Is it morally acceptable to hire postdocs?

I have trained dozens of Postdocs. One of them even got a faculty position.Since I started interviewing for faculty jobs, I had to seriously ponder on how I would run my potential future lab. One question in particular has been bothering me quite a lot. How many postdocs (if any) should I hire? This is what I would like to discuss here today. I will be deliberately provocative, but also probably quite naïve. So please, do share your thoughts and contradict me if you think I am wrong.

There are three principal dimensions to this question. The first dimension is of course the money: if you have money, you hire people; if you don’t, you can’t. Real decisions are made along the other dimensions.

The second dimension is productivity. Research labor comes primarily in two flavors: PhD students and postdocs. (I will discuss permanent researchers below; let’s focus on students and postdocs first.) Postdocs are more productive and more independent, but are also necessarily subject to less of principal investigator’s (PI) intellectual influence. Graduate students are less productive and less independent, but are subject to more influence and can be substantially cheaper. PhDs come in batches once a year and they are a pig in a poke: some may turn out to be brilliant, others not so much. Postdocs can be hired essentially at any time and are much more predictable. As a pragmatic PI, I would certainly hire more postdocs, if money were available. After all, a postdoc is the fastest, surest and the most cost-effective way to convert grant money into papers. So, is there any reason NOT to hire postdocs?

Unfortunately, there is the third dimension to this question. Is it moral to do so? The majority of postdocs (at least in my and closely related fields of biology) are people who themselves strive to become PIs after they leave their postdoctoral lab. So, when they join the lab, they implicitly or explicitly assume that the main payoff for their work will be their future faculty job. (Most postdocs certainly don’t work for their immediate compensation, which is rather small.) Here is the problem: Their assumption is wrong.

Let’s look at some data.

Number of PhDs and faculty jobs between 1982 and 2011

This is a figure from this paper published last year. There are two observations here. First, it shows that the number of annually awarded PhDs today is about 10 times higher than the number of annually opened faculty positions. In other words, the chance for freshly minted PhD to end up as a professor is about 10%. The infographic below made by a fellow Harvard postdoc Jessica Polka illustrates the same point very nicely. And here is another estimate that puts this chance at about 6%. These pieces of data should already be enough to conclude that that for a freshly minted PhD investing time into an postdoc is quite similar to “investing” money into gambling.

The second observation is that over the past 30 years the total number faculty positions stayed almost constant. This is very interesting if we think of academia as a reproducing population [1]: one generation of PIs “produces” the next generation of PIs. In population genetics people often model such reproducing population with the so-called Wright-Fisher model. One key feature of this model is that the total number of individuals in the population stays constant (for example because the available resources are limited). Every generation all individuals attempt to reproduce, but because the total population size cannot grow, each individual on average leaves only one surviving offspring. And this is almost exactly what happens in academia. The size of academia stays roughly constant, which means that the average PI will “produce” over their entire career only a single postdoc or graduate student who would become a PI him/herself.

Importantly, the distribution of offspring numbers in academia is far from being narrowly concentrated around 1. The majority of PIs do not leave any academic descendants at all, while a few especially fit PIs produce dozens (my PhD advisor Simon Levin is a spectacularly fit PI, for example). Leaving the causes for this variation aside, let’s consider a reasonably successful PI whose fitness is 5, which is well above the average and certainly something to strive for. If this PI plans to have, say, a 30-year career and to take, say, 1 PhD student and 1 postdoc per year on average, that’s 60 “attempted reproductions”. So, how likely is this PI’s next postdoc to be lucky enough to get a job? That’s about 8% chance. So, even for a postdoc who joins the lab of this quite successful PI, the a priori chances to achieve their goal of becoming a PI themselves are rather slim.

When I think about my potential future lab in this light, I can’t help but see my potential postdocs as people walking into a casino. And this would make me, the PI, very much like the owner of that casino, i.e., an institutions that in most cases collects the reward and sends the person home minus their cash. So, is this morally acceptable?

Where will a biology PhD take you?

Where will a biology PhD take you?

I have heard four types of answers to this question.

Answer #1. There is no problem. There are actually plenty of jobs out there. Good people always get jobs.

Answer #2. There is no problem. Postdocs are adults, they well know it’s a gamble and choose to do it anyway. Ultimately, it’s not my problem what happens to them after they leave my lab.

Answer #3. Yes, it’s a moral problem. But it’s a tough world where everyone has to fend for themselves. I need to make my career, so let the chips fall where they may.

Answer #4. Yes, it’s a moral problem, and I am trying to deal with it.

Although, I did not expect to hear answer number 1, it may be not so surprising in retrospect. It mostly comes from very successful PIs that (a) are superstars who have not had problems getting a job and (b) have succeeded, one way or another, in pushing their postdocs into jobs. So, from their perspective, the system works fine, and people who fail, fail for a reason. This answer also shows that this moral problem is substantially more severe for junior faculty whose ability to deliver on implicitly promised jobs for their postdocs is generally much weaker than that of senior big-name faculty.

Answers number 2 and 3 appear to be most common. Both of them amount to the same action, or rather lack of action, and support the current imbalanced state. The only difference is that the person in position 3 feels guilty whereas the person in position 2 does not. Either way, postdocs get hired and mostly fail to get faculty jobs themselves. The main problem with this position is how to look the prospective postdoc in the eye and convince them to work for you, despite your inability to land them into a job. This problem is similar to an apparent problem of how one would convince a person to go into the casino and gamble away their money? Naively, it seems that nobody should ever do this, knowing the odds. But a typical gambler does not know the odds! Likewise, most newly minted PhDs do not know their chances of getting a faculty job (info here and here, see also the infographic). And 90% of those who do know the odds honestly think that they belong to the successful 10%. So, the PI rarely even needs convincing, prospective postdocs come knocking on doors themselves. But for a PI who knows the odds, taking a naive postdoc is, in my view, immoral and amounts to little more than exploitation: the hired postdoc produces a benefit to the PI mostly for the promise of a future job that will likely not materialize.

Most people in category 4 that I met are themselves postdocs or very junior PIs just starting their own labs. So, what are the options for such people? I know of 4 possible options, maybe there are more.

1. Hire postdocs jointly with big-name senior PIs. This arrangement doesn’t really solve the main problem, but at least relieves the junior PI of the moral burden of overpromising to their prospective postdocs. With a big-name senior PI in the back, the chances for that postdoc to get a faculty job are somewhat higher.

2. Hire only brilliant postdocs who have a priori high chances to get a faculty job. This seems to be a reasonable but cruel strategy which favors people who are already on the “A train” and discriminates against people who were late to figure out what they want to do, even if they would have turned out to be brilliant given the chance. Moreover, it’s hard to recruit the A-trainers to a junior PI’s lab, especially if it is not in a top school.

3. Do not hire postdocs at all, run lab with graduate students only. This seems quite reasonable, although at the expense of productivity. One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options. So, in my view, most PhDs should not go onto the academic track. But in general having more educated people in the non-academic world is good, especially given how many people do not believe in evolution or what idiots oversee science in Congress. A more detailed discussion of this subject is a topic for another day.

4. Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem. Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience. Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done. A permanent researcher also becomes a great asset for the lab as they accumulate valuable skills.

To conclude this long post, I would like to leave you, the reader, with some questions. If you are a graduate student, ask yourself whether you really want to enter the academic track. Unless you are an A-trainer, are you willing to gamble on 3+ years of your life? If you are a postdoc aspiring to be a PI, how would you run your lab so that it is fair to people you hire? If you are a PI, do your postdocs work for the promise of a future faculty job? If so, do you think you are being fair to them? And given an estimate of your academic fitness from past experience, how many postdocs should you hire in the future to maintain fairness?


[1] I thank my colleague Wolfram Möbius for drawing my attention to this analogy

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53 responses

  1. Whereas much of what you write may be perfectly true in the US, I think you need to be very careful not to generalize to the entire world. I run a group at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark, and I must say the situation is quite different here.

    Firstly, the difference between Ph.D. students and postdocs is much smaller than in the US. This is in part because everyone must have a masters degree before starting on their Ph.D. here. Also, doing a postdoc does not in any way imply that you plan a career in academia: if you want to land a job in R&D of a biotech company, your chances are better with a postdoc than “just” a Ph.D. degree.

    Secondly, Ph.D. student and postdoc salaries are much, much higher in Denmark than in the US. You will of course earn more if you choose to go directly into industry after your Ph.D. than you do as a postdoc, but the difference is typically not dramatic. Postdocs thus actually get a fair salary for the work they perform rather than gambling on the big payoff later.

    Last but not least, I am completely open about the chances of becoming a PI. I talk to Ph.D. students and postdocs about their career plan. If they tell me their plan is to become a PI, I ask them what their other plan is.

    • Thanks for these clarifications on the European situation, which I don’t know much about. It is also true in the US that a postdoc is valued in biotech companies — I have deliberately slightly exaggerated the situation.

    • I do not know the situation in Denmark, but in Germany, the salary for a Postdoc is generally lower than the salary of a Postdoc in the US. And in the US, If a Ph.D goes to industry instead of doing postdoc, the salary is at least 1.5-2 times of a postdoc. But the situation is that even industry job is not easy to find, so some people have no choice but to do postdoc and look for industry job later. So for industry, when there are both fresh phds and postdocs, I think they prefer postdocs, right? So I think the really problem is that there are not enough jobs in both academic or industrial world.

      • The Ph.D. and postdoc salaries in Denmark are indeed higher than Germany too. So it is not just a US vs. Europe thing. Regarding enough or not enough jobs in academia and industry, I that is bound to depend very much on the field. I am in bioinformatics, so I suspect the situation that I see may be quite a bit more favorable than the general situation.

    • Are you sure those salaries are much, much higher? Perhaps it’s more your field, but in neuroscience, the wages actually seem a little higher in the US (and, notice that these are negotiable, generally not so in Europe), and the prices are much, much lower in the US. Of course, we don’t get such extremely high (after tax) wages around here (I’m also in Scandinavia), and can be happier with this egalitarian deal, so perhaps wages just don’t “feel” as low around here?

  2. Interesting thoughts and something I’ve thought about a lot as someone who is about to start their own lab. I’ll start with a disclaimer that I work in the UK the system is slightly different here.

    Firstly I disagree with your calculations on number if academic offspring. Each new PI had been through a PhD and maybe 3 postdocs. Thus each new PI has 4 academic parents, and thus will have on average 4 offspring rather than one. If a typical lab at a mid ranking school consists of 2 PhDs and two postdocs, each of which are there for an average of three years, that gives 40 attempted reproductions over 30 years. Meaning the average (for a run of Mill PI not a superstar) hit rate is 10%. A superstars hit rate might be much higher.

    Secondly, at least here, postdoc is a pretty good job in its own right. The pay is well above the national median, you get an awful lot of freedom in what you do with your time, and you get to do something you are passionate about. It might not be a job that will support a 50 year old with a family of four, but for a 25 or 30 year old without kids it’s a pretty good deal.

    Finally I disagree about the problem not being at the PhD level. Maybe with is a difference from the UK where our undergrad degrees are more indepth and our PhDs shorter, but I see little point in doing a PhD unless you have some idea you might want to take the academic route. That’s not to say people who after grad school decide something else is for them are failures, but I’m not sure that a PhD is much of a direct preparation for anything else, nor provides the sort of general education that make someone a better informed citizen.

    All that said, I think you are right that the long term solution is more staff scientists and permanent senior research fellows, but if they are just funded on grants, how is that any different from a postdoc? I’m sure if I have a good postdoc who wishes to stay after 3 years I’d jump at the chance. But it often doesn’t work out that way financially. Also what happens if the PI retires or quits or dies. The staff scientist is in trouble. He has no record of running his own group and his position has probably depended on the strong relationship built up with the PI.

    So in practical terms here is what I think. Hiring postdocs is less morally problematic than taking PhD students. You should always only take those postdocs that look like that are good enough to be a PI, but this must be judged on more than just their publication record up till that point or postdoc who explicitly want to make a career at the bench rather than in charge. It is better to have few people and to concentrate on them to give them the best possible chance than to expand as quickly as possible in the hope that someone will hit gold.

    • Secondly, at least here, postdoc is a pretty good job in its own right. The pay is well above the national median, you get an awful lot of freedom in what you do with your time, and you get to do something you are passionate about. It might not be a job that will support a 50 year old with a family of four, but for a 25 or 30 year old without kids it’s a pretty good deal.

      I think the salary is not the main problem. The main problem is the wasted opportunity. If you end up doing your career in industry anyway, the years in the postdoc stage are simply lost: you will just be that many years and that many thousands of dollars behind your peers who started that track right after PhD.

      Finally I disagree about the problem not being at the PhD level. Maybe with is a difference from the UK where our undergrad degrees are more indepth and our PhDs shorter, but I see little point in doing a PhD unless you have some idea you might want to take the academic route. That’s not to say people who after grad school decide something else is for them are failures, but I’m not sure that a PhD is much of a direct preparation for anything else, nor provides the sort of general education that make someone a better informed citizen.

      I do agree with you that MA is probably enough for most of the jobs outside of academia. In the US, dedicated MA programs in natural sciences seem to be rare or at least not well recognized. And yes, currently PhDs in the US are not well prepared for jobs outside of academia, but this I think can be changed very easily. The change is mostly psychological: there should be more active encouragement on the part of PIs to take courses and get experiences relevant to outside world rather than enouraging to spend 100% of time in the lab. PhDs have certainly much more freedom that postdocs do, at least in the US.

      All that said, I think you are right that the long term solution is more staff scientists and permanent senior research fellows, but if they are just funded on grants, how is that any different from a postdoc? I’m sure if I have a good postdoc who wishes to stay after 3 years I’d jump at the chance. But it often doesn’t work out that way financially. Also what happens if the PI retires or quits or dies. The staff scientist is in trouble. He has no record of running his own group and his position has probably depended on the strong relationship built up with the PI.

      I disagree here. The qualification of a research scientist is that he/she is a good researcher, with a track record of successfully carried out experiments, analyses and published papers. If the PI retires, they should be able to get another job of the similar level. There certainly are people like that, even in the US system. I think it does work out financially, you can just afford 1 such person instead of 1.5 postdocs.

  3. Hi Sergey,

    We already discussed this question in person but I will nonetheless add a few more ideas here:

    In general, I think that all PIs should have much smaller labs and hire both fewer grad students and fewer postdocs and be more involved in the research, not only the management and marketing. There are plenty of management and marketing jobs outside of academia for those so inclined. Smaller labs would mean lower Postdocs/PIs ratio and thus lower burden in figure 1.

    That being said, we definitely should hire and more importantly train postdocs. There are at least two sets of cases when this poses no moral burden on the PI, at least not one that I perceive so.
    1) I am under no illusion that academia is completelty mertoctractic but we have to strive for meritocracy and hope that at some level mert counts. If you recruit smart people who are curious and passionate for science and you spend time to help them and train them, they have a real shot even if they are not already on the train, or at least I hope/think so. As long as they clearly understand the odds (if not, you send them a link to your blog and talk to them), I see no moral problem. Maybe a practical problem but not a moral one. I personally would take the risk and even if I do not follow a PI career myself, I will have no regrets for having done a postdoc. It is a moral problem only when the PI does not hold their end of the bargain and help the postdocs grow scientifically (not just pushing them into a job). That would be a problem even without the hypercompetitive PI-jobs market.

    2) Some people want a postdoc experience without the intention of following an academic career.
    2.1 It is rare, but I have met excellent PhDs (usually from Western Europe) who want to have an industry career but before that they want to experience another country or the freedom to do research without much pressure.
    2.2 While for you and me and many others, a postdoc is the lowest paying job that we can get, that is not true for a huge number of applicants from China for whom getting a postdoc in a western country may already be a jump up in their paycheck, social status and standard of living. Even if their these candidates do not get a PI job in the west (at least some of the do), they may get a PI job in the rapidly growing academia in China. In general they are in a much better position to get any job after their postdoc experience. Hiring such postdocs might be a huge problem but not a moral one.

    I have more to say but that is already getting too long so I will stop and reserve the rest for the next time I see you !

    • Nikolai,

      Regarding #1: This is an idealistic and honest position, and I like it. If you see a potential in your perspective postdoc and you make sure that he/she understands the odds, and he/she still wants to do it, I guess it’s okay.

      Regarding #2.1: This is not a problem at all. If somebody wants to do a postdoc in my lab and then move on to another job, that’s fine.

      Regarding# 2.2: It’s less of a problem, although the markets in China and India are getting close to saturation as well, at least at top places.

  4. I add that the underlying problem here in the US that the creation of top level intellectual jobs have not kept pace with the education level and aspirations of the work force. We now have more people graduating with a college degree than ever before, and as Sergey says, having an educated public is always something to strive for. As there are more undergraduate degrees awarded, it is only natural then that there will be a larger number of people seeking higher degrees. Given the sorry state of undergraduate education here, and the workloads we know academics to be under, it is evident that we have not expanded and invested in the number of teaching and research positions accordingly.

    Now the matter of whether to get a higher degree and what to do with it. I have spoken with people who have actually confessed to hiding the Ph.D qualification from their CVs when seeking certain jobs outside Academia – because of the higher pay grade, it can actually be a liability. Also, depending on your field, a postdoc may or may not be required to go further. So in the social sciences, it is my understanding that many go on directly to tenure track jobs, whereas in biology it is now becoming more typical to complete at least 2 different positions. Is this a gamble? It could be, if your aim is narrow. But personally, I am better off with the opportunities, experiences and skills I have gained as during my postdoc years – whether or not I finally end up as an academic. The postdoc has effectively bought me time to explore lots of different options, expand my professional network, and really figure out what I’m interested in, and I feel my options are certainly much wider now than they were soon after I graduated. So I would disagree that having a Ph.D widens your options while a postdoc constrains them, though this might be a minority view.

    I think the situation described in this post has to do with a relatively narrow spectrum of the academic world (which may amount to a lot of individuals numerically in terms of PIs) which relies on postdocs and graduate students for the labor to actually do research which they themselves do not have the time to do, since being a PI basically means being a manager and administrator. In such cases I think this is an accurate characterization of a problem which is indeed a moral issue.

    • What I am posing as a problem definitely does not concern every single sector of academic jobs. And even in the biomedical sector that I am mostly referring to, not every postdoc strives to be a PI. For some (small) fraction of people a postdoc is a good opportunity to try out new things or develop skills necessary outside of academia. But I do think this problem is relevant to the majority of junior faculty in the biomedical sector.

  5. What happened to the more pragmatic option of 5) Hire postdocs at a reasonable salary (and postdoc salaries even in US life sciences aren’t terrible), treat them as members of a lab rather than as subservients, train them so that the 3 years or whatever is a useful period for both working and learning, and support them should they leave your lab for jobs outside of academia. There’s a moral problem if as a PI you hire postdocs then treat them like slaves, which seems to be pretty common in lifesciences, and a moral problem if at an institutional level there’s too little support for postdocs looking for training opportunities or future employment, which is also all too common. But, to my mind anyway, there isn’t a problem in hiring postdocs just because they may not get academic jobs. Although, outside of big collaborations, astrophysics tends to give postdocs better pay and more independence.

    I certainly recognise the challenge of recruiting top people and providing high impact references when you’re starting as junior faculty. I worry about reference name recognition especially. That’s a really hard problem to solve and I think your suggestion of co-supervising is a good one.

    • If a person from the outset aims at getting a job outside of academia and wants to do a 3-year postdoc in your lab to get additional experience, it’s great! I have no problem with that. Option #5 it is.

  6. This is an important topic and I am glad to see it addressed so directly. I am a new PI approaching the one year mark, and I take position 4. My solutions/thoughts so far:
    1. I hired two permanent researcher positions as technicians/research associates. One is a BS + 8 years experience and the other is MS + 5 years experience. Because they don’t have PhDs their salaries are affordable (low postdoc range). For 90% of technical things that need to be done in the lab, they are as good or better than a grad student/new postdoc. It means I assume more of the writing and planning responsibilities for these projects.
    2. I will not hire a postdoc until I have more mentoring experience with graduate students. My one exception is if a A-trainer comes wanting to learn a specific system/technique in which I am expert.
    3. I can imagine an exception for PhDs who want non-TT jobs and also want to expand a certain skill set. This woulds be quid pro quo, i.e. the PI sponsors this advanced training in exchange for them pushing forward a specific project or generating specific data. This seems reasonable for a larger lab.
    4. The root problem is probably not that there aren’t enough PI jobs. It is that we train too many people. It is arbitrary to say the problem is too many postdocs rather than too many PhD students. A PhD isn’t and shouldn’t be required for most jobs. Yet we don’t want to be too limiting on the aspirations of a 22 year old aspiring scientist. Certainly it is moral to give them the information on success rates. But without limiting the number of PhDs granted, don’t we revert to position 2 or 3? So the question becomes is what is an acceptable level of attrition at each level?

    • I like your strategy.

      Regarding #4. PhD students should be informed when entering grad school about where they will end up, with solid stats. I certainly plan to do that if I get a lab. In general, advisors certainly should not encourage the thought that a PhDs = academic scientist. Labs should be smaller (see comment above by Nikoloai), but don’t know how to enforce this w/o institutional changes. I also agree that probably more people should be sent home with MA rather than PhD reducing the burden on the downstream processes.

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  8. For me, the crux of the problem is just touched upon towards the end of the article. “Rather than hiring a short-term postdoc by dangling a future faculty job in front of them, it is far more fair to hire a researcher permanently with a salary and benefits adequate to their experience.” The gap between available faculty jobs and number of PhDs produced is not the problem – it is a situation that arose out of other societal trends and poses no direct problem. This situation has been blatantly abused by many PIs nearly in silent conspiracy to create the problem illustrated in the preceding quoted statement. The “power of the seller” that many PIs have makes them hire temporary, cheap labor in form of post-docs. This – is the moral issue I see here.

    Students who want to do science/research for the love of it, for familial reasons (like a spouse doing science), or to be a PI later have no choice but to accept the low paying, temporary job. Note that becoming PIs in the future is certainly not the only, or maybe the primary, reason for students choosing to do post-docs (I myself want to do one not because I want to be a PI in the future). And let me emphasize that post-docs are much cheaper than students in most US universities (depending on the structure of where the money comes from), given that the stipend+tuition of students add upto more than $60k per year in most US universities. For this reason, faculty members run decade long projects using post-docs in sequence.

    A solution is the recognition of this “power of seller” and not take post-doc jobs unless they are paid in full (on par with researcher positions) and assured a longer term (obviously without guaranteed tenure). This solution works – take a look at fields like information science, communications, etc. in Electrical Engineering (I’m familiar with this because of my colleagues). Post-doc training is rarely used and faculty members are hired right after a PhD, atleast for sure if the student is from a good US university. This solved the moral issue to a great extent and resurrects the dignity of “PhD labor”; but this has created another issue – mediocre folks getting hired into faculty positions they are hardly a fit to. These folks in turn hiring a bunch of more mediocre PIs, right after their PhD, for, they have no measure of the sustained impact of the researcher/student. This is clearly evidenced in these fields not being represented over the last few decades in many of the general forums whenever the best ideas in scientific research are showcased.

    • I think thats a bit harsh on PIs. If a grant giving body awards you a grant to hire someone on grade 6 for three years, you can hardly go off and hire someone at grade 8 on a permanent contract. For long-term contracts to work, either they would have to be funded by the university, or granting bodies would have to make a commitment to support PIs for longer than the usual 3-5 years at a time.

      Postdocs cost universities nothing, because with a very few exceptions (like “departmental postdocs” at some ivy league institutions) they are entirely funded by grants. In fact departments make a profit on them in terms of the overheads they take. In the UK the same applies to PhD students: studentships, including living costs, tuition fees and “bench fees” are funded by the research councils – universities make a profit on them. Its possible that some of the very top institutions could afford to fund some researchers directly, but not so for mid-ranking places.

      The whole system would have to change (not a bad thing, but not something one PI can do alone) – at the moment the opposite is happening, at least here, with more and more PIs having to fund their own salaries out of a succession of 3-5 year fellowships and grants.

      Where I know people who work in fields where people are hired directly from PhD to “faculty”, they are generally hired as teachers, and research is something they do in their spare time. There is generally no tenure on offer here and salaries look more like postdoc salaries than what a biologist would recognise as a faculty salary. Granted most people I know like this are in the humanities, I’m don’t really know anyone in the sciences in this situation.

    • I guess one major problem (which I did not recognize in full because my PhD is not in biology) that it is actually quite hard to get a non-postdoc job with a biology PhD (see comments by Quincey and Mary below). So, yes, people go to do biology postdocs not because they want to be PIs but because there is nowhere else to go. And I don’t even know whether this is better or worse than doing a postdoc with the desire to be PI and not getting it. In this case, the seller has no power, really.

  9. Thank you for a very interesting post. Just a quick question – you write, “Although the current funding system is not particularly suitable for this [hiring permanent researchers] – obviously, permanent researchers should be paid by the university not by grants – it can be done.” Do you have examples of how this can be done? It sounds like a great solution but I have trouble seeing the possibilities in practice, especially for junior PIs. Thanks!

  10. In physics, a newly-minted Ph.D. could find fulfilling work without a postdoc. Not so in biology. Unfortunately the glut of biology postdocs who can’t find academic positions means that there is a mounting supply of very highly trained labor competing against new graduates for every position in “alternative” career paths. Biology graduates need a postdoc to be competitive for those jobs; what do you relegate them to, when you deny them that training?

    Everyone knows that the most effective allostery targets the first enzyme in the pathway. Encourage undergrads interested in biology research to seek degrees with intrinsic value (e.g., earn a B.S./Ph.D. in physics, cs, or applied math while doing life sciences-related research). By the time they earn a biology Ph.D. it’s too late to prevent them from needing a postdoc.

  11. I’d like to reframe the question a bit. It’s true that PIs rent some very important years from their students/post-docs at a very low rate. My suggestion would be that this system is only morally defensible when, in addition to salary, students and post-docs also receive training; training is an investment in their futures. So here’s the thing: given the sober statistics these days, that training CANNOT only consist of research. It should include whatever students and post-docs need to set themselves up for the next step (including a back-up plan!). This means that PIs can’t look at their students/post-docs simply as paper-generators or as PIs-in-training. Instead, PIs should expect that some substantial fraction of student/post-doc time will be spent away from the bench developing another set of skills. (Ideally, PIs would help, but we know first hand that our own training is often woefully inadequate when it comes to things that aren’t research!) I know this puts young PIs in a special bind, but my feeling is that being in a bind is the cost of doing research science these days.

    • Completely agree with you. The pinch though, is that today it seems that the postdoc has become an all or nothing venture – i.e. spend all of your time trying to crank out high impact results or fail. The most troubling thing about this observation is that for a postdoc the very act of investing time in acquiring other skills (or exploring other territory) means a loss of productivity relative to the single minded pursuit. For the supervising PI, if they are paying you out of a grant of which there are precious few, and they need your work for their own tenure package, there is zero incentive to let you develop in any other direction. It also means that young scientists, with few exceptions, contribute little to society at large since we are too busy for the most part trying to keep ourselves afloat. This feeds the disconnect between scientists and the communities around them, which is in turn responsible for devaluation of science and science funding etc. in a downward spiral. That’s a topic for whole other discussion.

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  13. How about this: a Ph.D. in biology gives you a ticket into medical school. It is bizarre to have two neighboring fields – in one the gate is strictly protected and once in your career is virtually guaranteed; the other is a free-for-all with minimal security. Might even bring down the cost of medicine!

  14. Answer 1 : there is life out there!

    I did a Postdoc (USA) with a respectable PI but with a zero fitness but plenty of funding. That and knowing the stats fully before signing up, I figured my odds were about 5-10%. No surprise there. IF I wanted to become and academic PI, which I semi-wanted at the time. I realized I did not enjoy writing, nor was I any good at it.
    I now have a good job and work in a biotech, on the commercial side (!), and I love it: it’s a blast everyday, I feel I make an impact everyday and the teamwork is superb. I would not have gotten that job without this postdoc, therefore, thank you postdoc advisor for hiring me!

    • Agree with OJ. Biologists in academia need to stop giving their students the idea that industry is a dead end or boring. I’ve got an MSc and have been in industry for nearly 5 years now and it’s been a terrific learning experience. If you have a Master’s or a PhD going into industry you are definitely not going to be doing a dull routine quality control testing kind of job, and even for people with only Bachelor’s you can find quite interesting projects if you’re lucky.

      And you CAN publish papers out of an industry job, if you want that on your CV in case you want to go back into academia in the future. Like, who do you think writes papers about drugs and analytical methods and stuff like that?

  15. Two points:
    1) Postdocs really should know the situation they’re getting into, and should be able to make their own decisions- inform them, and let them make up their own minds. It’s no secret that the situation is very tough, but that isn’t an argument to stop hiring postdocs. That’s not to say that PIs don’t have a duty to help progress the career of all their lab members, and not to overpromise when recruiting.

    2) To reiterate the point made by OJ: a PI position is _not_ the only destination post-postdoc. I have done two postdocs, and went into industry after both (!), and I’m really grateful to both PIs that gave me the chance to work in their labs (thanks Rob and John). Incidentally, both also took an active interest in helping with finding (or creating) my next job. I’m now in a position to hire postdocs out of academia, have done so and will continue to, very grateful for the extra experience they gaining in their postdoc that they bring into the company.

    There are many paths, and people have to be able to try them out. Give them a chance- it won’t be the end of the world if they ‘only’ end up with more experience of research that they can then take into other roles in academia, in industry, in law (think IP), in policy, or just to use those critical thinking skills in a whole wealth of other areas.

    • 1) I agree that prospective postdocs should be informed about their perspectives. And I think it is PI’s obligation to assess their chances and inform them. The chances are clearly different for different people. So, the abilities, background, and the specific experiences that the perspective postdoc will gain in this PI’s lab should be taken into account in estimating the chance of being able to make it to a faculty job. If the person is set on being a PI, but his/her chances are very low, I wouldn’t hire them. On the other hand, I would be delighted to hire a person who wants to go to industry from the outset, if they think that work in my lab would be helpful for them.

      2) I am by no means saying that a faculty job is the only option. Of course it isn’t. Many jobs outside of academia are way better than academic jobs. However it does seem that an awful lot of postdocs start with the (wrong) premise that they will become professors after their postdoc. This illusion and the absence of any external incentives for PIs to train postdocs (or even PhD students) for life outside of academia (see Quincey’s comment above) leads to an exploitative situation. See also the comment by asianelephant above, which digs deeper into this point.

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  17. Is it morally acceptable to hire faculty? By that i mean deliberately creating a class that monopolizes essentially all funding and the possibility to offer wages. Distributing funding more widely in smaller amounts should not be seen as a wasteful thing to do. A proposal by Canadian scientists is very appealing. Give all PhDs who desire to do research equal funding (bear with me a second) with the rule that most of it be granted to scientists whose projects they support (no reciprocity allowed). All scientists I reported the idea to were delighted. Obviously it’s currently unimplementable but it points to some of the issues we absolutely have to deal with. The gigantic scam on PhD students is #1.

    • There are lot’s of interesting ideas on how to change the system so that it works better, voiced by many powerful people (e.g. here). Let’s hope that at least some of them will be implemented in the next 10 years…

  18. Is it morally acceptable to hire anyone? A friend just discovered she was hired by a pharmaceutical company before a round of layoffs because her boss needed to demonstrate that his team was valuable, but there is actually no work for her to do. What matters is that you express your intentions morally and clearly. I am a new PI in an R1 institution in the US doing biomedical research and I hired 3 postdocs. I told them very clearly what my funding situation was, how many years I could support them and what kind of mentoring they would receive. I did my best to assure that all of them would be competitive to obtain fellowship funding in the countries they are coming from and I have secured a senior mentor to work with me to provide mentorship experience. I also have a clear policy of 20% protected time to develop their own research program which I will support, IF they decide to continue in academia. http://thenewpi.blogspot.com/2013/01/20-protected-time-to-generate-new-ideas.html
    90% of my grad school friends have moved on to industry, legal, finance jobs, so I also have a good experience in non-acadeia jobs if they need to discuss things. A lot of those jobs require a postdoc or some kind of managerial experience that a postdoc can provide.
    My institution has a small graduate program and the good students interested in my topic may be few and far between so filling the lab with grad students is not an option. I considered the research scientist option, but where I am, those salaries are almost as high as mine and I have friends struggling to keep themselves and their senior scientist in the lab with one R01. I think it’s much more immoral to hire someone who expects to be permanent and have no idea where the money to pay them will come from year in and year out.
    Postdocs come to you with very different goals and future plans, I think the main thing is to keep training in mind and communications open.

    • Good response. Nothing to add here, really. I like the 20% rule. I’ve also always worked in labs with a lot of freedom, so it is even a bit unusual to me to have this stated formally, but it’s the right thing to do to keep the balance between productivity and creativity.

  19. Reblogged this on Io Non Faccio Niente and commented:
    Fatevi anche voi queste domande dai diversi 3 punti di vista:
    – If you are a graduate student, ask yourself whether you really want to enter the academic track. Unless you are an A-trainer, are you willing to gamble on 3+ years of your life?
    – If you are a postdoc aspiring to be a PI, how would you run your lab so that it is fair to people you hire?
    – If you are a PI, do your postdocs work for the promise of a future faculty job?
    – If so, do you think you are being fair to them? And given an estimate of your academic fitness from past experience, how many postdocs should you hire in the future to maintain fairness?

  20. Very nice post!

    As a PhD student in the Netherlands, I can tell you that the situation and stats are probably very similar. In my personal experience the problem already starts at the PhD level. The master’s program, which I followed here, was a very high-level one, and made promises about “the demand for researchers in the field of biology”, practically suggesting that our career is laid down for us once we are on this track. When I began my PhD (technically PhD tracks here should take 4 years, but in reality they take 6…which is another sad story), I honestly believed that I will someday have my own lab and be an independent researcher. 6 years down the road things are quite different. I have, mainly through conversations with my peers and reading on the subject, come to realize that the “postdoc” is an invented position…one that serves the purpose of diverging the large numbers of PhDs being produced, without there being a real demand for them on the market. Two problems arise from this situation. 1. Since we were not informed in beginning, and I stress beginning, of our PhDs what the odds are of achieving an actual academic career, we never really thought about the alternatives. Most of my peers really have no idea what they can do with their skills, apart from a postdoc or perhaps a company job. PhDs should be prepared better for the “real world”, because given the stats, chances of academic glory for all of us, are slim. 2. Sadly, being highly educated these days, can be a obstacle in finding a job outside of academia. The financial crisis resulted in a significant drop in company positions, where most of the time a MSc degree is more than sufficient for a starters job. We don’t have previous company experience, which is often a requirement. PhDs are simply more expensive, so we don’t get hired. Basically we are in a catch 22. Left without options, we start a postdoc because, hey, what else could we do?!

    In an ideal world, we would all be hired as permanent staff after our PhDs and continue doing research (because we love it!), without the constant fear of uncertainty. Surely, we should be able to abide to certain standards in the long run, but at least we wouldn’t have to worry which country we have to move to for yet another dead-end postoc.

    But the reality is different. And as a starting PI, I would like to ask you to please be straight with your future PhDs and postdocs and also try to help them in figuring out the next step, because turning 30 and realizing that all of your diplomas and skills seem to be worthless, is a really, excuse the word, crappy feeling.

    And to conclude this rant, I am very happy that a generation of PIs, such as yourself, is coming, who consider these issues and are willing to look for a solution!!!

  21. I think that faculties and institutions are deliberately leaving all the moral responsibilities on the single PIs, and capitalizing the scientific outcome and fame derived at a very cheap prize. There should be more permanent research position with a fair salary (it would not need to be particularly high, we do what we do because we love it, and not for the money…), but nobody is doing anything to change the things. Everybody thinks that the reality is different, this is the way it is, blablabla. The truth is we all accept a work environment in which fundamental worker’s rights are not taken in account, just because it is probably the most fascinating possible job. Honestly, we are so passionate about it that some of us are even doing it for free. I find it “morally disgusting”.

  22. This is a great post and not something people are thinking about enough. People are aware of the problem in an abstract sense but don’t consider the moral implications enough.

    Along the lines of individuals having multiple academic parents that someone above mentioned, I have another twist to add to your calculations that you might want to consider.

    A lot of PhD students and postdocs are interested in an academic position as a PI but are not hell-bent on one at a doctoral institution. Rather, they are happy (or even preferring) to be a faculty member at a liberal arts institution serving mainly undergraduate students, but still publishing and doing research with these students. Undergraduate students are like the PhD students in your example except even more extreme–they are usually not looking for a job in academia. The vast majority of them go to medical school, another professional school, or straight to industry in some form. So, a postdoc who ends up in one of these positions still “made it” in academia, but isn’t contributing to this problem of churning out additional offspring who won’t subsequently “make it.” As it turns out, most academic posts are at institutions that fit this bill.

    I do not mean to deny or even downplay the problem you mention, but I wonder what the numbers would look like with this adjustment. Oh and postdoctoral experience IS desired (and almost required) for obtaining most faculty positions at primarily undergraduate institutions. Regardless, I’m assuming the numbers would still be frighteningly bad.

  23. P.S. – I think that the permanent researcher position sounds excellent, and that people can continue to hire postdocs, but maybe only if the PI genuinely thinks that the position will help catapult the candidate from not-quite-making-it to making-it. The permanent researchers would in many ways be more useful than all of the above, even if they don’t hold PhDs. But, as you state, the logistics make this option difficult to implement.

  24. As a Biologist I enjoyed this blog and found it very interesting to hear others comments…so here are my thoughts to some of the points/comments:-

    ‘2. Hire only brilliant postdocs who have a priori high chances to get a faculty job. This seems to be a reasonable but cruel strategy which favors people who are already on the “A train” and discriminates against people who were late to figure out what they want to do, even if they would have turned out to be brilliant given the chance. Moreover, it’s hard to recruit the A-trainers to a junior PI’s lab, especially if it is not in a top school.’

    I actually feel that this is less cruel…far better to hire somebody that will reach the destination (or has a very good chance) rather than to hire somebody and drop them off in the ‘no mans land’ between stations. The only problem here is that the PI will be investing time into a Postdoc that will ‘jump’ as soon as they get the chance to work with a better/higher profile PI….and there will always be somebody better than you!

    ‘3. Do not hire postdocs at all, run lab with graduate students only. This seems quite reasonable, although at the expense of productivity. One might object to this: Isn’t there the same problem with PhDs as with postdocs? In my view, the problem is not the same. I believe that entering a PhD program in natural sciences is not a commitment to an academic track, whereas entering a postdoc is, in most cases. Most jobs outside of academia do not require a postdoc experience, so a postdoc definitely narrows down one’s options. In contrast, a PhD generally widens the options’.

    Don’t agree with this. I believe that any Postgraduate study actually narrows down your work opportunities (especially doing a PhD), not only due to the subject matter but as a) you are missing out on x number of years work experience and b) peoples/an employers perception ‘ He/she has a Phd, they wouldn’t be interested in this junior role/subject area/they wont be flexible’

    ‘4. Hire permanent researchers instead of postdocs. This I think is closer to a fundamental resolution of the problem’

    I feel that this is the best way forward AND to detach the employment role away from a PI/grant requirement…let me explain how this would work.

    1. The university employs permanent Research Fellows and Teaching Fellows.
    If as a PI you want to concentrate on your research you ‘buy in’ x number of hours to cover your teaching load; this is starting to happen in the UK but is currently managed by indirectly through a PI’s grant. Likewise, if you want/need a researcher on a project you ‘buy in’ x number of research hours; this would avoid the excessive overtime expectations of some PI’s. The projects/subjects can be ‘advertised’ internally x number of months before the academic/research year begins so that the staff can choose where they would like to work.

    2. How is the pay level worked out?
    For each additional Postgraduate year ‘in the system’ i.e. working or studying you get an increment so a 1 yr MSc would give 1 increment, this way experience is rewarded/paid for. In addition, a minimum level should be stipulated for the research/teaching i.e. somebody at Level 1 can only teach undergrad year 1 courses, level 2 undergrad year 2 courses etc. A similar structure could be adopted for research. This payment system is similar in ways to the PhD/Postdoc system in Germany that was agreed by the unions.

    What we are actually doing here is making university teaching or research a career in itself with no expectation/requirement to move onto a lecturing post, which seems a ‘mishmash’ to me i.e. some lecturers are great researchers but mediocre (useless?) lecturers and some lecturers are great communicators but mediocre (competent?) researchers. The role of what we currently call lecturers will then become research managers, which is basically what lecturers/professors are.

    It really doesn’t seem that complicated…or am I missing something?!

    Finally, I think we have got to be a lot more honest with our undergraduates and give them these facts at the beginning of their courses….but I cant see that going down very well with the VP of any university this is in essence an ‘educational business’

  25. I think there is a big difference between being a postdoctoral fellow in Europe and in North America. Being a postdoc in North America is like being a trainee or simply being a slave, and nothing more than without any benefits. Being a postdoc in Europe, and in particular in Germany is totally different story. It is a real job here in Germany with all the benefits that one can gets. I was working in Canada as a postdoc for one year, and I simply hated it. Attitude between the PI and their postdoctoral fellow was simply horrible, It is like you are in the prison. I simply hated it. I am working as a postdoctoral fellow in Germany for many years by now, and I simply loved it from all my heart.

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  28. Instead washing dishes and inhaling dirty smell and toxic chemicals in the lab its better to do something else in fresh air. on an average you will not earn more than $2000 for 10 years, apart from that by the time your 10 years passed many people will mentally go mad and after that there is no guarantee that you will find a job. That is why most of the labs in united states is filled with cheap labor from china and India. I monitored a guy in US national laboratory. his salary is $100K. He hired 2 postdocs for $60K and he spend another $150K for chemicals and after 3.5 years he published one nature communications (Impact factor 11) paper and some miscellaneous instrument charges another 100K. may be more. So finally the total cost of that paper is nearly 1 million dollar. His celebration for that paper another $200 dollars… Very bad… Research is very bad….

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