Employment trends, no matter how tenuously discerned or documented, are inevitably good news for some groups and bad for others. This point hit home during a recent visit to Paris. In conversations with officials from both the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility and the Pasteur Institute, spokespeople from each organization noted that they were having trouble attracting postdocs. After further probing, both officials backtracked a little. They were getting plenty of applicants, they said. The problem was in attracting quality candidates.

Both provided plenty of informed speculation as to why this is so — at least, as informed as my attempts to play amateur sociologist and derive some sort of meaning from this small sample size. The good economy meant more permanent positions — in academia and industry — for newly minted PhDs, they said. And they noted that permanent positions are desirable, not just for job security, but also for the ability to carry out research unencumbered by somewhat arbitrary deadlines.

Of course, I can sympathize with organizations wanting to attract the 'quality' candidates. It is only natural that they should seek the best possible scientists. But their present discouragement may have more to do with high expectations of what, exactly, a PhD should bring to a postdoc position.

Should they be highly trained scientists who can carry out complex research tasks for a principal investigator? Or should they be promising, but somewhat inexperienced researchers who, with training, can thrive after a few years? The French postdoc shortage is bad for the relatively few institutions seeking the former, but good for the relatively many young scientists aspiring to the latter.