Postdoc Now, Think Later

New study argues science Ph.D.s often plan for postdocs without considering whether they're necessary or beneficial to their career plans. Actual evidence is mixed.

May 6, 2016
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Every postdoctoral fellow has probably heard a “permadoc” joke or two, making light of the increasingly long stints recent Ph.D.s spend in such positions. But has the postdoc become the default for graduates -- even for those for whom it doesn’t necessarily make sense? Has it become a holding pattern rather than a bridge to more permanent work?

A new study in Science by two business professors suggests that’s the case and calls for increased attention to career planning among students, mentors, graduate schools and those funding postdocs. That’s not just during graduate school, but before one even applies.

“We find that challenging labor markets encourage rather than discourage students to invest in postdoctoral training,” the study says. “While this seems logical if students are strongly committed to a particular career, it provides an individual-level explanation for why the supply of postdocs does not decrease despite low demand for full-time researchers, potentially contributing to persistent labor market imbalances.”

“Why Pursue the Postdoc Path?” was written by Henry Sauermann, an associate professor of strategic management at Georgia Institute of Technology and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and Michael Roach, the J. Thomas and Nancy W. Clark Assistant Professor of Entrepreneurship at Cornell University. For their study, they surveyed nearly 6,000 Ph.D. students, mostly in the natural sciences, at 39 research-intensive U.S. universities in 2010 and again in 2013, after many had graduated. They focused their questions on career goals, information about labor market demand and proxies for ability or talent to see what was -- or wasn’t -- informing their plans to seek out postdocs.

About 37 percent of the sample were enrolled in the biological or life sciences, 27 percent in engineering, 14 percent in physics, 11 percent in chemistry, and 10 percent in computer science.

In 2010, nearly 80 percent of students in the biological or life sciences planned a postdoc, compared to about half in the other fields. The researchers asked students to ignore job availability and rate the attractiveness of different academic and nonacademic career paths. Students planning a postdoc were more likely to have academic career goals, but were not necessarily looking for research-oriented faculty jobs. And that’s surprising, since postdocs aren’t widely considered stepping-stones to non-research-oriented faculty careers.

It seems some misinformation is to blame; 78 percent of respondents in the life sciences and 42 percent in other fields believed that at least one year of postdoc training was required for a Ph.D.-level research and development position in their field. Yet there’s little empirical evidence to suggest that’s true, according to the study.

While limited job availability may discourage Ph.D.s from taking on relatively low-paid postdoc training, poor job markets may also encourage students to pursue a postdoc to boost their chances at finding work. Whatever the case, the study found no systematic relationship between perceived academic job availability and postdoc plans. But students’ beliefs about how many years as a postdoc are required for a full-time position did strongly predict their postdoc plans.

Concerning the influence of ability or talent on postdoc plans, Sauermann and Roach guessed that those with greater talent and therefore a higher likelihood of securing an eventual full-time position faced a lower risk of “wasting” time as a postdoc and would be more likely to plan one. Evidence suggests that might be true. Using three proxies for talent -- respondents’ peer-reviewed publications, fellowships from a federal agency and their Ph.D. program’s National Research Council ranking -- the researchers determined that life scientists with higher scores were more likely than their peers with lower ones to plan a postdoc. The dynamic was consistent in other fields.

Central to Sauermann and Roach’s argument, 62 percent of life sciences students and 56 percent of their peers in other fields reported having thought about their careers to a great extent, and those who had thought more about their careers were less likely to plan a postdoc -- especially in the life sciences. Foreign students who were unsure about whether or not they wanted to stay in the U.S. also were more likely to plan a postdoc.

“This may reflect that many students see a postdoc as the default until they explicitly consider their long-term career paths,” the study says. Interestingly, students’ self-perceptions about their own “persistence” also positively correlated with postdoc plans.

Career Outcomes

Of students who graduated by 2013, 74 percent took a postdoc in the life sciences, compared to 46 percent of those in other disciplines. The most frequent reason for doing so was “A postdoc increases the chance to get my desired job.” Those who hadn’t planned on doing a postdoc in 2010 but took one by 2013 most frequently reported having done so because they experienced difficulty finding another job.

“These patterns suggest that low demand for full-time researchers leads many students to plan postdoc training well before graduation, but also forces some into unplanned postdoc holding patterns afterwards,” the paper says. “The observed transitions into postdocs were likely facilitated by plentiful positions, and demand for postdoc trainees may have been particularly strong due to funding from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.”

Some 60 percent of life sciences postdocs said they took the position to obtain a tenure-track faculty job, compared to 51 percent of those in other fields. But just about 40 percent of respondents across disciplines said their single most desired career was a faculty job with a focus on research; the majority preferred other work. Postdocs in the life sciences also were statistically overconfident about their chances of securing tenure-track jobs.

Over all, however, just 4 percent of life sciences postdocs felt a severe lack of information about careers in academic research. They reported having much less knowledge about other kinds of work, though: 21 percent said they severely lacked information about government research jobs, compared to 34 percent for work in established firms, 42 percent for start-ups, and 44 percent for nonresearch careers.

Corresponding figures in other fields are not much lower, “suggesting that a significant share of junior scientists proceeded to the postdoc stage without sufficient information to evaluate nonacademic career options,” the study says.

Some of Sauermann and Roach’s findings parallel those in a major 2014 report from the National Academies arguing for more mentoring and better pay for postdocs. But the new study goes one step farther in its conclusion, saying that students shouldn’t just start thinking about their careers early in their academic programs but rather before they enter a Ph.D. program in the first place.

“Doing so may avoid escalating commitment to a research career and prevent individuals from entering a postdoc holding pattern,” the paper says. “Graduate schools may encourage career planning by requiring that applicants analyze different career options and justify why a Ph.D. is the most promising path forward. Funding agencies could implement similar requirements, especially in conjunction with moving a larger share of funding from research grants to training grants and individual fellowships.”

The study also calls for mentors, postdoc offices, professional associations and internships to give students more diverse and overall better information about potential careers.

“Just as importantly, students need to actively access and process the available information and seriously consider the implications for their own careers,” Sauermann and Roach reiterate.

Sauermann said via email that the study wasn't an argument against Ph.D. education or accepting a postdoc in a challenging academic job market, and that many other structural factors beyond individual career planning -- research funding and lab structures, to name a few -- are at play. But there’s value in understanding Ph.D.s’ and postdocs’ perspectives, he said, since “individuals are still the ones making certain kinds of decisions that lead them down certain paths.”

“I think that everybody who considers doing a Ph.D. should think about the subsequent steps as well, i.e., the potential need for a postdoc and the possibility of not getting a particular desired job (even with a postdoc),” he added. “Rather than thinking short term and going step by step (‘Let me do the Ph.D. first and then I’ll think about the next step’), long-term career planning is likely to result in better outcomes.”

For example, Sauermann said, a master’s degree may lead someone to work that is just as satisfying as what that person would find with a Ph.D.

Jessica Polka, a postdoctoral research fellow in systems biology at Harvard University, said the analysis rang true with her own experiences at a postdoc.

“I didn't seriously consider nontraditional careers until after I began my postdoc,” she said. “The decision to do a postdoc in the first place was motivated mostly by an ongoing infatuation with research.” Yet Polka said she agreed fully with the study “that more information presented earlier in training could help junior scientists make strategic career choices.”


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