The decline of the postdoc population and research enterprise sustainability

A recent paper published in the FASEB Journal presents data demonstrating the population of postdoctoral scholars at degree-granting institutions peaked in 2010 and has been declining through 2013. These data are derived from the National Science Foundation’s annual Survey of Graduate Students and Postdoctorates. The data show that the decline in the number of postdocs at U.S. degree-granting institutions has occurred for international and domestic postdocs as well as men and women, although, the decline is steepest among U.S. men. Furthermore, this decline is happening despite a steady increase in Ph.D.s awarded over that time frame.

While the trend of postdoc employment in degree-granting institutions is clear, the trend for the overall postdoc population is a little murkier. Estimates for the total number of postdocs in the U.S. range from 39,000 to nearly 90,000. As noted by the authors, the data reported by the GSS do not capture the trends of postdoc employment outside of degree-granting institutions. This leads to the question of what does a 5 percent reduction in the postdoc population at degree-granting institutions mean in the context of a total postdoc population that may fluctuate by almost 2-fold?

Dr. Howard Garrison, director of public affairs for the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology and lead author on the study said, “We are describing a rate, not estimating a point. Our estimates come from a robust survey of a vital and central segment of the research labor force. The decline is real and important. It is indeed possible that the situation is different for the other parts of the labor force (government and free standing research institutions that do not offer degrees), but I would suspect that the situation is similar.”

So then where are the postdocs going? The authors assert that immigration policies or a change in the nomenclature of postdoc positions are not responsible for the observed trends. Rather, the authors suggest that a combination of newly minted Ph.D.s opting to skip a postdoc, fewer postdoc opportunities, shortened postdoc periods as well as the well-documented reduction of purchasing power of grants has contributed to the decline of the postdoc population. Of further concern is that the unemployment rate of Ph.D.s within four years of receiving their degree was well above the unemployment rate for all Ph.D.s in 2012. This trend will require close inspection in future surveys.

Postdoc employment in the larger context of the size, scope and composition of the biomedical research workforce will be one of the major topics of discussion when the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology convenes a summit in February. This meeting will build off of the Public Affairs Advisory Committee’s paper published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The goal of this summit is to devise and begin work on implementable plans to improve the sustainability of the research enterprise.

Stay tuned to the ASBMB Policy Blotter for more information about the society’s work on moving toward a sustainable biomedical research enterprise.

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