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Why a postdoc might not advance your career

Two studies reiterate that very few postdoctoral researchers land academic posts — and suggest that the skills postdocs learn are not sought by employers outside academia.
Chris Woolston is a freelance writer in Billings, Montana.

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Many postdocs find it hard to compete for non-academic jobs, two studies reveal.Credit: Getty

Postdoctoral training often leaves researchers ill-prepared for future careers, according to two studies that explored the realities of postdoc life at major research institutions.

One study, published online on 8 October in Research Policy, explored the ‘mismatch’ between the skills sought by employers and the skills learned in postdoctoral positions at five institutes, including four top US universities. Another study published in the December issue of the Scandinavian Journal of Management investigated the postdoc recruitment and hiring process at four European universities — a process, the authors argue, that undermines long-term employability and job security.

Of the 97 postdocs interviewed in 2016 and early 2017 for the Research Policy paper, 84 had originally planned to go on to an academic career. At the time of publication, five of those postdocs, or 6%, had in fact landed tenure-track positions, but many of the rest will eventually have to pursue other options, says lead author Christopher Hayter, a higher-education researcher at Arizona State University in Tempe. “It’s shocking when a postdoc at a top research institution can’t find a job in academia,” he says, “but that’s par for the course.”

Hayter’s interviews with industry representatives for the study underscored another problem: postdocs can have a hard time competing for non-academic jobs. One potential employer interviewed said that postdocs “have all the academic science skills you don’t need, and none of the organizational skills that you do”.

To partly remedy that mismatch, Hayter suggests that more universities could offer programmes that teach postdocs entrepreneurial skills. “They may not decide that they want to be entrepreneurs, but it would at least open their minds to other possibilities,” he says.

The long-term future of postdocs isn’t necessarily a high priority for principal investigators (PIs), says Channah Herschberg, lead author of the Scandinavian Journal of Management paper and a PhD student in management at Radboud University in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. Interviews with 21 PIs suggest that they largely want to hire anyone who can help in the short term, even if they aren’t perfect for the position. One Swiss interviewee said he generally hires a postdoc “who can start immediately, who will be good for the project, but perhaps not super brilliant, not top class”.

Respondents also said that the hiring process is often based on informal connections and familiarity. “PIs have limited time, so they have a preference for people they already know,” Herschberg says.

Herschberg notes that the qualities that PIs look for in a postdoc — including availability, familiarity and a willingness to work on a short-term project — aren’t necessarily the qualities that will produce the best science or provide the best preparation for a future career. It would help, she says, if funding agencies could give researchers more time to complete their projects, which could translate to longer contracts for postdocs. More-formal recruitment processes that actually found the best candidates for any given position would also be a step in the right direction, she says. “If PIs could advertise more openly for positions, they could give opportunities to new people, and the quality of the research might improve.”

Sibby Anderson-Thompkins, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, says that the two studies help to illuminate the precarious employment situation, both present and future, for postdoctoral researchers in the United States and Europe. “They really homed in on some of the challenges and problems,” she says. “There needs to be a whole retooling of how we design postdoctoral training and how we recruit and hire people into these positions.”

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07652-y
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