Plight of the Postdocs

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Plight of the Postdocs

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Dr Tom Rayner questions the unrealistic expectations placed on early career researchers

Fresh PhD graduates are symbols of hope: little beacons of promise that glimmer across the dark sea of academic cynicism, ready to be built into shining suns of super-science. When I started my first post-PhD position, my responsibilities were made very clear, ‘I want you to write papers, get grants and co-supervise students’. I now realise that I was one of the lucky few. I had unwittingly swanned into a lab where a combination of flexibility, freedom and focus was the order of the day. I wasn’t forced onto a specific project, or, if I was guided in a particular direction, still had ample room to move in terms of experimental aims, design and reporting. I was on a long leash and, looking back, rue having perhaps not made the most of those early days.

Of course the funding for my initial appointment soon dwindled. I wrote a successful ARC Linkage grant, with a bit of help from my friends, which kept me gainfully employed for a few more years. I began to take on supervisorial duties and contribute more fully to the academic life of the lab and the school. When that funding ran out, I started teaching full time. I gained some great experience in classrooms and curricula, but it took me away from writing and predictably ate into my publication rate – the last thing my burgeoning career needed. I interviewed for a permanent position and, despite getting close, was not successful. My little beacon, still lit, sank beneath the surface of that heaving, briny deep.

Such stories are not unusual. All postdocs entertain dreams of being highly-cited, over-resourced super scientists, working in warm and fuzzy bubbles of collegiality. In many cases, these aspirations can turn into great expectations, fuelled by enthusiastic, well-intended mentors. I bet that every postdoc fields frequent ‘encouragement’ to publish papers in high-ranking journals. If realistic, such pressure is motivating. If unrealistic, it’s damaging. When unaccompanied by institutional support, it reeks of managerial laziness – a hollow statement best left unsaid – and is particularly offensive to postdocs paying their own salary, from their own research accounts, from grants that they professorially ghost wrote.

Careers in science have always been uncertain at best. However, the line between postdoc and established researcher appears to be growing increasingly vague. I assume a ‘postdoc’ graduated from their PhD less than five years ago – the sensible, anti-ageist ARC definition of an Early Career Researcher (ECR). After that, you’re ‘mid-career’, which is code for you’ve either: been forced out of science; started competing for more prestigious fellowships; or engineered yourself a hybrid role. Personally, I thought I was out of the woods when I managed to secure a 5-year Level C research-active position, but I still get introduced as a postdoc. I can only conclude that either I have misinterpreted the definition of postdoc, or I need to write some more papers! Maybe it’s a bit of both and I should take it as a compliment, like being asked for your ID at the pub despite sporting a full beard.

Semantics aside, what can we do about this strange twilight zone that exists between postdoc and permanent? How do we re-float the drowned beacons of promise so they may shine again? Jennifer Rohn wrote a piece in Nature lamenting the tournament system of scientific research, with its oversupply of PhDs, and calling for an alternative career structure that professionalises mature postdocs by giving them permanent positions. In Australia, where the term ‘permanent’ has been cut from campuses like a malignant cancer, I suspect that suggestion might fall on unreceptive ears. However, Rohn’s further suggestion, that ‘every candidate should be given a realistic assessment of their chances of becoming a lab head’ may be eminently useful in revising postdoc and supervisor expectations.

Over a period of a few months, I asked a range of postdocs and professors if the current cohort of Australian ECRs is facing a creeping tide of expectation, or if they’ve just gone soft. The consensus was as follows.

  1. Yes, while they might ‘appear a bit soft’, being a postdoc today does seem harder than ever. Expectations are far too broad, while reward structures are far too narrow – we’re just normalising a pathology. Postdocs are expected to contribute across a range of activities, but are defined almost solely by the number and quality of their journal papers.
  2. Postdocs can make excellent contributions in fields that require long-term investments of time and research focus to produce any output, let alone highly-ranked or highly-cited journal papers. Impacts of such research may be lagged, place-based and linked to alternative outcomes, like on-ground improvement in environmental condition.
  3. In the ‘good old days’ you weren’t a postdoc forever. You could also get on with the job. There weren’t daily hours of emailing and social media to sap research time – although this one now applies to all scientists. Postdocs can’t ‘tweet’ about their papers if they haven’t written any.
  4. While being ‘unsuccessful’ in Australia may be demoralising, try being a postdoc in Europe or the U.S., where salaries are halved. Or, compare the experience in science to that of early career types in other fields, like medicine or consulting. Getting to the top is difficult in any industry.

The Gonski review has stimulated debate around trade-offs in the education sector and the wisdom of cutting funding for research training. It is timely for us to also question the unrealistic expectations and vagaries in career progression that have crept into science. We should encourage a return to the key elements of research success: writing papers, getting grants and co-supervising students – in that order. In doing so, we should remember that postdocs are relatively inexperienced researchers in a period of accelerated professional development. We should limit postdoctoral appointments to the ECR years and provide quantum to universities that reward quality postdocs with permanent positions. If not, the only choice is to align the competitiveness of PhD intake programs with the rest of science and offer scholarships to the top 10-15% of applicants – give them a taste of what’s to come!