Postdocs: a shadow workforce?

An article was published on this week focusing on the plight of postdocs trying to get jobs in academia: “Too Few University Jobs For America’s Young Scientists.” Have you read it? Here’s an excerpt:

“By definition, a postdoc is temporary, mentored training where you are supposed to acquire professional [experience] in order to pursue a career of your own choosing,” Hubbard-Lucey says, “the key word being temporary.”

But increasingly these low-paying temporary jobs can stretch on for years. “Many people go on to do many postdocs,” she says.

That’s because if you want a career in academia, it’s almost essential as a postdoc to make a splashy discovery and get the findings published in a top scientific journal. Hubbard-Lucey is working on an experiment that she hopes will be her ticket to a professorship — or at least to an interview for an academic job.

Whether she succeeds or not, she’s part of a shadow workforce made up of highly qualified scientists who work long hours for comparatively little pay, considering their level of education: about $40,000 a year.

American science couldn’t survive without this shadow labor force of some 40,000 postdocs. But only about 15 percent will get tenure-track jobs, heading a lab like the one where Hubbard-Lucey works today.

The theme of struggling scientists has been making the news a lot lately. Here’s another interesting article called, “When Scientists Give Up.

Have you been talking about these topics with your friends and colleagues? What do you think? Discuss in the comments!



  1. Comment sent in by Wadim Kapulkin:
    Francis Collins (NIH director, at the USHR) being questioned on related
    matters —

    @ 2:17:30 important point on young investigators and notes the
    ‘unnecessary postdoctoral years’ … ( …’it will take decades to reverse
    that trend’… )

    … sad and unfortunately true — difficult times all around the world ,
    as somebody said

  2. The very low rate of 15% (of Ph.D.s getting a permanent job in research) is probably even undercut by the German academic system, e.g. in astrophysics where Germany produces ~ 100 Ph.D.s per year (!) but there are only very few professor (or equivalent at Max-Planck-Institutes) positions advertised in the same timeframe. Other than becoming professor there is essentially no career in academic research in Germany, i.e. the “Mittelbau” (perhaps comparable to lecturer in the UK?) does not exist anymore.

    The only positive consequence one can take from this: Be aware that your time in research is limited, enjoy it as much as you can and set yourself a limit as to when you want to leave if you don’t get tenure.

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