Permadocs as an alternative career path— plausible or improbable?

As it is, only a tiny fraction of Ph.D. chemists can bring their research skills to academia because professorship jobs are few and far between. Would the creation of professionalized post-doc positions be a win-win solution? Photo credit: flickr user mstephens7.

Chemistry currently suffers from unemployment issues that stem from there being too many PhDs and not enough jobs. I’d like to open up a can of worms and ask your thoughts on the creation of professionalized postdoc positions in chemistry to address this problem.

This idea was proposed in Nature News back in March by Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist trained at University College London. Speaking from her experiences in the life sciences, she argued that academia is broken and would benefit from the creation of permanent, university-funded, long-term research positions, which she termed professionalized postdocs:

“To avoid throwing talent on the scrap heap and to boost prospects, a new type of scientific post for researchers is needed… we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone…
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…
“An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set.”

In less than three months, this blog post got more than 3,000 comments, with responses varying from raving support to derision.

Many commenters agreed the system is broken and in need of a complete overhaul. Others agree but feel the system is beyond repair and that the changes proposed are too idealistic.

Another camp felt that a makeover in academia would only be possible with major infrastructural changes within universities and funding agencies. It would need to be shown that although full-time permanent research positions are more costly, the money would be well spent: long-term scientists would be two to three times more productive than new grad students or postdocs, and the high turnover rate of talent in a lab would be reduced.

Wait a sec, I thought. This sounds an awful lot like a technician or research scientist. Commenters who pointed this out said there is nothing to change since such a position already exists.

The key difference, Rohn pointed out in her response to such comments, is that the position would be long-term and not be dependent on the renewal of a grant, resulting in greater job security. Additionally, professionalized postdocs would do original research and not just be another set of hands.

But professionalized postdocs would reduce the number of spaces in the lab available to new grad students and postdocs. Isn’t that a bad thing?

If you would be as happy as this guy doing academic research long-term, but don't want the added duties of a professorship, a professionalized postdoc could be the ideal choice for you. Photo credit: flickr user Nomed Senkrad.

That’s a tricky question. As it is, too many PhDs are being produced for the number of jobs available, contributing to the high unemployment rates in science. Academia would benefit, several commenters said, by emulating the way medical schools manage their supply and demand problem. Every year, the number of students accepted is determined by the projected need for doctors. Yet in academia, undergrads are actively recruited to graduate school without consideration for their future job prospects, and this is a severe problem.

Hold on. I thought the U.S. was all gung-ho about convincing young people to go for science since we don’t have enough scientists. This blog post seemed to argue for the contrary.

But we need to make a distinction here: the shortage of scientists at the MS/BS level is a real problem, but the overabundance of PhD scientists is something entirely different. It’s a pyramid structure, where there are far more jobs for MS/BS-level scientists than for PhDs. Unemployed PhD scientists commonly find they are overqualified for many of the jobs out there.

Especially in academia, the number of spots are so few that only a tiny fraction of grad students and postdocs have a shot at becoming professors. Some would argue that it has as much to do with luck as it does hard work and research smarts. But that’s a whole different can of worms.

The point is this: academia would benefit from providing  long-term postdoc positions to PhD scientists who want a research career in academia but don’t want all the other responsibilities that come along with academia. Otherwise they will be forced to take their skills elsewhere and find work in other fields.

…not that exploring careers beyond the bench is a bad thing. That is, after all, what this blog is all about! But alternative careers away from the bench are not for everyone, hence, the proposal of this alternative career within academia.

If such a change could be wrought, I think it would be a win-win. PI’s would benefit from having seasoned researchers stick around for the long haul. Permadocs would happily pursue research careers in academia without the added pressures of being a professor. And the number of PhD scientists would go down, which would help our current supply and demand problem in chemistry.

What do you think?

Related Posts:

Doctoral Dilemma
Too many Ph.D.s?
Educating Ph.D. chemists
Too many PhDs? That’s anybody’s guess

Author: Christine Herman

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7 Comments

  1. No, I do not support this idea. The problem, as stated in this post, is that there are too many PhDs and not enough jobs. The solution is not to further ‘legitimize’ the post doc position, it’s to increase the number of jobs or decrease the number of post docs. Making a post doc legitimate will not increase the number of jobs; it will just turn one job into another job. I assume ‘professionalized post docs’ will want higher salaries or more benefits; where is the money going to come from? And even if they don’t want more money, this type of position will result in increased popularity of post docs. Again, where will the money come from to fuel this influx of post docs?

    Furthermore, why should post docs be further benefitted, as opposed to other professions where the surplus of PhDs could be dumped (i.e. teaching below the college level, consulting, law, other science alternatives, etc…)? It’s difficult to argue which deserves it most or benefits to society the most, but professionalizing post docs will create an increase in the number of employees in universities, and universities just cant afford this now.

    Instead, I think undergraduate advisors need to start telling their students that grad school isn’t for everyone. Society clearly does not have a need for all of these PhDs right now, and making post-docing a long term career option will just exacerbate that problem.

    Rohn’s article hasn’t really looked at the big picture. She’s trying to fix a problem by correcting what the problem is producing; she doesn’t address the source of the problem itself. This is unsettling. Again, the solution is to increase the number of demand for PhDs (with real jobs, not extended post docs) or decrease the supply.

    Based on the comments on her post, it seems like a lot of biology post docs / grad students get stuck doing menial labor, rather than using their brains. Sad world. People need to learn to take control and make it their priority to use their brains; otherwise, why should PhDs or post docs even exist?

  2. Interesting post, Christine. I have two thoughts.

    1) The funding situation for US science academia does not appear to be increasing. If that’s the case, one imagines that permadocs would almost immediately tamp down on the incoming flow of Ph.D. students. While many students would still be required for undergraduate TAing, less funds would mean fewer students advanced to candidacy.

    2) Cui bono? Jane Taxpayer gets a pretty decent deal right now. She gets useful science, and a useful scientist. Her tax dollars are directed (by experts, usually) to the most productive laboratories, i.e. those laboratories that are publishing the most.

    To supplement a class of permadocs whose careers are not tied to grants is to remove the current economic incentive structure. What incentives will we replace them with?

  3. Part of the problem that I have not seen addressed is that there are two (probably more) competing reward structures. Chemjobber talked about the grant reward structure and how that provides incentives for the current structure, but what about the average student? What reward or incentive is there for students to not pursue a PhD? Sure, undergraduate advisers can tell students that “grad school is not for everyone,” (per Matthew Olsen) but why should undergraduates listen, especially when the general perception is that if you do not have a PhD you will simply be a poorly paid lab monkey? Why should undergraduates either (a) decide to not be intellectually stimulated or (b) decide to not be better paid?

    If we really want the STEM fields to grow, we need to be concerned not only with the top, elite thinkers who are happy to sacrifice a lot to be scientists, but we also need to be concerned about the typical student who is passionate about, and talented in, STEM and seek to create a system that has rewards and incentives for both the elite and the ordinary. The professionalized postdoc provides an interesting, if flawed, possibility (but is our current system any less flawed?). More importantly, though, I think that we as a STEM community need to be thinking of, and creating, new career paths if we really want to see STEM grow and flourish in America. So, I welcome any attempt to be creative!

  4. People with BS degrees do tend to be lab monkeys, but they are not poorly paid. Sometimes they end up ahead of their PhD counterparts because the 5 years they spent in a job instead of in grad school helped to establish them with 5 years of experience, and 5 years of raises. People with BS degrees also tend to have more job flexibility, because they have not specialized. Their job is not as intellectually stimulating, but they also don’t have to take it home with them.

    Think about the collective whole of people who have attended grad school for science; what percentage harbor serious regrets? In my experience at the University of Illinois, this number seems to be >50%. Is something wrong with this scenario? Or did all those undergraduates really make the right choice?

  5. @CJ:
    Those are valid points, thanks for bringing them up. I can see what you’re saying about there not being incentive if the position isn’t tied to a grant. One would like to think this lack of incentive wouldn’t decrease motivation for research productivity, but that seems naiive to me.

    And good point with the TA problem– that would be extremely problematic at large research universities with swarms of undergrads that need TA’s.

    @Matt:
    Thanks for your comments! I agree that undergrads need to be better informed about grad school and its pros and cons. The problem is that the people who undergrads go to for career advice are professors, who would love to see their students go on to become professors like themselves! It may be well-intentioned, but it’s certainly not the most helpful.

    There are many many disgruntled grad students, I agree. And it’s sad. At least those who leave a science PhD program for another path didn’t dig themselves into a financial hole, like they would’ve in the humanities or in med school. And hopefully, they’re walking away with a better understanding of themselves, what they want, and hopefully some enhanced critical thinking and research skills that they can take with them onto their career path of choice.

    One other thing I think needs fixing is people shouldn’t feel like they’re failures who have dropped out of life just because they decided the PhD wasn’t for them. I feel like that’s the general sentiment in academic settings and it’s not healthy.

  6. After thinking about it, I guess maybe 30-50% is a more accurate number… it depends on the sub-division of chemistry. Generally synthetic organic chemists tend to be very depressed because of the workaholic and publish-or-perish mentality. Apparently biologists have a pretty terrible environment as well, though in a different way.

    I completely agree that people who leave the program shouldn’t feel like they are losers. The unfortunate reality is that sometimes it is X years down the drain, in that that time could have been spent being happy, or furthering your career, etc… which is why I feel it is so important to accurately inform undergrads of the reality.
    I certainly don’t look down upon those who drop out, and in some cases it takes balls to make the decision.

  7. I think a better name than ‘permadoc’ is needed.