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The Black Hole

Say NO to the Second Post Doc!

After an undergraduate and doctorate, medical science trainees need to undertake post doctoral training before being granted a faculty position. After this round of training, however, many are going on to a second and even a third round of "post-doc'ing" ... this blog entry asks why we do this and encourages science trainees to stop after the first PDF and do a major evaluation...


Quick Hit
I had a great chat with someone last night who put me onto two great examples of cutting edge peer review:
First, as of 2009 the European Molecular Biology Organization Journal publishes a review process file which details the correspondence between authors, editors, and reviewers – still anonymous, but WOW what an improvement… some light is finally getting into the black box
Second, I mentioned the PLoS group in an earlier post and their journal PLoS Medicine have encouraged optional open peer review, a great start, but I think that in order for this to work, you need everyone to play nice…

Say NO to the Second PDF

I’ll warn you in advance, this blog entry is pretty controversial… it poses some difficult questions that we don’t often want to ask ourselves, and I was further encouraged to take this matter head on by a recent comment responding to one of Beth’s earlier entries on Why PhDs leave Academia .

The United States numbers say that the vast majority (>80%) of PhDs in Science and Engineering will NOT become tenure track university professors. In Canada from the CAPS November 2009 report: “In 1986, 34% of Canada’s PhDs were university professors whereas it was 24% in 2001, a decline of 10 percentage points in 15 years. Further decreases are predicted given that enrolment in doctoral programs is far outpacing the increase in full time university professors. In 2007/2008, enrolment at the doctorate level was 40,400, an increase of 62% from 2001/2002.”

I, like others in the PhD and PDF stage, cringe at such numbers. Two major questions that I always have are:

  1. Why are 100% of people being trained to become a PI when only ~20% “make it”, with a niggling follow-up of if we don’t “make it”, why do we feel like failures?
  2. How many inside of this statistic actively make the choice and how many feel forced out?
    The first has plagued policy makers and university administrators for years.  There are a couple of really interesting tensions that contribute:

    1. Universities want more PhD students – they make more money.  And I don’t mean your tuition fees…  I mean the nice subsidy that comes from governments to have you enrolled
    2. Graduate programs that provide business training (or even full fledged MBAs) to science based MSc and/or PhD students have been criticized for using public monies to fund industry training
    3. Many professors want their students in the lab not out exploring alternative careers like journalism, law, or industry

The second is an even tougher one, because little of this data is ever collected and it’s extremely tough to analyze even if it is collected.  It does, however, bring us to a critical point in a PhD/PDFs career – do I make the push for an tenure track faculty spot or am I off to explore something else?  We all have to make the choice… this blog entry argues to make it sooner rather than later.

If I was to get full answers to my questions, the trend would not change, it would simply be easier to understand and eventually manage.  If I imagine the possible answers though, I can’t help but continually arrive at a significant issue that causes big trouble… I believe that the “second Post Doc” is a major source of long term parking charges (both professionally and personally) collected in the Academic Parking Lot .

Here’s why:
1. There is no degree at the end, no metric to be judged on… once you have acquired “post doctoral experience”, the difference between 3 years and 7 years is incremental at best when it comes to looking at your CV. Yes, you’re actually more experienced and more qualified and yes, there are always exceptions (i.e.: chasing a HUGE story that made you move to a different lab that could answer the question), but the difference on paper (unless it’s accompanied by a long series of papers), is minimal.
2. It takes at least 6 months (and sometimes longer) to get established in the new location – this is on top of the time block that you already lost in your first PDF and creates another gap in your record – remember… there’s even another gap waiting if you do land the professor job.
3. Most major granting councils are funding at a rate somewhere in between 15 and 20%. If you’ve been a PDF for 3-5 years and aren’t yet competitive for an academic job – is it reasonable to expect that you’ll be competitive for research grants later on in your career?
4. The second PDF is an extension of the problem that plagues far too many people in our generation – the apathetic I-can-choose-anything-but-I-don’t-know-what generation. It seems that for many of us, you go through high school, do well in science and math because that’s what the “smart kids” are good at (don’t even get me started on how wrong this type of thinking is), you go to a university that has a good chance of getting you into law school, dentistry, or medicine because those are the only careers you’ve ever heard of (really… did you just “know” you wanted to be a grad student/PDF/professor?), you land in a science faculty, realize you don’t like idea of medical school and this “research thing” might be a good route (seems flexible enough, not closing any doors), get convinced/bullied into doing a PhD right away because no big labs want to waste their time with a 2-3 year Masters student, finish that PhD ( 30-40% admittedly do jump ship ), go do a post doc, because you certainly can’t get a tenure track job yet and you’re not ready to “leave science”, and then… you’re here… in the first post doc, why not do a second (seems flexible enough, not closing any doors… right… right?). Yes, you detected some sarcasm in there.

Of course there are exceptions… because post docs are a heterogeneous bunch – some have families that keep them tied to a particular city and others get unlucky with the first post doc and need to extract themselves. The alternatives to a second PDF are plentiful and Beth will be expanding on many of the career options in her blog entries. Another great resource that might help is the National Post Doc Association’s Career Planning Resources page .

The position that I would lobby for that doesn’t exist in many institutes in Canada but is becoming increasingly popular around here in Cambridge is the staff scientist position (though it goes by many different names). In essence, this is the home for the person that loves benchwork, science, and occasionally dwelling on the bigger picture but is not into teaching at the university or supervising students and…they hate the idea of grant writing. It pays well, has as much job security as “normal” jobs, has great benefits, and doesn’t (usually!) require weekends and evenings. I don’t quite have a grasp on where the money comes from or how this is all organized (I’m looking!), but I suspect it goes back to what you can actually have covered in your grant and what sort of core operating funds are available. Check out the Sanger Job Opportunities page for an example.

Personally, I’m tickled by the idea of possibly becoming a tenure track prof, I think I’d love it and I’m setting my sights for it… but… if I’m in the lab of my first PDF and after 3-5 years I don’t even really get considered for faculty jobs, I will definitely re-evaluate and move against the poisonous trend that we are collectively undertaking…

I will say NO to the second post doc and I encourage you all to do the same.

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Terri / November 17, 2009 at 19:24

    In the arts, there is now a shift towards multiple postdocs. In fact there are some professors who view the science model (with many postdocs) as a good way to deal with the lack of jobs in the humanities. Thus, if you’re a serious scholar, rather than linger in sessional hell, you’re tracking from one postdoc to the next, and so able to pursue your research (which is practically impossible if you’re teaching 8 or more courses a year, each with 40 students). Of course, it is no solution to the real problem: the deteriorating number of tenure-track jobs in the academy. I wonder if the (Canadian) government could perhaps cut the very large sums they are putting into graduate scholarships –e.g. the Canada graduate/Vanier/Trudeau) and somehow create a new tier of lectureships within the university. These would not be contract, teaching positions, but perhaps somewhere half-way between tenure-track and a postdoc. Just a thought….

  2. Science in Canada: Issues Affecting Trainees / November 17, 2009 at 18:57

    […] friend of mine (Hana, @teachmescience) forwarded a review on a book that many of you who liked the Say NO to the Second PDF blog entry might also find to be interesting… the book appears to be a troubling, but insightful, […]

  3. Dave K / November 18, 2009 at 11:27

    Hey Terri,
    Great to get this perspective because I’m certainly not as familiar with the process and trends in the Arts. My initial concern with the “switch to the science model” is that it appears very short sighted and merely delays the inevitable glut of highly trained researchers who will not have academic jobs CAPS report uses the phrase Academic Parking Lot quite appropriately to decribe this glut). In the Arts, it’s potentially even worse with the added time pressures of teaching (in which medical science PDFs generally will not partake) so imporving your CV substantially is a challenge. The solution to fewer jobs cannot be a temporary period where you produce, at the end, even more people to compete for the same limited set of jobs – imagine a freshly minted PhD taking on PDFs with five years of experience, publications, etc and trying to land an academic job – oh wait… that’s what happens in science already – you don’t even bother applying at this stage.
    If there is no plan to substantially increase numbers of tenure track jobs (which even if there was, I cannot imagine it outpacing the rate of successful PhD graduates) then either or all of these courses must be taken:
    1) An increase in jobs in academic, but not professorial, sectors (i.e.: permanent lectureships with job security, benefits, etc that will focus on dealing with the increasing numbers of undergraduates)
    2) An increase movement of PhDs into non-academic careers with a concomitant focus on helping/training students how to find these options. The Government of Candaa, for example, has a Management Training Program that aims to recruit Masters students (or higher) into intermediate positions. The real issue is to figure out what to do about 80-90% of people who start PhDs but will not be a professor – this, I think comes back to the training process. Ideally, more PhDs (not the cookie cutter variety!) are out there making signifcant contributions to multiple sectors because of the skills they have acquired in a PhD program.
    3) We do as Rachel suggested and dramatically reduce the number of people that enter and finish a PhD program.

    Just to note, that while the Trudeau Foundation was initially endowed by the CDN government, it is a registered charity and, should, in theory, be able to spend it’s monies on what donors would like to see funded. The point is well taken on the Vanier and CGS though which do seem like an awful lot of money for a PhD student. Whether it would be better spent on a set of lectureships across the country vs. more “regular” SSHRC or NSERC awards, I don’t know – both sides have interesting arguments. The fact does remain that it needs to change.

  4. SubC / November 19, 2009 at 18:12

    I suppose it all depends on the field you are in as several posters have already pointed out. In Biomedical science, 5-6 yrs of postdoc is becoming the norm for academic jobs. One can choose to do it at the same lab (as I am planning to) or look for second position.I would say it is worth doing if you really want that faculty job. For other non-traditional positions, a second postdoc might not add much. On the otehr hand, in Engineering and Computer scince, tehre are few postdocs as most PhDs do move on to industry or (for many of the best and brightest) directly into academia (which is unknown in our biomedical field). So I suppose it all depends on the stream and your career goals, there is no one size that would fit all !

  5. Glencora Borradaile / November 19, 2009 at 16:35

    Supply and demand. As long as people are willing to do postdoc after postdoc, there will be spots for underpaid, under-appreciated workers.
    I hear you on this. It’s quite a bit different in my world (computer science) where it’s only been in the last decade that anyone postdoc’d between grad school and professor-hood. Even now, the cream usually get immediate tenure-track positions (with the luckiest ones delaying their start by up to two years to take a prestigious and well-paid postdoc at places like Microsoft and TTI to do nothing but research and often having that research count towards a shortened tenure clock). It’s not the top 5% to worry about though. I’ll probably comment longer on this shortly on my blog. Will post back if/when I get to that …

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