Perpetual Postdocs

August 20, 2002

Not long ago, a postdoc who hung around for more than four years was an oddity, like a 30-year-old still living in his parent's basement. Times have changed. According to a recent report from the National Academy of Sciences, many postdocs in the biological sciences spend five or more years on the job, and those in other fields aren't far behind. Indeed, for some postdocs, five years is just the beginning.

The Nine-Year Plan

Kelly Peterson took her first postdoc in 1993. Nine years and countless experiments later, her title hasn't changed. At the age of 40, Peterson is ready for a little stability in her life. Or at least some respect. As a postdoc, both are in short supply. "I'm going from grant to grant, and my current position (at a large West Coast cancer research center) may run out in six months. I'm tired of it," she says.

Like Ms. Peterson, Tom Michaels has been a postdoc in molecular biology labs for nine years. (And, like Ms. Peterson, he didn't want to use his real name.) Needless to say, he hadn't planned on spending nearly a decade in "training." From the start, he wanted to land an academic job that would allow him to combine research and teaching. He had several interviews for faculty positions at predominantly teaching institutions, but says it was clear after the first hour or so that they were merely courtesy interviews. As interview after interview turned into a dead end, his stint as a postdoc kept getting longer and longer. Now he's searching for a job in the biotech industry, where he'll be competing with many other frustrated Ph.D.'s looking for a way out.

Most new Ph.D.'s are willing and even eager to put in a couple of years of postdoc work to hone their skills and improve their credentials. But as the years go on, the low pay, low benefits, and low prestige can be demoralizing. Ms. Peterson recently had a particularly depressing moment while glancing at the help-wanted ads. According to one ad, legal assistants with G.E.D.'s earn more than she does.

Supply and Demand

At one level, the plight of postdocs comes down to simple numbers. According to the NAS, there are roughly 52,000 postdocs in the United Sates. Estimates of the number of quality job openings are hard to come by, but there's no doubt that the supply of highly trained Ph.D.'s dwarfs the demand.

When a good job opens up -- say, an assistant professorship at a major university -- hundreds of applications roll in. As a result, employers tend to be very selective. Successful candidates are likely to have lots of quality publications and probably their own grants, credentials that few researchers can achieve after just one two-year postdoctoral assignment. Naturally, most have to sign up for another stint. Or several.

The whole purpose of postdoctoral appointments has changed dramatically over the years, says John Vaughn, executive vice president of the Association of American Universities. When he took on a two-year postdoc assignment in the late 1970s, it was an alternative to jumping immediately into the work force. Within a few years, postdoctoral research quickly became a near-prerequisite for employment.

As Mr. Vaughn puts it, "Everyone started asking, 'Why should I hire somebody without a postdoc when there are scads of people with postdocs?'" Now, he says, universities and companies have taken that premise one step further. Why should they hire somebody with only one postdoc when there are so many people with two?

Small Window

On the other hand, there's such a thing as too much experience, Mr. Vaughn says. Two postdoctoral appointments may be better than one, but three or four start to look suspicious. Potential employers view six or eight years of postdoc work as a red flag, not a mark of accomplishment, he says.

To sum up, postdocs have a relatively narrow window for advancement. Ms. Peterson, for one, thinks hers has already closed. "If you don't get a position within a few years, your options are pretty limited," she says.

Maybe things will look brighter in the future. Maybe, as Mr. Vaughn speculates, the growing enrollment at American universities will create more teaching positions and more job opportunities for postdocs. Then again, the growing enrollment may translate to an even greater supply of Ph.D.'s trying to crack the job market. Whatever scenario unfolds, many postdocs will continue to get stuck in a holding pattern.

Enough Is Enough

If we accept the premise that top Ph.D. researchers shouldn't have to spend a large chunk of their prime years in postdoc purgatory, something needs to be done. In its 2000 report "Enhancing the Postdoctoral Experience for Scientists and Engineers," the National Academy of Sciences recommended a five-year limit to postdoctoral training. Mr. Vaughn advocates a slightly different approach: After two or three postdoctoral assignments, all postdocs should automatically receive a new title -- such as "research associate" -- complete with a new salary and benefits. They can stay in their lab, continue their work, and advance their careers without the indignities of postdoc life.

A little advance warning wouldn't hurt, either. "Grad students need to be made aware of all of their options," Ms. Peterson says. "The system is a pyramid, and very few make it to the top."

The tip of the pyramid may be out of reach, but most postdocs eventually manage to make it somewhere, Mr. Vaughn says. "When you're 35 years old and make $30,000 a year and don't know what the hell the future holds, it's tough," he says. "But most postdocs end up where they want to be. It's not some oblique turn towards an uncertain future. It just takes longer than it used to."