Will curtailing postdoc tenures help science?


At a time when PhDs end up doing routine laboratory work as postdocs because of the dearth of permanent jobs, reduced funding is making things worse. Earlier, postdocs used to last a year or two, but now, scientists toil away for up to 10 years!

Kendall Powell in an article on Nature mentions the term “permadoc,” which signifies the multiple postdoc terms that scientists end up with. In fact, a very small percentage of scientists end up being postdocs for life. Various solutions have been proposed to deal with this problem. One of them is limiting postdoc terms to put an end to the agony of scientists working with an uncertain future given that they’re working on short-term contracts.

A case in point here is the French law that ordered French public employers to offer stable employment to workers after 6 years of short-term contracts, through the opening of a new route of recruitment. The havoc created by the law is worth discussing in a separate article. I intend to discuss another important point here – that of the core research being affected in the entire deal.

The example of Cyril Catelain mentioned by Elisabeth Pain in a Science Careers article gives a detailed account of the agony that researchers go through. It took Cyril 5 years of testing to identify cells that, given the right conditions, would develop into healthy cardiac cells when injected into a mouse heart. After spending another two years developing and validating the technique and then working on filing a patent, he was deeply involved into his project when realization struck that time was up for his postdoc tenure!

The struggle Cyril might have had to face in figuring out his next career move is, again, the subject matter of a separate discussion. One critical aspect that needs deep thinking is what happens to the research that Cyril was working on? What impact does Cyril’s exit at such a critical time have on the research that’s he’s so laboriously worked on for 6 years? How easy is it to find an expert to continue the research from where Cyril left off? Can someone else very easily become the subject matter expert for the research that Cyril was working on?

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Postdoc tenure

While numerous measures are being taken to fix the ever increasing problem of the postdoc pile-up, attention needs to be given to another core issue – how is research getting affected in the entire deal? Several thousand researchers are forced to leave their first love – research – for want to address a simple need – to be able to pay their bills and look after family. These and many other factors continue to bleed research globally.

I would like to invite comments from Postdocs & PhDs on how research is getting affected because of researchers leaving their domains at critical stages. Please share real-life examples to help us in highlighting this problem. Also, what other viable solutions are possible other than limiting postdoc terms? I’d love it if someone could conduct a statistical analysis on the adverse effect of researchers leaving their research at a critical stage. Using some reliable data might add a lot of credence to this point and help the scientific avoid a humongous loss.

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Minhaj manages operations at Kolabtree

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