The age of Postdoc: towards liberation of academic middle class

By | April 15, 2015

Nature has an article about the daunting prospects for current postdocs in some countries (Nature 520, 144-147). The article is stimulating but reports only a few relatively ad-hoc ways to fix the situation. In the discussion below the article Peter Jurica mentions postdocs as middle class (of academia). I think that this simple analogy can inspire more fundamental actions and paradigm shifts, potentially improving the system in favor of postdocs. I've tried to outline them below, building on my limited experience from the US, UK, France and the Czech Republic – hence, my (random) ideas will apply differently, or can even be irrelevant, in different countries and types of universities. The specific countries which I have in mind are US, UK and Germany, where postdocs have especially hard time seeing the future for all the bottlenecks.

These are my suggestions:

1. Acknowledge academic careers that do not involve managing people. Some people excel in doing science, they can even be excellent collaborators, or they have great analytical skills, but are bad in managing people and leading a lab. Many of them would be happy with receiving lower salary relatively to a full lab leader, but they should still be given independence and treated better than today's postdocs. The system potentially misallocates human resources when it encourages leadership as the only logical step after postdoc; an excellent scientist who is a bad manager can be, in some circumstances, more valuable than an average scientist who is a good manager.

2. Legitimize serial postdocs. Many disciplines (journalism, art, photography, data analysis, consultancy, law, …) have the concept of a freelancer – someone who does intellectually demanding or creative work without being part of a big institution and without the stability of permanent position. Freelancing is a legitimate life-long career. Similarly, a highly qualified postdoc who moves from position to position (and place to place) on 1-4 year-ish basis, or who accepts smaller jobs from different institutions, could be considered a research freelancer – a legitimate academic career for those who are happy with the constant change. I see this as an option for research qualifications that involve quantitative and writing skills, as these are transferable between sub-disciplines. I also believe that a senior serial postdoc (an unthinkable and almost pejorative status these days) could have a unique perspective which a senior professor would hardly reach.

3. Allocate resources from senior faculty positions to the academic middle class. Well, if there is not enough cash flowing into the system, one solution (left wing, communist, egalitarian, … start throwing the eggs) to brighten the future of early-stage academics could be to redistribute the cash more evenly. For example, in the US system, the raise of prestige, income, job security and power along the progressing career in academia could be made more gradual, without the abrupt step (bottleneck) between a postdoc and an assistant professor. This would increase opportunities for the early-stage researchers, and it could be sustained without pouring more money into the system. Where it would hurt, however, are the higher positions of today's academic hierarchy. Yet as a postdoc and father myself, I am more comfortable with more opportunities and slower raise in future pay, than with a prospect of hitting a high-paid high-security jackpot, but with low probability.

4. Clarify and possibly reduce the power of advisors over postdocs. It is crucial for the future of a postdoc to build his/her own research direction, independent on any advisor. Many advisors recognize that, but not all – the postdoc stories from Ivy League medical schools are full of expressions such as 'slave'. I suggest that, by rule, anyone hired as a postdoc should be entitled to some days of research, per week basis, with zero involvement of the advisor – this entitlement could be a default and explicit part of postdoctoral contracts. I also think that some advisors don't realize that they are not the bosses, and postdocs are not their subordinates – an advisor's role is to give advice (which is, by definition, not bonding) to someone who is on his/her own path. Maybe this could also be stated in every postdoctoral contract.

5. Allow postdocs to compete for opportunities to teach as principal lecturers. Postdocs are often experts in their field, so why not giving them the opportunity to influence undergrads as principal lecturers? Being responsible for a whole course is a formative experience, completely different from being a mere teaching assistant. It is also a skill that requires some talent and tons of practice – hence the talent needs to be identified early. Also, many undergrad courses taught by full professors are just plain boring. For these reasons postdocs should have the opportunity to be considered as principal lecturers, if there is an indication that they can do it better than a faculty member.

6. Allow postdocs to compete for the big grants. A postdoc is someone who has already proven that he/she can do science, defend it and publish it; that is why he/she holds the PhD degree, which I see as the formal invitation to the grown-ups' game. So dear NSF and others, how about allowing postdocs to play the big game? They may not always succeed in getting the grant, but at least they will have the chance. And who else than young minds are better qualified to propose high risk – high gain projects (the golden calf of basic science)?

7. A postdoc who secures funding should be allowed to tutor grad students. This is self-explanatory and obvious. Such postdoc could also be given a temporary status of assistant professor (for the duration of the funding).

8. Make permanent positions less permanent and subject to periodic reevaluation. In other words, create vacant niches by penalizing below-average performance of professors; such penalty can be a decrease to an appropriate professional level, e.g. from professor back to postdoc, which is not the same as loss of the job. A modification of this idea would allow postdocs to challenge the faculty positions directly – if the challenger wins, he/she would swap the position with the professor. No jobs lost, no extra cash needed.

9. Put lab assistants and technicians who contributed work as co-authors on the resulting publications. They do care! It costs almost nothing, and it makes people feel involved, appreciated and interested in the subject. It also makes sense because they are real part of the research effort. Finally, it means brighter prospects for a postdoc who voluntarily or involuntarily goes for a technician position but still loves science, or hopes to get back to an academic position one day.

10. Change the label from 'postdoc' to 'researcher'. This is just to clarify what postdocs really are.

One thought on “The age of Postdoc: towards liberation of academic middle class

  1. Antonin

    Thanks for the opinion article, Petr! These are some cool ideas. Just a couple of notions which occurred to me while reading your work:

    1. Postdoc status may depend on research goals and leadership

    There may be different types of teams, creative and executive (much like in business). Your insights seem closely relevant to executive teams where clearly defined and usually hard tasks need to be done (e.g. finishing bird phylogeny, linking genomes to diversification). These teams usually have clear hierarchical structure, postdocs are hired to accomplish a given task, PI secures postdoc funding gives their employees limited freedom. Executive teams contrast with creative teams, which do not implement particular ideas, they develop novel research programs, their structure is typically flat, collaborative, egalitarian, and postdocs are not assigned clear tasks. Instead, they work on novel ideas together with students and professors. They may publish in great journals and open new horizons rather than finalize specific projects.

    Most postdocs are happier in creative teams although these teams however put a lot of pressure on intelligence, creativity, and expertise. Their projects may be risky and uncertain. However, executive teams allow even mediocre postdocs to make great contributions because they work on clear tasks defined by the PI. In return for limited intellectual freedom, postdocs receive safe projects, name recognition and high quality publications. Some people prefer this work dynamic.

    2. Although getting a tenure-track job is hard, it does not guarantee professional security

    Although there huge competition for tenure-track jobs, these jobs are far from secure, they often merely introduce new challenges. In five-seven years, assistant professors are evaluated and either offered tenure (if they published and attracted lots of money, which is very high pressure) or asked to leave the university (which pratically terminates their scientific career). Compared to phds and postdocs, starting professors receive even less guidance, they are often lost, jaded, and overwhelmed by paperwork. This setup suggests there may not be as big a gap between postdocs and assistant professors, at least in terms of future security (and salary).

    3. Postdocs acting as freelancers are definitely underappreciated

    Thinking about postdocs as freelancers is a great idea. It is also completely true that academia portays serial postdocs in an inadequately dim light. They usually try to balance family and research; their choice not to sacrifice one for the other is completely understandable. Yet, while freelancers in their 20s are seen a cool, in their 30s and 40s they become less condoned by the society in general (artists in-between jobs, without financial stability and permanent position)

    4. Postdocs as the middle class of academia

    While this is another great metaphor, I wonder whether some institutions (military, church, high schools, academia) are necessarily hierarchical. More power to the people may work very well for democracy, but perhaps it would fail elsewhere (e.g. for bureaucracy as a social institution?) I will need to think more about this one. What kind of institution is academia anyway? Is its main purpose to finish particular tasks (eradicating hunger and aids, medical and applied research, executive teams) or design the intellectual fabric of the society (social sciences, basic research, creative teams)?

    CONCLUSION - We perhaps need a proper balance between creative and executive teams, each working on slightly different tasks, with individual employees (including postdocs) also acting differently. The universities where I have worked often combined flat and hierarchical structures, depending on the type of a research project. I personally prefer creative and egalitarian teams although it is easy to feel lost in them, sometimes without a clear objective or guidance 😉

    It seems I have gotten carried away and wrote a lot. But this admittedly is a stimulating topic, thanks for bringing it up! Antonin

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