Some time ago, I volunteered to join the Future Of Research New York University Postdocs. FOR NYUP describes itself as a grassroots organization that gives visibility to postdoctoral researchers at NYU by organizing events and providing a forum where all aspects of postdoc life can be discussed. Strikingly, career development is an aspect that often dominates the discussion. No matter the discipline, we all struggle with the same concerns, issues and worries about what we will be doing next.
The current postdoctoral generation has been described as Generation Postdocalypse. Bio-engineer Ethan Perlstein coined the term a couple of years ago, when he decided to leave academia and invest in his own start-up lab. Perlstein, who earned a PhD from Harvard and obtained a prestigious five-year grant to run his own lab at Princeton, seemed to be on the fast track to success. Nevertheless, just like us mortal postdocs, he was struggling with the reality of the academic job market, where a growing crowd of talented scientists/scholars compete with each other every day to secure one of those much-desired tenure track positions.
Illustration from phdcomics.com
Postdocs are the back of the academic system. They are expected to develop their own independent thinking, demarcate innovative research niches and constantly push the frontiers of their field. In the meantime, they manage project budgets, supervise MA students and teach undergraduate classes. Preferably, they join a journal’s editorial team, organize conferences, and communicate their research to the public. They work long hours, they do it for a poor pay (at least in the USA*), and they constantly keep an eye out for something better, ideally a permanent faculty position that matches their track record.
But what happens if they can’t find the tenure track they are looking for? Brain drain. Every day, highly skilled scientists/scholars with their cutting-edge research and knowledge niche leave academia; some because they have to, others because they want to. The system is flawed and we have to come up with a solution soon, in order to avoid the massive waste of talent that characterizes academia today. Should we limit the number of PhD positions and redirect more PhDs to the job market after they graduate? Or should we rethink the position of postdoctoral researcher? And should we provide more funding for individual fellowships that would increase postdocs’ independence?
I am not a typical postdoctoral researcher. I am affiliated to the Steinhardt Department of Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and I get all the freedom I want to do the research I want (special thanks to Krishnendu Ray). I don’t have to spend time on project management, I don’t have teaching obligations and I have an above-average pay check. Hell, I even have an office of my own! Yet, every morning when I’m on my way to work, I wonder if it’s worth it. I have a contract for a year – for which I am endlessly grateful – and I have no idea what I will be doing next year or if I will be able to continue my research. So why am I doing it? Passion. Postdocs LOVE their research and even though we are dealing with a lot of insecurities, at least we are doing something wholeheartedly, even if it’s not for forever.
* In Belgium, postdoctoral researchers are extremely expensive, because of the wage system there. I will not go into detail, it suffices to say that universities prefer doctoral researchers over postdocs, because they cost less and they bring in federal subsidies after successful completion of their PhD.
Illustration by Pixabay via Pexels.