STEM postdoc researchers are highly trained, but for what?

December 9, 2014 by Gary Mcdowell, The Conversation
All dressed up with nowhere to go? Credit: Joe Hall

The STEM fields of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics supposedly suffer from a shortage of graduates. Conventional wisdom says there's no one for employers to hire for science and engineering jobs. This STEM shortage myth has even figured in the immigration debate in the US.

But look again. There are actually plenty of STEM graduates; the US is just training them the wrong way. It's true there are many professional STEM vacancies but there are also many STEM grads who could fill them. The problem is the current training pipeline doesn't direct graduates to these non-academic jobs.

STEM students aren't prepped for the professional world. Instead, they are guided toward an academic workforce that has expanded through a dramatic rise in the number of graduate students and postdoctoral researchers. Graduate researchers and postdocs – that is, researchers with PhDs carrying out advanced research – are part of the academic career track originally designed to lead to tenured academic research positions. As renowned engineer Vannevar Bush advised President Truman in 1945, while advocating for the creation of a National Science Foundation:

The plan should be designed to attract into science only that proportion of the youthful talent appropriate to the needs of science in relation to the other needs of the nation's high priority.

However, the number of permanent – that is, tenured – jobs has not increased since that time, leading to hyper-competition and a massive pool of postdocs. Junior researchers are shamed by a culture that perceives leaving academia as a betrayal. Colloquially non-academic jobs are referred to as "alternative" careers. But when only 10% of PhD students end up in tenured positions, the term "alternative" is highly misleading.

Training relevant to other career tracks is either not forthcoming or culturally discouraged. And there's not even adequate training for the managerial responsibilities academic researchers will be saddled with – if they're lucky enough to secure an academic position. Practical science, and the accumulation and publication of data is where training is directed.

Postdocs joining forces

A group of Boston postdocs, led by Jessica Polka and Kristin Krukenberg at Harvard Medical School, organized the Future of Research Symposium to bring graduate students and postdocs together to discuss these problems facing young academics and to come up with potential solutions. Attendees outlined the position of junior scientists in Boston and proposed a wide range of possible solutions in the categories of connectivity, transparency and investment.

Comparison of before and after concrete benefits of unionization in CA. Credit: Cain et al. How postdocs benefit from building a union, Author provided
Connectivity

Graduate students and postdocs should talk. Being a postdoc can be a lonely business. Most postdocs are from abroad and move out of their former networks to entirely new regions, so there are both social and academic reasons for greater connection between scientists.

These junior scientists must interact with institutions, making use of councils and postdoctoral associations, to ensure adequate training and benefits are provided. They should connect with learned societies and nominate themselves for committees that include young scientists, to make their voices heard.

Organizations including the National Association of Graduate-Professional Students and National Postdoctoral Association allow nationwide interactions. Postdocs in the University of California system have unionized, and junior scientists around the country have noted the resultant benefits, which include greater connectivity throughout the community across different campuses.

Transparency

Nobody knows how many postdocs there are in the US; this is unacceptable. The National Institutes of Health only recently began tracking researchers on training grants. Institutions should monitor how many junior scientists they have and their career outcomes and make this data available.

Junior scientists lack career awareness: they need to wise up to career realities. But also institutions must be transparent about career outcomes of their trainees. We must stop telling all PhD students they will become academics; most won't.

Investment

We postdocs don't necessarily want more money. Doubling of the NIH budget in 2003 led to this crisis in the first place. Instead we call for more funding of graduate students and postdocs through training grants that give more power to the junior scientists to develop their own careers.

Graduate students currently need permission from their advisors to graduate; I know many who have been trapped in the lab by advisors reluctant to let go of students when they're most productive. In the UK, my PhD was funded by a training grant: my advisor had no way to delay my graduation and indeed there was a limit of four years to submission before the funding council would actually impose penalties on future grant applications. These measures ensure security for students in their training timelines.

Continuing the conversation

This is a worldwide problem. In a report examining the culture of scientific research, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics revealed that out of 100 PhD , 30 will get postdoctoral positions, and 4 will end up with permanent academic research positions in the UK, showing that the situation is even worse than in the US, with an added bottleneck at the PhD to postdoc transition. And this is not just a science problem: there are increasing numbers of postdocs, and particularly adjunct faculty, in the humanities.

Public money is being wasted by directing people towards nonexistent jobs. If junior scientists aren't going to be trained for non-academic careers during PhD and postdoctoral research, the number of people in the system simply must be reduced. However, if we accept that PhDs and postdocs can and should be trained for other career paths, then we can produce highly-skilled professionals with analytical and communication skills, able to influence technology, policy and business to the benefit of society.

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15 comments

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Squirrel
not rated yet Dec 10, 2014
Worse than this, science is getting trashed. To get those few jobs, a postdoc has to kill the broad minded scientist for the narrow subfield subsubfield .. specialist one. The science of little bits gets well mined but the broader one that filled the minds of earlier scientists is an empty unexplored house.
rfsee
not rated yet Dec 10, 2014
For an article about STEM areas, I don't see much in the way of numbers to prove the author's point. Are post-docs actually having trouble getting good jobs? I suspect this varies widely by field, as do many of the points made in the article. Yes, some research directors have a strong bias toward academia, but is it actually the case (as the author implies) that private-sector jobs are going unfilled because students are waiting around for academic positions? A narrative, no matter how much it may resonate with researchers in some areas, is no substitute for quantified analysis.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2014
Public money is being wasted by directing people towards nonexistent jobs.

I'm not sure that 'wasted' is a proper term here. Those postdocs _are_ the ones who do a lot of the research (for very little pay). If they are immeditely directed away towrads the industry you lose that.
And research does pay off for society very handsomely compared to the expenditure.

It's just the nature of doing science as a PhD student or postdoc that what you end up with is rarely in a immeditely marketable state (that'd be engineering).
Your focus lies on getting that result. I'm not sure that there is ample time to do additional training for those 'alternative' jobs. I certainly wouldn't have had the time to spare for something like that.
RGHicks
5 / 5 (3) Dec 10, 2014
The problem goes deeper than that. I used to be a scientist but left the field when it finally sunk in that a vow of poverty was part of the package. I didn't want big money, but I expected a livable wage.

The difficulty here is that the scientific infrastructure has become addicted to the cheap labor provided by graduate students and post-docs. You can't get them off the sauce. The reason most post-docs in the US are not American nationals is two-fold: Americans know they can't live on what they are going to be paid and graduate institutions have literally a limitless supply of applicants from third world countries to exploit. This in turn is trashing American science and leaving us with a skills gap that ironically co-exists with a massive glut.

STEM in general has been oversold. The "shortage" has been manufactured to justify the importation of guest workers which is commoditizing highly skilled work to burger-flipper salary scales. Its a mess.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Dec 10, 2014
I used to be a scientist but left the field when it finally sunk in that a vow of poverty was part of the package

Same here. Being a post doc is not a tenable position for making a living. And job security is next to non-existent (fail to catch a grant and you're out..and getting back in is almost impossible). The low pay and lack of prospects is not a problem particular to the US, but everywhere.

Then you go hunting for research/development jobs in the industry. But I have to agree with the article: it still feels like 'second best'. Industry development is always driven by: least cost for biggest gain on the market. under those conditions 'research' invariably means ultra conservative approaches leading to micro-invention blown out of proportion by PR hype.
RGHicks
5 / 5 (2) Dec 10, 2014
Thanks for the feedback antialias - I got my degree later in life than most (abut 8 years older than the average Ph.D.) and felt the continuing would have been financially impossible. When I had entered the doctoral program I knew that industry was probably my only option due to my age. But the bottom pretty much fell out of everything while I was in the pipeline. The bottom line is this: If the public wants INVENTION, not just microsteps that lead nowhere, then it has to FUNDED and the people doing the work to be properly paid. Industry has to make a profit, and that's fine, but it needs to be balanced and buttressed by a substantial foundation of basic research. We are rapidly eating through our seed corn. Just wait until the people who slashed budgets start wondering why we don't have antibiotics for superbugs....Uh...you don't FUND it, we can't research it...duh.
antialias_physorg
4 / 5 (4) Dec 11, 2014
Thanks for the feedback antialias - I got my degree later in life than most (abut 8 years older than the average Ph.D.)

So did I. Was working for a research institute. When the time on the contract ran out I switched to a 'regular job' (non-science related). That got boring really fast so I decided to sashay (marvellous word) over to a university and grab a PhD. Just on a "oh-well: let's see if I can do it"-whim.

There's still quite a bit of research going on at universities, but nowadays it's mostly company funded (they twigged to the fact that PhD students work 60 hours plus weekends for low pay - something they would never get out of their employees).

I'm concerned that this 'short horizon' research will leave us floundering at some point. Basic research is required on a continual basis to keep feeding new ideas into (marketable) research. And that is being neglected sorely. Everywhere.
Selena
Dec 11, 2014
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Selena
Dec 11, 2014
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antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2014
because they do utilize them as a cheap labor force - even for teaching

Teaching is part of being a PhD student and a postdoc. That's where the word 'doctor' comes from: (from the latin 'docere', which means 'to teach').

And let's not forget that a PhD student - if he survives the time and gets some real research done - does get something out of the deal: A degree.
A degree can be worth a bit of money on the job market. For some jobs it's even a prerequisite.
The professors at universities get research out of their PhD students/postdocs (which is part of THEIR job). So for PhD it is essentially a fair deal.

Postdocs could see their low pay as a investment until they have a decent shot at tenure. But today that is no longer the case. The investement doesn't pay off anymore in most cases.

Once state research funding was cut and companies had to be begged for money things started to go awry.

antialias_physorg
3.7 / 5 (3) Dec 11, 2014
The basic researchers are blocking the cold fusion and antigravity findings for decades:

You're free to do your research on this. As far as the announcements go neither needs any more research because the proponents claim it already works (and/or that they already have viable products for sale). So you're barking up the wrong tree here.

If you feel that you can do research on this go to kickstarter and raise some funds. Or go to companies and ask them for a research grant. No one is stopping you.

then they do waste their time at public forum?

What I do in my spare time is my business. You troll multiple public forums. So you should be very careful lest someone paints the 'hypocrit' sign on you even larger than it already exists.
Vietvet
5 / 5 (2) Dec 11, 2014
I don't have a STEM background but the problems discussed here are part of a wider problem. The stress investors place on quarterly returns and not long range growth, plus anti-science politicians pushing for more and evermore spending cuts should take most of the blame.

PS: I was an honor student in high school and my first college major was biology--until I took a geology class---then Vietnam came calling and changed the trajectory of my life. I've got add that ageism is rife in every field but judging by the experience of my friends and family with a STEM background it is particularly bad.
imido
Dec 11, 2014
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antialias_physorg
5 / 5 (3) Dec 12, 2014
What I say about it is my business also.

Sure. But you make youreself look like an idiot doing so. Just sayin'.

I'm not getting the money of tax payers for it with compare to professional scientists.

They're not getting money off taxpayers either these days. Purely taxpayer driven research has become sparse to non-existent. You always have companies on board that fund part of the work.

But why don't you go get a degree and find out? Then you can do all that research "off taxpayer money" yourself. Or are you afraid that you'd be among the many PhD droputs and have to admit that you're not half as smart as you think you are?

They should research the phenomena, which they don't understand - not just these ones, which they do like.

Hint: Scientists specialize. Extremely. If you think you can ask any scientist to "research this" then you're so far removed from reality it isn't even funny.
ryggesogn2
not rated yet Dec 12, 2014
I work in an organization where ~67% of the staff have PhDs. Most are NOT doing research for which they earned their PhDs (all STEM).
Likely because their work was obscure and likely because they were bored with the work and were interested in new challenges.
As their careers advance their choices are becoming subject matter experts and/or functional and project managers.
The PhD has more meaning as showing the capability of learning, not just what one has learned.

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