Nature | News Feature
There is a growing number of postdocs and few places in academia for them to go. But change could be on the way.
By the time Sophie Thuault-Restituito reached her twelfth year as a postdoctoral fellow, she had finally had enough. She had completed her first postdoc in London, then moved to New York University (NYU) in 2004 to start a second. Eight years and two laboratories later, she was still there and still effectively a postdoc, precariously dependent on outside grants to secure and pay for her position. Her research on Alzheimer’s disease was not making it into high-profile journals, so she was unable to compete for academic positions in the United States or Europe. She loved science and had immense experience, but with two young children at home, she knew she needed something more secure. “My motivation was gone. I was done with doing research,” she says.
So in 2013, Thuault-Restituito moved into a job as a research-laboratory operations manager at NYU, where she coordinates building renovations and fosters collaboration between labs. She enjoys the fact that her staff position has set hours, as well as better pay and benefits. But at the time of the move, she mourned the loss of a research career and she regrets the years wasted pursuing one. “I stayed five years more than I should have,” she says.
Thuault-Restituito is the face of a postdoctoral system that is broken. These highly skilled scientists are a major engine driving scientific research, yet they are often poorly rewarded and have no way to progress in academia. The number of postdocs in science has ballooned: in the United States alone, it jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012. But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking (see Nature 472, 276–279; 2011). Many postdocs move on to fulfilling careers elsewhere, but those who want to continue in research can find themselves thwarted. They end up trapped as ‘permadocs’: doing multiple postdoc terms, staying in these positions for many years and, in a small but significant proportion, never leaving them. Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 years (see ‘The postdoc pile-up’).
This problem is felt acutely in the large US biomedical-sciences workforce, but the trends are similar in many other countries and disciplines — and the economic drivers are too. Postdoc salaries have remained low — often less than the stipend and tuition costs of a graduate student. “We had the incentives all wrong,” says Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies research labour markets. “We made postdocs so cheap that principal investigators had lots of incentives to hire them.”