2011 11:53 PM writes...

Everyone seems to be overlooking an important point: The purpose of scientific research (and I am specifically referring to research, not development (so this does not apply to drug development) - end disclaimer) is to produce knowledge, not money. Scientific research should not be a career - it should be an alternative to a career. If you want to create knowledge and make money, go into scientific development. Go into scientific research only if you aren't interested in making money.

Permalink to Comment

51. fell on March 4, 2011 12:53 AM writes...

Is that right? Those friends I had in grad school who went to postdocs (generally at national lab-type places) made closer to $70k, and I'm making significantly more than that as an academic postdoc in Australia. I can't imagine taking a $30k position after 6 years of grad school.

Congratulations, but I think you are the exception, rather than the rule. Every salary survey I've seen has postdoc salaries for chemistry right around the $US30-40k mark, which would suggest very few people are landing these mysterious $70k/yr postdoc gigs. I'm on a NIH fellowship, and the stipend levels are set by the United States Congress. You can look them up, they aren't $70k..

Permalink to Comment

52. Anonymous on March 4, 2011 1:10 AM writes...

Is that right? Those friends I had in grad school who went to postdocs (generally at national lab-type places) made closer to $70k, and I'm making significantly more than that as an academic postdoc in Australia. I can't imagine taking a $30k position after 6 years of grad school.

I think national labs (ie; Los Alamos) pay handsome postdoc salaries like you're suggesting. I know for fact that pharma postdocs do. However, most university and other institutional postdocs are in the range that fell said. The NIH recommended minimum is $38K, but the key word here is "recommended." Plenty of PIs don't pay it. God help you if you get a postdoc in California or New York.

Permalink to Comment

53. Anonymous on March 4, 2011 1:30 AM writes...

The whole point of life is to become a lab head, bringing in the grant money and taking on graduate students.

In finance that's called a pyramid scheme.

Permalink to Comment

54. See Arr Oh on March 4, 2011 3:20 AM writes...

@JD (#4), @44/@51 - Regarding the all-important dollar, and what you're "worth" as a postdoc: The NIH "recommended minimum" was $37K, 3 years ago when I started, and I was lucky to receive that. That said, I had contacts at other schools who told me that, especially in large second-tier labs with several "imported" pdocs, the postdoc average was much closer to $29-32K.

Technicians at my postdoctoral institution were envied, because not only did they make more - I surreptitiously "applied" to find out, and it was about $43K to start with a BS and 2 years' experience - but they left in a mass-exodus at 5:00PM on the dot, while we pressed our noses to the glass and dreamed of eating dinner before 8:00PM!

@John (#15), @42/43 - Underemployment: My friends with PhDs 5-10 years older than me, who caught the boom years of 1995-2002 with six-figure pharma positions straight out of grad school or 1-year postdocs, tell me that you worked really hard to compete so you could get the best job on your way out. Now, sadly, it seems you work really hard to ensure you can land *a job* on your way avoid taking that second or third postdoc.

Several of my European friends with J1 issues find themselves as "hot-potato" postdocs around the US well into their mid-30s. Sad.

I believe (as do others) that many people go into PhD programs for the wrong reasons, when they could well have been happier as well-compensated MS chemists. We had a few guys who left in year 2-3 of the program, and they all got jobs - even in 2006-2007! - and every one was happy with their choices.

Permalink to Comment

55. Tony on March 4, 2011 4:07 AM writes...

Perhaps something we're overlooking here is the potential value to society of smart, scientifically literate people going off into other areas (I accept this didn't pan out too well in banking recently). Ignorance of, and indifference to, science is on the increase, and decision making is increasingly illogical because of this. Perhaps if more of us infiltrated other walks of life things would start to change for the better? Maybe we could try politics?

Permalink to Comment

56. Anonymous on March 4, 2011 6:28 AM writes...

Having permanent scientific research position in academia reminds me of the system in France, where they have one professor, and legions of maitre de conf, charge de recherche, maitre de recherche, etc and - no students. Maybe we can get a statement here from such a non-PI permanent researcher on how it is, when you hadn't had a student for the last five years and are working for your boss who gets all the credit. Is this the model you want to follow?

Permalink to Comment

57. CompletelyWithYOuOnThatONe on March 4, 2011 7:26 AM writes...

@54 Tony

I abolutely agree with that one!
I am a Chemist myself, now working in a non-scientific area. It amazes me every single day how business people make judgments, draw correlations, and make decisions on a completely illogical manner.
I find that every concept in Cemistry 'including the rate limiting step' used in another comment, are so valuable outside the lab.

The world needs Chemists

Permalink to Comment

58. op on March 4, 2011 8:30 AM writes...

Lets not forget a lot of PhD students are entirely unrealistic about their future career opportunities, and a lot just bumble along into post-docs with no planning or though about alternative careers.

That said, there has to be a wholesale seachange in thinking science training==good, especially with the massive costs involved.

And anyway, shouldn't (whats left of) Industry be training their staff anyway rather than transfer their costs to the universities then complain when they dont have the skills they need?

Permalink to Comment

59. bleh on March 4, 2011 9:43 AM writes...

#45: "If only there was a national chemistry society that could stand up for us chemists in difficult times. Sigh..."

ACS is to chemistry as mail-order "music clubs" are to music.

Permalink to Comment

60. Anatoly on March 4, 2011 2:51 PM writes...

Please excuse my ignorance, but I wonder if something like an academic "start-up" could work. Let`s say we have a group of PhDs\Postdocs who want to do fundamental science - not something that can be turned into profit in the next 10\20\100 years. They accept that they will never make as much money as in the more practical professions - but they don`t want to remain in the dead-end careers where they are slaves of the faculty.

So, what if they save money, buy equipment and create their own laboratory? Then they could begin their own research and apply DIRECTLY for funds. Could it work? Do we really need an old bearded professor and a huge University to make science?

Permalink to Comment

61. Curt F. on March 4, 2011 3:03 PM writes...

#45: "If only there was a national chemistry society that could stand up for us chemists in difficult times. Sigh..."

I've said it here before, but I guess it deserves saying again. The ACS is not a union. It isn't designed to be one, and it won't be one anytime soon. You're barking up the wrong tree. The ACS isn't about giving chemist proletariats control over the means of (chemistry career) production, but rather advancing the common interests of chemist proletariat and chemist capitalist both.

Said differently, the ACS is designed to promote chemistry, which includes promoting the joint interests of all stakeholders in the chemical enterprise. That includes senior professors with millions in grants, entire universities, and even the executive management of pharmaceutical companies. The ACS is designed to promote the joint interests of all of these people as well as the people who you think deserve to be counted as one of "us chemists".

Permalink to Comment

62. Anonymous on March 5, 2011 8:58 AM writes...

I was also thinking of Anatoly's idea. The NIH rules would need to be changed probably but there are private donors, etc.

It's a new twist on ideas like Salk, etc..

Permalink to Comment

63. MIMD on March 6, 2011 11:29 AM writes...

The whole point of life is to become a lab head, bringing in the grant money and taking on graduate students.

Well, not quite.

In my experience in Ivy academe, the whole point of life is to become a lab head, bringing in the grant money, mismanaging it for personal gain, and misappropriating the ideas of graduate students.

See this PPT presentation I stashed away, for a rainy day.

Permalink to Comment

64. GreedyCynicalSelfInterested on March 6, 2011 2:35 PM writes...

@ Curt F. The purpose of ACS is to pay huge salaries to its upper management, collect dues, monopolize publishing and searching in chemical databases, promote diversity (anti-white racism), increase its dues-paying base, promote the global-warming hysteria, publish anti-natal propaganda, and publish its own version of Pravda. (C&EN)

Permalink to Comment

65. Virgil on March 7, 2011 9:43 AM writes...

As an immigrant myself (one who came here as a post-doc' and now runs a lab that employs two US post-doc's and brings in 2 NIH grants), I think I have a horse in this race...

A fundamental problem with the "send all the foreign post-doc's home" argument, is that it might work in California or NYC, but it sure as hell doesn't work in other parts of the US. The fact is, 25-30somethings DO NOT want to end up in the small university towns with 1 million or so population that litter the heartland. They want to be on the east and west coasts. Outside of those "bubbles", it is incredibly difficult to hire good domestic post-docs. I have put out post-doc' ads in the past and received 150+ applications, with 148 of them coming from overseas. This is the reality.... there simply is not a massive pool of domestic post-doc' talent that is having their jobs "stolen" by foreigners.

One thing I have noticed over time, is the length of post-doc's has not changed that much (I spent >6 years before I got my first faculty position, and that was over 10 years ago), but the moaning and complaining about it has gone up a lot. This is more a symptom of "generation me" - i.e., the kids coming through grad school have been spoon-fed "the world is your oyster" since birth, and they get a bit pissy when they find out that's not the case. What's needed is a clearer education to grad' students that once they get a PhD, they can look forward to another 6 years of training. If they're expecting less, they're being dellusional.

Permalink to Comment

66. JJC on March 7, 2011 10:09 AM writes...

"What the graduate students (and postdocs) go on to is, from the university's perspective, not really their problem."

This viewpoint is not entirely accurate for all institutions; at least for the graduate students. At my University, the new Dean is directly linking where PhD students end up with how much TA-support funds the corresponding department receives from the College. The goal is to incentivize the individual departments to actually care what happens to their graduates after they leave with the selfish hope that successful, employed and happy graduates are future donors to the University/College. The unreasonable downside is when the College expects every single undergraduate student to take English/writing in their first year but the College refuses to pay for the necessary TA support because the English PhD's are not landing "high power" jobs in significant numbers.
Post-docs, on the other hand, are still an unrepresented and relatively abused minority. More needs to be done to incentivize successful placement of post-docs, though what those incentives might be are still beyond my limited scope.

Permalink to Comment

67. Hap on March 7, 2011 2:54 PM writes...

#65: I'm not really understanding how the "me" generation is being whiny expecting to, I don't know, actually get a job after, say, sixteen years of post-HS education. There are and will continue to be people who want to do chemistry no matter what, but for most people, sixteen years of school (with some of it being paid, albeit not much) for an opportunity to get a moderate-paying transient job is pretty much a deal-killer, and will remain so for greater than vanishing levels of logical reasoning skills.

It seems far more rational to blame their parents for sending any potential jobs elsewhere and then wondering why there aren't any jobs. (I also have to wonder what kind of an economy you intend to have if you ship manufacturing and R+D elsewhere - trades are unoutsourceable, but if no one's got any money to pay them, then that's cold comfort. Information is much more easily gathered by the people making it than someone else, so the people making things will have an advantage there, as well.) Spending the children's IRA and then expecting the children to take care of them in their old age on (nonexistent) salaries is not the mark of logic.

Permalink to Comment

68. Jackass on March 7, 2011 9:12 PM writes...

Well said Hap. Sixteen years of school after High School would mean the individual is 34. That would give the person about 16 years to raise a family and save for retirement, considering the age bias in this field, if the individual could get a job in the first place.

Permalink to Comment

69. dreamer on December 8, 2011 12:22 PM writes...

If everyone who is primarily interested in getting a "job" would stay out of science, the problem of too many PhDs would solve itself.

There are plenty of "jobs." Science is a passion.

Permalink to Comment


Remember Me?


Email this entry to:

Your email address:

Message (optional):

The Last Post
The GSK Layoffs Continue, By Proxy
The Move is Nigh
Another Alzheimer's IPO
Cutbacks at C&E News
Sanofi Pays to Get Back Into Oncology
An Irresponsible Statement About Curing Cancer
Oliver Sacks on Turning Back to Chemistry