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The Black Hole

The decline in biomedical postdocs – good decisions or bad conditions?


An article came out earlier this month in the FASEB Journal (published by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) that contained a somewhat shocking set of data: it turns out that the number of  scientists undertaking postdoctoral research in life sciences is declining. While these data are only for the United States, they are still surprising amid increased numbers of doctoral degrees and a lower proportion of permanent faculty positions. Where is the middle cohort of researchers going? Are they actively leaving or passively disappearing?

We have spilled much ink on encouraging graduate training programs, administrators and even supervisors to help their trainees look beyond the traditional academic path (here, here and here). Also, both the NIH and the NSF recently released reports that recommended more investment in training for non-academic careers. Perhaps the work has happened incredibly fast or was already so ingrained in systems that the change was happening before the reports were even written (these new statistics are collected from 2010-2013) and newly minted PhDs were finding their way happily into 21st century non-academic science jobs. Or… perhaps not.

Another major theme of our blog (and streams of other reports and articles) has been the atrocious uncertainty that young scientists face when it comes to knowing where they will be in the coming years (both career-wise and geographically!). Indeed, the title of our blog derives from the fact that the postdoctoral period of research lacks definition and is nigh on impossible to navigate as a young scientist. It therefore makes me wonder if the recent years of uncertainty and huge pressure have simply driven young scientists away from the hallowed halls of the academy. Particularly frustrating stories within the life sciences postdoctoral world are the struggles of new mothers (series on postdoc parenting), the skullduggery of “the system” (including peer review horror stories, retractions, etc.), and the undefined status of the postdoctoral fellow (sometimes a student, sometimes an employee, rarely rewarded for their extensive training).

One curiosity of the data is that the sharpest decline in numbers was among American males (10%). One possibility is that everyone is looking for non-academic jobs and only American males are finding them (and consequently leaving the academy), another is that more American males are leaving the country to work abroad (and therefore leaving the realm of this data snapshot). Still another possibility is that the general squeeze on academia means that only the best people can secure postdoctoral positions and these are going to the other demographic categories (e.g., women and foreign born scientists). Either way, the numbers are definitely bucking a trend of recent years where it seemed that the numbers of early career scientists were ballooning out of control.

So, overall, we are left to wonder if this is simply a case of “market forces” controlling numbers or whether we should be worried that we’re pushing some of the brightest minds on this planet out of academic research? Time will tell.

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. Brett / January 13, 2016 at 19:24

    “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope”, Martin Luther.

    I am exactly one of the males the data is referring to. I left academia because not only was the pay bad (I liked the job, but the world doesn’t understand that), it seemed the likelihood of becoming anything but a perma-doc, was unlikely. In my opinion academia is not so much a career option, as a weighted lottery, or quest to become a professional athlete.

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