from the more-burger-flippers dept.
Carolyn Johnson reports in the Boston Globe that in recent years, the position of postdoctoral researcher has become less a stepping stone and more of a holding tank as postdocs are caught up in an all-but-invisible crisis, mired in a underclass as federal funding for research has leveled off, leaving the supply of well-trained scientists outstripping demand. “It’s sunk in that it’s by no means guaranteed — for anyone, really — that an academic position is possible,” says Gary McDowell, a 29-year old biologist doing his second postdoc. “There’s this huge labor force here to do the bench work, the grunt work of science. But then there’s nowhere for them to go; this massive pool of postdocs that accumulates and keeps growing.” The problem is that any researcher running a lab today is training far more people than there will ever be labs to run. Often these supremely well-educated trainees are simply cheap laborers, not learning skills for the careers where they are more likely to find jobs. This wasn’t such an issue decades ago, but universities have expanded the number of PhD students they train from about 30,000 biomedical graduate students in 1979 to 56,800 in 2009, flooding the system with trainees and drawing out the training period.
Possible solutions span a wide gamut, from halving the number of postdocs over time, to creating a new tier of staff scientists that would be better paid but one thing people seem to agree on is that simply adding more money to the pot will not by itself solve the oversupply. Facing these stark statistics, postdocs are taking matters into their own hands recently organizing a Future of Research conference in Boston that they hoped would give voice to their frustrations and hopes and help shape change. “How can we, as the next generation, run the system?” said Kristin Krukenberg, 34, a lead organizer of the conference and a biologist in her sixth year as a postdoc at Harvard Medical School after six years in graduate school. “Some of the models we see don’t seem tenable in the long run."