In a recent article in the open access journal eLIFE, College of Natural Sciences Dean Tricia Serio joins six fellow biological sciences researchers in thinking aloud about the future of research. They propose that improving the postdoctoral training experience can be a way to address problems in the sustainability of biomedical research.
They state the problem: “New Ph.Ds. frequently continue their research training by working in established laboratories in the U.S.in positions that are often designated as postdocs, but can also be known by more than 30 other names, including visiting fellow, research fellow or research associate. These positions provide training, and contribute intellectual capital and a significant workforce, but an analytical view reveals that the ad hoc expansion of such positions is causing problems.”
Answering their own question, “Why does the name matter if the job gets done?” Serio and colleagues argue that having too many job titles “obscures attempts to address problems in the biomedical research workforce and can also negatively impact individuals in these positions.”
To optimize the biomedical research workforce, they state, “we need to determine how best to support researchers at each level of their career, including faculty, staff scientists and trainees at all levels.” This will require defining the existing workforce, projecting the composition of the workforce needed in the future and performing cost/benefit assessments.
Further, they assert that “biomedical research does not respond to classic market forces in the same way as other industries,” which means “the workforce needs to be managed by other mechanisms.” A first step would be to accurately track outcomes of postdoctoral training, a challenge because “the true number of postdocs in the U.S. is uncertain, with recent estimates ranging between 30,000 and 80,000,” they add.
Serio and colleagues highlight a labor gap in which supply exceeds demand, that is the number of positions available. “As a result, highly trained scientists progress through, but then stall in, an ever-lengthening postdoc stage, further increasing the labor gap.”
The scholars offer recommendations that other institutions can follow in consolidating their postdoc position designations based on what they see as successful efforts at Boston University and the University of Chicago.