Digital publication - Page 12

a conversation

It’s Time to Own Your Postdoc Training

Doom and Gloom! Pyramid Scheme! These half-joking sentiments capture the current mood for many starting scientists. Putting hyperbole and whining aside for the moment, reality has taken a bite out of the promise that years of hard work as a trainee will result in a faculty appointment. The reasons are numerous and include a doubling of STEM graduate students in the last twenty years that outstrips the demand for new professors (1). Additionally, 156,000 U.S. pharmaceutical jobs were eliminated between 2009-2013 just as budget sequestration deeply cut NIH funding (2). The Biomedical Workforce Working Group in 2012 identified the market effect of producing too many Ph.D. trained scientists - “the numbers of positions available for biomedical Ph.D.s that take advantage of their long training is less than the number of Ph.D.s produced each year.” These findings are troubling our national leaders. For instance, the NIH Director, Francis Collins, shared his misgivings about budget sequestration - “I worry desperately this means we will lose a generation of young scientists, ” (3). One should wonder what this will mean for the long-term stability of the biomedical research enterprise. Prominent scientists such as Bruce Alberts (former head of the National Academy of Sciences) and colleagues have demanded that “[we] confront the dangers at hand,” (4). The questions are, how do we strategically address these issues, and where did the training pipeline become uncoupled from long-term sustainability?

As intended, the postdoc training period provides a valuable expansion of the skills and concepts one needs to succeed as a laboratory head. In exchange for mentored guidance and resources, postdocs conduct a significant portion of a laboratory’s research. Increasingly, however, postdocs substitute as a relatively cost-effective workforce when compared to higher paid staff scientists. Because of the swelling numbers of postdocs there is substantial leverage on the part of employers in both academia and industry. New entrants in industry are increasingly expected to not only have an advanced graduate degree, but also additional training as a postdoc. To be clear, Congressional budget cuts have a negative effect on the career prospects of young scientists, but longer-term sustainability will require national reform of training. Bruce Alberts, for example, calls for reforms that include limiting the number of new trainees, increasing postdoctoral pay, and increasing the number of more highly paid staff scientist positions in academia (4). These reforms would likely reduce the workforce, but could also slow the rate of scientific progress as fewer people are available to cost-effectively conduct the research. This trade-off might be uncomfortable for many, but we should keep in mind that the primary purpose of a postdoc is to become an independent leader. Thus it will be necessary to reform postdoctoral training to better suit the actual career needs of the youngest generation.

A Conversation

with Dean J. Larry Jameson

While national reform efforts are underway, a postdoc should strategize now for success. To this end, Dr. J. Larry Jameson, Dean of the Perelman School of Medicine, shares his perspective on the evolving landscape of science and how postdoctoral researchers can best position themselves for success. The key takeaway message Dr. Jameson emphasizes is the importance of networking. He notes that the focus of a researcher can be very laboratory-specific.

herefore, postdocs need to augment their research through networking outside of their primary group, thus exposing themselves to new concepts and methodologies.

Furthermore, science requires collaboration and cross-disciplinary approaches, and trainees can expect that they are likely to reinvent themselves throughout their careers.

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By Zev Einhorn, Ph.D.

einhornz@mail.med.upenn.edu

Image Credit: Creative Commons / Public Domain Pictures