The problem with Post-Docs

A friend and fellow colleague of mine pointed out this interesting Nature article on Post-Docs:

K. Powell, The future of Post-Docs, Nature 520, 144-147 (2015)

To sum it up: there are too many post-docs that have no future in academia, they are not well paid, their life is very precarious, and often they cling with their nails to research for too long a time. Still scientific production highly relies on them: in fact, they are often the major driving force behind papers, since they are at the top of their scientific education (including recent studies and experience in that special branch of PR that is scientific publishing and conference attendance), building up their reputation by increasing some numerical measures of productivity, and at the same time they are not yet absorbed by bureaucracy, teaching, mentoring and other academic duties.

The article gives a few numbers, but it’s rather a collection of opinions and interviews, including one provocative point of view that Post-Docs exiting academia often find very well-paid (but less fulfilling) jobs elsewhere, so why blaming the system? They are happy after all…* Some proposals to soothe scares are considered, like the super-PostDoc, a stable research position without the duties and privileges of a principal investigator. Personally, I would propose a free-lance figure called the “Erdos Post-Doc”, without fixed location but available by invitation, with minor duties (some teaching and tutoring here and there), poorly paid, but with plenty of free time for real research (and for other things of life).

I’d like to take it even more qualitative. I have often being discussing with fellow Post-Docs our common life issues (I must point out that my personal situation is completely different from the one portrayed below, and much luckier). Still what I see around I don’t like. Without any reference to future perspectives, we can already state that:

Dump the ripe fruit. Post-doc contracts are too short: the typical length in Europe is two years. Supposing it takes half a year to read the literature and get tuned to a research subject (possibly quite different from the previous one) and to the particular questions and methods of that particular group, and considering that the last months are dedicated to applications for other positions, the net amount of time dedicated to real research is residual.

Create! In that short time window when the Post-Doc is productive he will be swallowed by making sense of the research project he submitted and the demands of the principal investigator. He will have very little time to formulate and elaborate newer and better research questions, and it might well be that he will never have the time to go deeper into them. This results in a very narrow and highly specific scope of research, because not enough time is dedicated to structuring questions, and too much time is dedicated to finding answers to pointless questions.

Social life screwed up. Post-docs move every two years, leaving behind friends, family, and whomever they had the chance to meet in the spare time. If they have a special friendship, that person might be asked to renounce to his/her dreams. I think this is the most serious issue, considering that most people with the same education level at that age find a stable accommodation, get married, have children and often they are able to move and bargain positions for their special friends. Not that I really envy stable married families with children in ugly German cities. Still this possibility is open to most people with a Ph.D., but those doing research. Is stability really harmful to scientific research?

Love what you do. It is understood that people doing science love what they do and do what they love, and this is a credo that justifies an advanced form of work exploitment. Being a free spirit, thinking under an apple tree, pursuing truth, instead of processing meaningless data in a repetitive way, stuck at a monitor… who wouldn’t want that? The truth is that because of the hard competition to get glossy publications, of the little disposable time, of the precariousness and all that, doing research becomes an extremely constrained duty, with very little personal freedom and rare blissful moments of wonder. Sometimes so much so that it becomes indistinguishable from office duties of administrative employees. This is no fun at all.

Too late… It takes some courage and recklessness to go into research. Sometimes professors are clear-and-cut on this (my favorite professor suggested I should move to music! He had no idea how much worse it is in that business…), but it’s difficult to push a person out of a dreamy fascination for sheer knowledge. Despite disillusion, people get stuck into a total experience where they have little perception of what is going on around, until they become too old for adapting to the (perceived) job market and don’t see any obvious detour.

By all this I’m not saying that being a Post-Doc is hard, it would be disrespectful to the people who struggle through poverty, wars, draughts etc. I’m just wondering whether it makes sense that the highest-educated people that society produces, and the main motive forces behind scientific research are treated in a way that makes their contribution stale and their life worse than it would be if they chose other careers.

* I hate this argument and I will try to post a specific answer to that.

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2 thoughts on “The problem with Post-Docs

  1. the idea of an erdős-post doc is rather good. nothing would change after all, but at least those going for research after their ph.d. would clearly know what’s going to happen to them.

    > Is stability really harmful to scientific research?
    nope. i think it’s rather the other implication the one that holds: modern academic life developed into what it’s like now, especially in germany and partially in england, at a time where the gender roles were clearly stated. typically, the man would become a professor and that would more or less grant him enough money to feed his, who would stay at home taking care of the children while the man would possibly travel through europe or the world from conference to conference and working all night long. at least, a tenured position was offered early enough that children could be born only after said tenured position was finally achieved, thus not forcing them and their mother to steadily re-settle or to abandon the scientist; but this has changed in the (much) worse.

    the above hilbert-like model is incompatible with our current viewpoint of what a society and a family should look like, but many countries keep on dealing with scientists in the same good old way – why bother to change, when so many people are nevertheless willing to become scientists?

    i believe a change could only become possible if scientists would be experimentally, reliably proved to deliver more/better results in a stable socio-familiar environment.

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