Science for Progress

because science is fundamental in the 21st century

51 Extended Throwback: Precarious Postdocs – with Gary McDowell

 Postdocs are, besides graduate students, the main workforce in academic research. Following the PhD, the postdoc position is the only way to follow a research career within academia. Many PhDs around the world are advised to go to the USA for a postdoc – or two – because it is known for its large research output and high-quality research institutes. Around two-thirds of postdocs in the USA are foreign-born.

In this episode, I talk to Gary McDowell, a UK born scientist in protein research who, over the last few years, worked with “Future of Research” to investigate the conditions postdocs in the USA are facing. The situation appears to be far from optimal. And this doesn’t just hurt the postdocs and their families; it also impacts research productivity.

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The goals of Future of Research are to enable PhDs to make better career decisions about whether a postdoc is a good decision, and if so, how to choose the right place to apply to. Another fundamental problem is the disconnect between the lived experience of junior academics and their senior supervisors. 

At the same time, the data they collected unveil systemic problems with postdocs in the USA, and Future of Research is working to change academia for the better.

Postdoc: Advertisement and Reality

The postdoc, as advertised, is a sort of apprenticeship position where PhDs develop their independent research projects to become leading scientists heading their own labs. The reality is that postdocs have replaced staff researchers, working on their Principal Investigator’s project, and hardly ever being mentored or trained in leadership and management. Even training in essential day-to-day parts of the work as an academic scholar – like conducting peer review – doesn’t seem to be part of their experience. At the same time, postdocs are still being classified as “trainees” to justify not paying them their worth, and to deny them benefits such as proper health care.

Salary

Because postdocs are paid below their skill and experience levels, and most are not given the mentoring and training promised, they are exploited as cheap labor by the academic system. A few years ago, Obama tried to change a labor law, which would have affected that institutions would need to give postdocs a raise – or face the issue of having actually to keep track of postdoc working hours. Unfortunately, this change didn’t become active. On the bright side, most universities still implemented the raise – even though some universities were trying to take it back. So this was good news.

Future of Research collected salary data from postdocs just after this happened (and continues to do so for a longitudinal study), and found a median income of about $47500. This number clearly could be related to the planned labor law adjustment. So this was a positive finding. However, we should not forget that taking all people with doctorates in the USA, median salaries range from $70 000 to $100 000. Even worse: a postdoc negatively affects income up to 15 years following graduation to a PhD. This seems to come as a surprise to many, including industry representatives.

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Benefits

The USA are infamous for their inadequate health care and labor protection situation. Many PhDs from countries with socialized or mandated benefits, like in Europe, will be surprised that things like basic health care, vacation time of more than two weeks, and maternal protection (let alone parental leave), are not a given in America. And Universities often will take any excuse not to pay benefits. 

Vice versa, Americans appear to be quite surprised that in the UK, for example, there is a training time mandate by funding providers. In the USA the PI has full control over a postdoc’s time. And not only are PIs allowed to keep their “trainees” from getting trained in workshops and elsewhere, but they also often simply don’t mentor them themselves, either. 

Training

As one example for lack of training, and general misconduct, we talk peer review. PIs who are asked to review a paper for a journal, often pass the work on to postdocs or graduate students under the pretense of it being a training opportunity. But then there is no feedback given. Often the written peer reviews are handed to the editors directly without mentioning who wrote it. In this way, the integrity of peer review is broken, the trainee is denied credit and networking opportunity, and the PI just committed plagiarism.

Change

The work of Future of Research to inspire change has been compared to talking to climate change deniers. Senior academics responded with outright denial, the wish to only talk about the positive sides (which ones?), or even demanded that research on these issues should be stopped. You know, because it’s easier to ignore the problems this way.

Thankfully, some change is underway, despite these reactions. Many institutions slowly realize that the adverse conditions in academia are beginning to deter young people. Future of Research is pushing for more transparency, and they want to see more Early Career Researchers on boards of societies and institutions. They are further looking for ways to measure the mentorship quality at a university. And finally, they want to suggest guidelines to journals to avoid ghost-writing in peer review – a measure that would help early career researchers gain a reputation with editors.

links:
• Future of Research
• Gary McDowell on Twitter
• Assessing the Landscape of U.S. Postdoctoral Salaries
• Co-reviewing and ghostwriting by early career researchers in the peer review of manuscripts
• Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws

about Dennis Eckmeier

Dennis founded Science for Progress. He received a PhD in neuroscience in 2010 in Germany. Until 2018 he worked as a postdoc in the USA, and Portugal. In 2017 he co-organized the March for Science in Lisbon, Portugal. Dennis is currently a freelancer.

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