Track the fate of postdocs to help the next generation of scientists

Data on the career paths of young researchers would help to guide the ‘lost generation’.
Silhouettes of people in front of building entrance at night.

Better statistics on careers for young scientists would show how few of them achieve staff positions.Credit: Getty

It is a century since the first génération perdue came of age. The phrase is attributed to US writer Gertrude Stein, who heard it as a casual insult aimed by a garage boss at a young French mechanic who was working — too slowly — on Stein’s car. The term is now generally used to describe a group of people who are lost to society. So when European officials spoke at a conference session last week called ‘The lost generation of European scientists’, for many participants the name would have conjured up thoughts of an exodus of talented early-career researchers, who are fed up with the insecurity of short-term jobs and with dwindling opportunities in academia. And so it should have: in many disciplines, that issue is real, growing and serious. Young and early-career researchers need the problem to be taken seriously — and so does the rest of the scientific community. Figures are difficult to come by, but less than one-fifth of US postdocs secure a tenured research position, and the situation is even more competitive in Europe.

The ‘lost generation’ tag has another, more subtle meaning. Popularized by US writer Ernest Hemingway, it was used to describe the age group — Hemingway included — that had been left disoriented and confused by growing up amid the horrors and chaos of the First World War. Lost, not missing. The distinction is important. Careers outside academia are just as valuable and senior scientists must acknowledge this. Nevertheless, young researchers are too often led to believe that a non-academic career is inferior, so individual scientists who find they need to look elsewhere often feel let down, deceived and cynical.

Last week’s event, held at the EuroScience Open Forum in Toulouse, France, covered all of that ground. The session was well attended and was frank about the scale of the problem and the difficulty of finding solutions. This might indicate that European funders and policymakers are catching up with the United States, where the crisis of confidence and opportunity among young scientists — especially in biomedicine — has been widely debated for at least a decade. That would be good news. The bad news is that Europe’s fragmented, variable national research bodies and strong university autonomy make it much easier to acknowledge the problem than to change the systems that cause it.

At the meeting, European Research Council president Jean-Pierre Bourguignon hinted at an obvious fix: increase funding for scientific research and create more permanent academic jobs. But that’s a big ask, and one that would take time. A more-immediate solution calls for more-specific and targeted changes. One is the creation of more full-time staff scientist positions, although such posts (with benefits such as pensions) raise institution costs.

As we have argued previously (Nature 550, 429; 2017), there is a pressing need for greater transparency about the likelihood of PhD students and postdocs following an academic career to the higher levels. A suggestion made at last week’s session — and one that Nature endorses — is that universities and other institutions should track and provide data on how many academic jobs are available at each level, and list the destination of every scientist who moves on. The US National Academies has made an attempt at doing this for postdocs, and the European Science Foundation has tried to track the fate of Europe’s PhD holders. Both are good models to follow.

Better information won’t solve all the problems of all the ‘lost’ researchers, but it will at least provide them with a map as they decide on their next move. Those who supervise PhD students and postdocs must show them such a map, and take responsibility for preparing them for non-academic careers. What might look like a loss for academia can still be a great gain for society.

Nature 559, 302 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05745-2
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