As professors struggle to recruit postdocs, calls for structural change in academia intensify – Science

When Jennifer Mason posted an ad for a postdoc position in early March, she was eager to have someone on board by April or May to tackle recently funded projects. Instead, it took 2 months to receive a single application. Since then, only two more have come in. “Money is just sitting there that isn’t being used … and there’s these projects that aren’t moving anywhere as a result,” says Mason, an assistant professor in genetics at Clemson University.
She isn’t alone. On social media, many U.S. academics have been pointing to widespread challenges in recruiting postdocs. An investigation by Science Careers bears this out: More than 100 U.S.-based researchers were contacted because they advertised for postdoc positions this year on scientific society job boards, and of the 37 who responded with information about their hiring experiences, three-quarters reported challenges recruiting. “This year is hard for me to wrestle with: … we received absolutely zero response from our posting,” one wrote. “The number of applications is 10 times less than 2018-2019,” another wrote.
Those experiencing challenges span STEM fields, including biomedicine, chemistry, environmental science, anthropology, physics, and computer science. Many reported not only a drop in the total number of applications, but also in the quality of applications. “It took two rounds of advertising my current postdoc opening—once in October 2021 and again in April 2022—to find a competitive applicant,” one researcher wrote by email. “I received 28 applications in all, which in the past I could have expected within a month of the first announcement.” The number coming from applicants who are currently based at U.S. institutions has also declined, according to many respondents.
“For the first time I feel my type of job is less rewarding, more frustrating,” says Donna Zhang, a professor of pharmacology and toxicology at the University of Arizona who is trying to hire multiple postdocs. “To find qualified people, it’s way more difficult than it used to [be]. … It’s very bad.”
For junior faculty members such as Mason, who is going up for tenure next year, the frustrations are even more acute. Her research was already impacted by pandemic-induced lab shutdowns and supply chain disruptions. Cost increases for lab supplies ate into her startup funding. She was excited when she received two grants last year, but now recruiting challenges are adding to her worries. “Any slowing of hiring people is a big stress,” she says.
The current situation is counter to what some predicted 2 years ago when the pandemic hit and faculty job openings dried up. At the time, the fear was that postdocs would stay in their positions longer, leaving few openings for new Ph.D. graduates. But that doesn’t seem to be a concern today. The faculty job market rebounded in 2021, according to a preprint posted on bioRxiv last month. And the wider labor market has seen dramatic changes because of what some are calling “the Great Resignation.”
“There are jobs everywhere,” says Donna Ginther, a professor of economics at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, who studies the scientific workforce. Postdocs in general aren’t paid well, she points out, and amid the current labor shortage, higher paid jobs outside of academia have become more available. “Ph.D.s are looking at the labor market, seeing opportunities out there, and taking them,” she says. “Those skills that we teach our Ph.D. students are in demand.”
The disruptions in postdoc recruitment create real challenges for academic researchers, acknowledges Cynthia Fuhrmann, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School who serves as a principal investigator (PI) for the Professional Development Hub. At the same time, she sees it as a positive development that Ph.D. graduates are “voting with their feet” and finding ways to contribute outside the Ivory Tower. “They recognize that there’s exciting career opportunities out there that don’t actually necessitate postdoc training,” she says, which she partially credits to the rise in career development services over the past decade. “I think for a lot of Ph.D.s, it’s also exciting to feel that they can just simply enter the professional workforce after many years of training.”
Graduate students are also listening to postdocs, who in recent years have become increasingly vocal about the precarious nature of their positions and the challenges of getting by on a postdoc salary, especially in high cost of living areas, says Ariangela Kozik, a microbiologist and research investigator at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who led the study of faculty job openings. During her postdoc, which wrapped up last year, she and her husband struggled to afford child care, for instance. “It’s an investment [to do a postdoc] and you take it at a loss,” she says. “And I think the more that people are aware of that, fewer and fewer people are going to be willing to take that risk—especially because there’s no guarantee of a tenure-track position at the end of it.” She’s particularly concerned about the potential exodus of early-career researchers who aren’t economically privileged. “Preexisting privilege … determines whether or not you’re able to stick it out” through the economic hardships of a postdoc position, she says. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
Many faculty members expressed sympathy for the situation academic postdocs are in and acknowledged they should be paid more. But they also said that in many cases they feel their hands are tied. Postdoc salaries are frequently based on what the U.S. National Institutes of Health sets as its standard, “and that’s pretty low,” says Daniel Wolf Savin, a physicist and senior research scientist at Columbia University who is currently struggling to fill five postdoc positions. When hiring, he competes with national labs that offer up to $20,000 more per year in salary. “If we put in a research grant with a postdoc salary that they pay at a national lab, the program office is going to look at it and say, ‘Look, I can’t give you this much money. It’s so out of line with what everyone else is asking for,’” he says.
Others also point to growing disenchantment with academia during the pandemic as potentially contributing to the decreased postdoc applications. “A lot of universities really showed their cards about whether they care about people,” says Gary McDowell, CEO and founder of Lightoller consultancy and an advocate for early-career researchers. For instance, some universities forced academics to work on campus and continued to expect high productivity despite COVID-19 exposure risk and ongoing disruptions, he says. Those problems were layered on top of other preexisting issues, such as challenges with work-life balance, low pay, and the scarcity of permanent jobs.
McDowell hopes that if talented early-career researchers are in fact leaving academia at higher rates today—a trend that may be happening at the junior faculty level as well—it will serve as a wake-up call for universities. “I honestly think that’s the only way that academia will change and start to actually address these problems,” he says.
Fuhrmann agrees. “This could be a really great opportunity to see these pressures on the system and think about intentionally creating systemic change,” she says. For instance, academic administrators and policymakers may want to ask, “How can we make postdoc positions more attractive? How can we diversify the academic workforce so that perhaps we have more research scientist positions, as well as postdoc positions, … so that students see additional paths—pathways for promotion after their postdoc training?”
Some of the faculty members Science Careers reached out to reported they were looking into other avenues for getting their work done, including offering permanent staff researcher positions. But others say grant budget constraints make such positions unrealistic for them.
“The PIs—I feel for them [because] they can’t solve the problem by themselves,” Kozik says. Funding agencies and universities set many of the policies that determine postdoc salary and working conditions, she continues. “It really is going to need to take an all-stakeholder effort here to turn some things around.”
Katie Langin is the associate editor for Science Careers.
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