Postdoc problems (TRR-V)

Bulges under another corner of that rug?

Sweeping all those problems under the rug does leave tell-tale bumps and edges

The Tilghman-Rockey report (TRR) has a remarkable propensity for pulling its punches, but its approach to postdoctoral training takes the cake. Near the beginning, it announces its focus on remedying three critical workforce problems (1):

  1. “[T]he combination of the large upsurge in US-trained PhDs, continued increase inflow of foreign-trained PhDs, and aging of the academic biomedical research workforce . . . make[s] launching a traditional, independent academic research career increasingly difficult.”
  2. “[L]ong training . . . and relatively low early-career salaries . . . make the biomedical research career less attractive to the best . . . young people.”
  3. Although “training programs do little to prepare people for anything besides an academic research career,” few graduates “will find [academic] positions.”

The onus of problems 1 and 2 weighs most heavily on postdoctoral biomedical researchers. These postdocs suffer relatively low pay and long training, and already find great difficulty in landing the jobs they want—a situation that will certainly worsen before it improves. Problem 3 does affect postdocs, but falls more directly under the rubric of graduate student training; see my earlier discussion (2).

Postdocs now face a world very different from what it was 30 years ago. Salient quantitative data collected in the TRR (Table 1; 3) shows that, as compared to 1980: (i) the numbers of postdocs who were supported by non-federal sources or by federally funded research project grants (RPGs) have increased by 3.8- or five-fold, respectively, while the number supported by federal training grants or fellowships (TG/Fs) did not change; (ii) the numbers of postdocs who were non-US-citizens or  US citizens/permanent residents increased seven- or three-fold, respectively (3). (Note: this data is subject to certain limitations; see 4.) In these three decades, academic PIs ≤ 36 years old decreased from 18% to 3% of the total, while those ≥ 65 years old increased from 1% to 7% (Table 1). Moreover, postdoc stipends from TG/Fs awarded by the NIH were substantially lower than similar training support from the Department of Energy or the National Science Foundation. The TRR’s working group was repeatedly frustrated by the remarkable dearth of reliable data on actual numbers of postdocs in US labs: estimates ranged from 37,000 to 68,000, with hints that the actual number may be even larger. This lack of reliable data made it difficult or impossible to construct a useful model of the overall biomedical research workforce. (The data is poor in part because foreign-trained PhDs are not as well tracked as those trained in the US, and in part because universities apply fungible definitions for postdoctoral researchers, often calling them something different once they have served for five or more years; see 4.)

The TRR suggests that a marked slowing in growth of academic positions in recent years (5) is partly responsible for excessive growth of the postdoc “holding tank.” Some data suggest that the overall average duration of postdoc service (five years or so) may be no longer than it was a decade ago, but incomplete data strongly suggests that postdocs who ultimately take academic research positions do spend an extra year or two in postdoctoral status, as compared to those who take research positions in industry (6). Moreover, as the tank gets deeper, the age distribution of PIs shifts dramatically toward older ages, as indicated by the six-fold drop in percentage of PIs aged 36 or younger (see Table). Older PIs reap great benefits from contributions of smart, ambitious younger scientists who serve longer terms in their labs; these PIs get credit for the ideas and work of so many postdocs because the holding tank system confines them, in the TRR’s dry phrasing, “in subordinate positions when they [might be] expected to be highly productive as independent investigators” (7).

The TRR barely mentions that the large increase in foreign postdocs may depress the postdoc market for US citizens, but relegates fuller discussion of this possibility to Appendix D, which (8) points out that

there has been no serious assessment of the costs and benefits as well as no reliable way to measure the number of foreign-trained postdocs.

Under NIH rules, international students and postdocs can be financed without limitations under NIH research grants, but . . . are excluded from support from NIH training funds. Under current immigration law, universities have essentially unlimited access to rapidly growing global pools of prospective graduate students and postdocs.

Unlimited access to global labor markets makes large numbers of scientists available, but also “depresses the domestic market for biomedical researchers” (8). In order to protect domestic workers, Congress subjects the number of temporary H-1B visas to a yearly cap (e.g., in industry), but exempts universities and non-profit institutions, unlike businesses, from that cap. Presumably, Congress and the universities agree that attracting well-trained foreign scientists trumps protecting the market for scientists who are US citizens.

Appendix D also points out that “NIH funding policies, US immigration policies, and the intersection between them all are lacking in coherence and coordination.” Thus,

large numbers of H-1B visas [for postdocs] are uncoordinated with very limited numbers of permanent visas for those with high levels of education and skills. . . . [T]his lack of coordination has led to large backlogs of former H-1B visa holders awaiting permanent visas and competing for employment opportunities in order to secure these visas.

Appendix D tells the story, but the hot potato remains untouched in the main body of the TRR’s text.

Even in the TRR’s plain, undramatic account, the 21st century world of biomedical postdocs is one of reduced opportunity and increasing frustration. Many (but not all) postdocs in academic labs would paint a similar picture, I think, while their PIs tend to argue either that everything is fine or that present troubles are temporary—often adding that in either case the system will take care of itself. PIs probably forget how easy it was for earlier generations of postdocs to get good jobs in academia or industry, just as they underestimate the future duration of flat-line NIH funding and of the stagnant job market for researchers in universities, biotech, and pharmaceutical companies. If these persist a few more years, I expect to see the unease of postdocs and PIs replaced by a distressing uptick in their unemployment and a real threat to their collective future.

Given that assessment, what does the TRR recommend? The recommendations I choose to discuss today (Table 2 and 9, 10) suggest that the TRR finds in postdoctoral training the same problems it detected in graduate training. The premises of recommendations 6-8 are, respectively, that funds for postdoctoral training depend too much on research project grants (RPGs) and too little on training grants, that this training takes too long, and that it focuses too narrowly on preparing for academic research careers, rather than for careers in industry. Recommendation 9 suggests that more staff scientists be funded on NIH RPGs. Although the TRR never articulates a clear premise for that suggestion,  we shall return to it in due course. All four recommendations exhibit the same defects I found in recommendations 1-5, considered earlier (10). The defects include failure to define problems, missing links between causes and effects, and a persistently vague, indirect, half-hearted approach to difficulties that urgently require decisive action. In their present form, the TRR’s recommendations will make not the slightest dent on any problem. Today we shall briefly discuss shortcomings of these proposals, while the next BiomedWatch post will present stronger proposals that may exert more beneficial effects.

Recommendation 6 (Table 2; 7, 9) proposes that NIH “increase the proportion of postdoctoral researchers supported by [TG/Fs] and reduce the number supported by [RPGs], without increasing the overall number of postdoctoral researchers.” Directly parallel to a previous recommendation on graduate student numbers (11), this recommendation also presents an inadequate rationale (to improve training and monitoring), ignores the reason so many postdocs are supported by RPGs, omits any hint of actual postdoc numbers or how to implement the proposal, and ignores essential facts.

Rather than belabor these shortcomings in detail, let me stress two glaring omissions: (i) at present a very small proportion (≤ 10%) of postdocs receives TG/F support, while at least one third (probably more) are supported by non-federal grants; (ii) at least one third of postdocs (again, probably more) are not US citizens, and so cannot receive TG/Fs from the NIH, although they can be supported by RPGs (for data, see Table 1). Thus the impact of recommendation 6 on postdoctoral training would be almost negligible unless every US-citizen postdoc on NIH RPG support were to be supported by NIH TG/Fs. The TRR did not propose so dramatic and impossible a change, but even if the impossible were achieved, probably fewer than 50% of all postdocs would receive TG/F support. Finally, the biggest defect of recommendation 6 is that it completely ignores the “gorilla in the living room:” how can the US achieve a sustainable biomedical research workforce, given its unlimited access to foreign scientists and the relentless growth of the postdoc population?

Proceeding to other TRR recommendations, let us begin with number 7 (Table 2), which seeks to speed up the transition of postdocs to permanent positions by making it more expensive for PIs to support them. Because the long duration of postdoctoral service accounts for most of the increased time between entering graduate school and taking a permanent job, shorter  service seems a laudable goal. But a difficulty remains: postdocs are cheap labor, to be sure, but it looks as if they stay in labs so long for a different reason—that is, relative to the growing supply of postdocs, permanent positions are scarce and becoming scarcer in academia, pharmaceutical companies, or biotech. If so, even a more drastic measure, like limiting the duration of postdoctoral service, will not solve the problem.

Recommendation 8 (Table 2) suggests that NIH create a pilot program for “institutional postdoctoral offices . . . to experiment in enriching and diversifying postdoctoral training, including partnerships with other entities (industry, private foundations, government, etc.). This might be fine, so far as it goes—but it does not go very far, nor does the TRR explain precisely why such a measure is needed.

The last item in Table 2 is what the TRR has to say about staff scientists. Without exactly making a recommendation, it does state, in bold-face type, that “the working group encourages NIH study sections to be receptive to grant applications that include staff scientists and urges institutions to create position categories that reflect the value and stature of these researchers.” Otherwise, the discussion of staff scientists is extraordinarily vague, even by TRR standards. “Staff scientist” is not defined, except to say that they are “individuals with MSc or PhD degrees.” By way of rationale, we are told that “a large number of future scientists are being produced each year, well in excess of the number of research-oriented jobs . . . . The working group believes that even a modest change in the ratio of permanent staff to trainees could have a beneficial effect on the system without reducing the productivity of the research enterprise.” This tepid endorsement nicely accords with the modest actions “encouraged” and “urged” by a working group that somehow found itself unwilling to issue a firm recommendation.

It looks as if the TRR has swept significant concerns under every corner of its metaphorical rug. Its handling of postdocs is another lamentable performance. By bringing these difficult problems into the light, can we find better ways to grapple with them? I fervently hope so.

For one answer, read the next BiomedWatch post.


1. Biomedical Research Workforce Working Group Report. Pdf here.

2. In Is PhD training too narrow? (TRR-III), I sought to modify TRR recommendation 2, which argued for broader training to prepare new PhD graduates for careers in non-research fields related to biomedical research. I proposed, instead: (i) to make sure prospective PhD students know what they are getting into in a research-centered training programs; (ii) mandatory MS degrees after three years of graduate school, to provide a clean branch point for students to opt for non-research careers and switch to training appropriate to such careers; (iii) leaving to individual graduate programs the options of providing such non-research training after the MS degree or to help students find such training in other schools.

3. Data in Table 1 is taken from pp 19-23 of the TRR. Much of this data is presented in graphs, so that where I could not find the actual numbers I estimated approximate numbers from the graphs instead. Some of the graphs presented data from 1980 to 2010, rather than to the 2009 date shown in the Table; this discrepancy makes no significant difference with  respect to the data or the inferences drawn from it.

4. The TRR carefully notes several quantitative defects in this data. One is that much (not all) of its postdoc data is restricted to postdocs at degree-granting universities. In addition, postdoc numbers are not always accurate because of nomenclatural anomalies: that is, after the first four years as a postdoc, one university may continue to call that individual a postdoc, while others may give her a different title (e.g., visiting scholar, specialist, etc.). Also, data is more complete for postdocs who received their PhDs in the US than for less accurately tracked foreign postdocs. These or other discrepancies presumably account, for instance, for the lack of accurate information on total numbers of postdocs in US labs (noted in the text), and for the grossly different total numbers of postdocs classified according to support vs. citizenship (21,000 vs. 33,000 in 2009, respectively).

5. TRR, p 31.

6. TRR, pp 21-2.

7. TRR, p 37.

8. TRR, p 78.

9. In relation to postdocs, the TRR proposed several recommendations I choose not to discuss, including: postdocs should receive benefits comparable to those of other employees at their institution; NIH should double the numbers of Pathway to Independence and NIH Director’s Early Independence awards; NIH should require individual development plans (IDPs) for all postdoctoral researchers, regardless of their source of support.

10. The TRR does not number its recommendations, so I gave numbers to recommendations I choose to discuss, in the order of their appearance in BiomedWatch. My numbering system, consistent in successive posts, does not conform to the order of their appearance in the TRR. Previous posts (TRR-II), III, IV) discussed, respectively, recommendations 1, 2, and 3-5.

11. This was TRR recommendation 3, which is discussed in NIH support for PhD training (TRR-IV).


About biomedwatch
Professor Emeritus of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology, University of California, San Francisco

2 Responses to Postdoc problems (TRR-V)

  1. Darla says:

    You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually something that I think I would never understand.
    It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I am looking forward for your next
    post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

    • biomedwatch says:


      It IS complex, unfortunately — that is one reason lots of people have decided not to think about it. I haven’t been posting comments here for some time, but I’ve updated the arguments in a series of essays in an online journal, eLife. You may find these easier to “get the hang of”. The citations are:

      The Writing on the Wall
      A Recipe for Mediocrity and Disaster, in Five Axioms
      A third essay will be published in late September in eLife.
      Henry Bourne

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