A reflective piece by Dr. Adriana Bankston
I’ve had a long standing interest in how current problems in science affect early career scientists, in particular the postdoctoral population. In spring 2018, I was invited to several universities to talk about some of these issues and hear from trainees about their academic experiences: University of Southern California (USC) (on postdocs and international researchers); Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps Science Policy Discussion Group – studying policy for science); and University of California San Diego (UCSD) (Science Policy, Advocacy, and Communication (SciPAC) Group – advocating for an improved scientific enterprise). Below, I combined information obtained from these talks and workshops into general themes and conclusions.
Note #1: Although some of these ideas were only debated at particular universities, they are larger systemic issues we have previously encountered across other U.S. institutions.
Note #2: The responses below are recorded from the opinions of trainees from various universities, and do not necessarily represent the views of Future of Research as an organization.
WHAT DO POSTDOCS EXPERIENCE IN ACADEMIA TODAY?
Loneliness: Some direct quotes were that “postdocs work too much [feel guilty not doing so], are sad, and [are] not making friends.” Postdocs generally don’t know who other postdocs are in their building, and international postdocs feel very lonely [due to the large size of the campus].
Inadequate training: Postdocs and graduate students aren’t being trained adequately for their level – for example, PIs train postdocs like graduate students and vice versa. Also, mentors seem to be more flexible with the schedule of graduate students [in terms of going to classes for example], but not with their postdocs. Another remark made was that some PIs may even think more highly of their graduate students than they do of their postdocs.
Differences in training: The length of the postdoctoral training experience make postdocs unhappy – for example, industry postdocs being much shorter. The length of postdoctoral training in various disciplines within academia is also a problem, postdoc training in other disciplines potentially also being a couple of years shorter than those in biology. There is also the issue of postdoctoral training across different countries. For example, it was remarked that in Europe there is a longer paid maternity leave, with a job guaranteed when returning; and while the salary in Europe may be lower, there is an increased quality of life for trainees compared to the U.S.
Issues with and purpose of the position: Postdocs will stay in academia until they find an industry job, thereby using the postdoc just to fill the time. Another issue is that postdocs often don’t know when they are ready to move on – for example if the PI says tells them to stay one more year, but the postdoc wants to leave [and thinks he/she is ready to leave]. Some also felt it was unfair that postdocs with kids work 10-4 and those without kids work longer hours for the same pay. On the topic of pay, there was one quote from a PI that was relayed during these conversations, to the effect of: “she mentioned that she wants to have kids, so I don’t know how much longer I can keep her.” These examples show many major issues in academia today affecting this population.
WHAT SHOULD THE POSTDOC POSITION BE/NOT BE?
Discussions in this realm came down to the fact that many postdocs do not consider academic careers, however still pursue them. Expectations are also different, in that postdocs are expected to be more independent, but graduate students may be micromanaged more. Also, PIs are not supportive of other careers or do not have experience outside of academia to be able to help these postdocs. Suggestions for improvement were making the training process more interdisciplinary, and facilitating conversations for postdocs with those in other fields.
Another barrier was that postdocs often are only aware of those who are also going into academia, and one solution proposed was having a more up to date alumni database. In addition, in academia, it is more common to have a longer gap before getting an outside job, and doing a postdoc isn’t that unusual, as opposed to the private sector where jobs are usually obtained more quickly. Although, as it was also pointed out, some companies allow for a flexible number of months for PhDs to graduate before hiring them.
WHAT ARE CONSIDERATIONS FOR PURSUING POSTDOC TRAINING (OR NOT)?
One important consideration is whether postdoctoral training has value outside of academia. Another is that pursuing this training may depend on the job opportunity, and it may be necessary for some fields (e.g. civil engineering). But it comes down to knowing what you want to do after the postdoc, for example it might give you skills to utilize in industry, and an industry postdoc (possibly in the realm of 2 years) may be needed for a job in this field.
Another major issue is that trainees don’t know how to sell themselves, or how their skills fit outside of academia. They would like to be able to ask employer groups these types of questions, and perform market surveys. They would also like having a list of skills necessary for each career types, as well as more flexibility, especially as graduate education is different compared to the 1970s. However, still, graduate students currently do not have skills for flexible thinking, and they are not trained for different ways of thinking (thinking is much more narrow), which may also affect their decisions to pursue a postdoc position.
Some graduate students pursue pursue postdoctoral training in order to keep the academia option open, in case they want to do research later on. It was also indicated that the postdoc experience might make you more marketable. However, for graduate students, also, if they don’t want an academic career, but are overwhelmed by the system, and don’t know how to use their skills outside of academia, they will take the postdoc position if available in front of them.
Issues brought up here around postdocs are that “nobody takes [us] seriously enough at my institution,” or “nobody pays attention to postdocs,” which describe many general issues with this population. Some of the issues that came up while talking to postdocs were: doing a postdoc as a transitional phase, due to lack of knowing what career path they wanted to follow; being overwhelmed during the PhD (in which case doing a postdoc is easier than getting a “real job”); or the inability to obtain the desired job, at which point the postdoc is seen was an acceptable way of buying time. Interestingly, while faculty admitted that this “cheap labor” practice is not acceptable, postdocs themselves (at this particular university) did not consider it an issue for them, as they viewed the postdoctoral position as only transitional on the path towards what they really want in their career.
BARRIERS AND SOLUTIONS TO EFFECTING CHANGE IN SCIENCE
At a broader level, we discussed barriers to effecting change in science, and these ideas emerged:
Barrier – lack of professional training: Barriers were lack of exposure and access to training for soft skills (management, communication etc), lack of information for graduate students wanting to pursue non-academic science careers (and too much stigma from PIs about it), and the idea that the academic career is the only successful path in science. There is also a lack of diversity and training for faculty in areas outside of science, and lack of preparation for trainees in how to effectively run a lab.
Barrier – incentives and bias: Barriers here were misaligned incentives for being a successful scientist – in that high impact factor publications are valued, whereas good mentorship, ideas and coaching are undervalued – as well as systemic bias and the fact that mothers are less valued/less likely to stay in science.
Other barriers: Some more general considerations were not enough financial compensation for trainees, lack of funding, apathy, imposter syndrome, the “need to publish flashy science instead of good science”, and the fact that “we’ve always done it this way” (direct quotes).
Solutions proposed: mandatory mentoring training for incoming PIs at all schools hosted by an expert; mentoring skills as a larger part of the faculty hiring/promotion criteria and changing the incentive structure for grants and tenure; integration of advocacy efforts and their importance into the curriculum for students and bringing awareness to the importance of advocacy by inserting it into program budgets; addition resources for “alternative careers” and increased open conversations about parenting within academic departments.
ADVOCACY SKILLS/TOOLS FOR EFFECTING CHANGE IN SCIENCE
Advocacy skills/tools available or useful: an outreach group helping learn to share science information with the public; access to a community; prior experience advocating for mental health research/funding; a network/friends among neuroscience and school of medicine (local network example); and the ability to generally communicate their research to a non-science person, learned through communication workshops at the university.
Advocacy skills/tools needed: get people to see fact vs ideaology; create an action plan for talking to policy makers and the public, and instill confidence for trainees to talk to policy makers; provide better access to resources about new policies and better knowledge of current issues debated on Capitol Hill that trainees could contribute to; provide better knowledge of local and national law making system; teach the ability to explain science/importance of science in plain language to non-scientists (for example in how to effectively change someone’s mind).
Current/future advocacy skills/tools for changing science: creating a workshop like this at a retreat, and integrating a course in advocacy into the standard PhD program curriculum; would like to have support in contacting representatives (e.g. writing scripts, sending information about particular issues, how to hold effective phone call events), a class on science communication teaching them to communicate with various audiences, a workshop on distilling the message to the general public, and more opportunities to speak to different groups of people in the community (including policymakers).