Indentured Postdoctoral Service

Nature has an editorial reflecting on FASEB data on the career trajectories of young scientists. The Nature News piece does a tidy job of summarizing the salient points (too many biomedical PhDs, too few jobs in academia).

Graduate schools need armies of well-trained students and postdocs willing to sacrifice long hours in the lab to generate data for grant applications and IP licensing deals, not to mention carrying significant teaching loads in many cases.

The editorial notes: “the plight of the postdoc will probably change only if the issue of scientific training is addressed from the top, where it may be necessary to consider the possibility that too many scientists are being trained.”


And how about the possibility of postdocs being tempted to cut corners & engage in some degree of misconduct to obtain publishable results and thus improve their chance of securing one of those few assistant professor slots.

The concluding paragraph notes: “More effort is needed to ensure that recruitment interviews include realistic assessments of prospective students’ expectations and potential in the academic workplace.”

In other words, explain that they might face a lifelong career with a very modest salary as a grant-funded (i.e., insecure employment) super lab tech … and that industry is not necessarily the answer, as demonstrated in another Nature piece on rising scientist job cuts in the pharmaceutical industry. In a nutshell, one of my favorite demotivators.



  1. PhysioProf said

    The FASEB data are fascinating. One of the most interesting Powerpoint slides to me is Slide #45, which shows the total number of medical school faculty members broken down by degree (MD, PhD, and MD/PhD) and department type (basic science and clinical). From 1981 to now, the number of basic science faculty has increased only very modestly, but the number of clinical department faculty has exploded. And this is not just MDs or MD/PhDs, but also pure PhDs (who obviously cannot practice medicine).

  2. PhysioProf said

    And slide #46 is absolutely staggering! It looks like there has been a massive shutdown in hiring of new medical school faculty from 2001 to now. In 2001, 8% of total faculty were hired that year. In 2006, <3% of total faculty were hired that year.

    Part of this may be due to the fact that many med schools won’t expend an open faculty slot on anyone who doesn’t bring grant funding (transferable awards not about to expire) or, among the junior openings, incredible promise of funding. Given how long the commitment could be, deans would rather take their time & be choosy if at all possible. – writedit

  3. PhysioProf said

    “many med schools”

    My suspicion is that there are definite patterns within this trend, with certain categories of medical schools not slowing down their hiring at all, and certain categories almost completely stopping. In the former are wealthy private schools and in the latter are poor and/or public schools. My school is in the former category, and I have heard anecdotally (but from a reliable source) that our administration actually considers lean external funding situation like we are in now as an opportunity to grow “market share” by continuing to hire.

  4. drugmonkey said

    PhysioP you are in a very far-sighted institution. can’t really fault them, the strategy is brilliant. not their lookout that the competition is so short-sighted, like mine for example.

  5. […] decline in academic positions available to these trained scientists – FASEB data previously noted here & in Nature. She goes on to say that the NIH is “looking at key personnel involved in the […]

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