Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Future Is Ours: Make Your Voices Heard, Postdocs!

Back in undergrad I would have never imagined in 11 years I would become a postdoc. At the time, I did not know that postdocs existed. It was not until recently that I discovered that the person who mentored me during my summer research project was a postdoc. So what is this mysterious postdoc?

The National Postdoctoral Association’s definition of a postdoc is: “an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring scholarly, scientific and/or professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.” 1

This sounds like a fantastic position! If this is what a postdoc is supposed to be then why does the rest of the world not know more about us?

Sadly, the answer is that reality falls short of the expectations on paper. 

Jorge Cham of PhD comics said it right. 2 A postdoc is like limbo where more times than not we are biding our time until we figure out what to do with our lives. 

You might be thinking that this is some overdramatic feeling. Everyone hates their job at one point or another. It cannot be that bad, right?


As Kendall Powell reported, postdocs are overcrowded and underpaid. 3 How can such a large workforce make almost half of the salary that non-postdoc person? Perhaps it is a case of supply and demand where the supply of postdocs is so great that people can toss out tinier wages due to resource competition.

By this point, you might ask why postdocs are putting up with this garbage. Postdocs should walk away from this lifestyle and find more jobs! That would be nice, except for the fact that majority of academic labs are still pushing for scientists to go the route of being a Principal Investigator. It is like an apprenticeship, where the master teaches the student to become like them and carry the torch of research. That would be nice except that…

Alberts et al., have shown that the number of young investigators becoming Principal Investigators and securing grant funding for their labs are on the decline. 4 Perhaps this is one reason why people have been doing postdocs over 10 years. People are hungry for a position but the reality of it is that jobs in academia are too far and few in between. There are plenty of jobs in other sectors such as industry, government, and non-profits where their skills acquired during their PhD and postdoc could be applied. However, many PhDs are lacking the training and mentoring to know how to look for those jobs, let alone land them. The postdoc is truly stuck in limbo waiting for their big escape.

And thus the postdoc remained unheard of…until now.

Organizations like the National Postdoctoral Association advocate for the better treatment of postdocs. Amongst other things, they have helped fight for higher pay, recognition of postdocs at institutions, capping the training period to 5 years, and encourage the mentoring and training needed to successfully transition postdocs into a variety of careers.

Nationwide, there is a movement called the Future of Research 5 where these issues and more are being brought to light. Symposia organized by postdocs themselves are being launched in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Chicago.

This is where we need your voices postdocs!

Let us change how the world sees postdocs so that we will no longer remain invisible. A postdoc should be a training period that will aid in developing the skills to pursue any career that he or she wants. It is our responsibility as postdocs now to ensure that future generations of postdocs get treated with respect and this training is a viable option for undergraduates and graduate students to consider.

Because I am a postdoc in the Midwest, I want to spread the word about our local Future of Research Symposium in Chicago is happening on October 29, 2015, from 8:00 am – 5:30 pm. 6

FORChicago will be a one-day series of panel discussions and participant-led workshops with the aim to:
  • Illuminate the fundamental challenges in training scientists in today’s research climate
  • Propose solutions to equip the STEM postdoctorate to be leaders in diverse paths of the future career landscape
  • Initiate a dialogue with key stakeholders in the Chicago area about embracing the rich community of PhD-trained talent as drivers of innovation
Registration for the event is now open: http://futureofresearch.org/chicago/

I know I will be there. Will you?

If you are a postdoc, know postdocs, or are an advocate for postdocs please spread the word.


Written by Natasha Wadlington, Postdoctoral Scholar at the University of Chicago. 

Opinions stated are of my own belief and not directly associated with the organizations and people mentioned in this article. All images are from their respective references listed above.