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Stop the postdoc treadmill … I want to get off

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Julie Gould hears how the postdoc experience varies around the world.

The problems facing postdocs who are more than ready for life as an independent researcher are well documented. A lack of faculty positions forces many to spend years moving from one temporary contract to another, often internationally.

But moving abroad can rob many countries of talented researchers, particularly if they leave for good, says Melody Mentz-Coetzee, a senior researcher at the University of Pretoria’s centre for the advancement of scholarship in South Africa.

Her country faces exactly this problem — a situation she dates back to the late 1970s and early 1990s. “At this point, we started to see a lot of talented researchers being trained abroad, and many of those never returned home: the so-called brain drain in Africa,” Mentz-Coetzee tells Gould.

“Many institutions face a severe shortage of highly qualified staff, many of whom are older, close to retirement. So you do have this kind of a ‘missing middle’.”

Mentz-Coetzee describes an initiative across ten Carnegie-funded postdoc fellowship programmes on the African continent to help tackle the problem.

Shambhavi Naik, a former postdoc who turned to journalism and is now a research fellow at the Takshashila Institution’s technology and policy programme in Bengaluru, explores why talented graduate students who opted to develop their careers in India, rather than move abroad, are overlooked for faculty positions. Their motivation to stay at home is a wake-up call for science in India, she argues.

And Shirley Tilghman, emeritus professor of molecular biology and public affairs at Princeton University in New Jersey, says the problem is a cultural one, and could be addressed by the development of staff-scientist roles to oversee technological change in the scientific enterprise.

“It’s about changing the mindset of each individual principal investigator, who kind of wants to circle the wagons and say, ‘Don't mess with my stuff’. And that’s the culture we have to change,” she says.


This six-part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland.

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day. Find out more about this content.


Julie Gould hears how the postdoc experience varies around the world.

Sponsor message: 0:00

This six part Working Scientist podcast series is sponsored by the University of Queensland,

UQ research creates change right across the world, every day.

Jullie Gould: 0:11

Hello, I'm Julie Gould, and welcome to part two of the Working Scientist podcast series all about the postdoc.

In the first episode of this series, I tried to answer the question: What is a postdoc? It seems like such a simple question, but actually, the answer is quite hard to find.

So I thought, what if I have a look at the postdoc experience in different places around the world to see if that might help me find an answer?

It is well known that in the European and US academic systems there are more postdocs than the system can support, and that many who aspire to become academic researchers are not able to find the job of their dreams. Not for lack of effort, nor for lack of skill, but just for the lack of jobs.

But in other parts of the world, there are actually very few postdocs. It is the curious case of the missing middle, and Shambhavi Naik has been looking into this in India.

Shambhavi is a journalist and research fellow at the Takshashila Institution's technology and policy programme. and an entrepreneur based in India. Before this, she was actually a cancer biologist who did two postdocs, the first one at the University of Leicester, UK, and the second one at the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore, India. Her UK experience as a postdoc was a really positive one, with many opportunities for extra training,

Shambhavi Naik: 1:36

I think that the postdoc in the UK was tailored for you to determine whether you wanted to be a PI. It gave you training opportunities, in terms of leadership, in terms of training other students. So it was kind of a whole package.

And it seemed to be a postdoc-led lab.

So the major decisions (in the absence, I suppose) to the day to day ordering, and all happened through, mostly through postdocs.

That was a really good experience for me. This is something I want to do, I want to cure cancer, and I want to have my own lab that's going to find that miracle cure one day.

Julie Gould: 2:14

But soon after returning to India for her second postdoc, Shambhavi noticed two very stark differences between the two different systems.

Shamnbavi: Naik: 2.23

One was the lab's atmosphere was different. It was a PhD-driven lab. And there were very few postdocs, and the postdocs seemed to be there mainly to do science and get your paper out.

And we felt that postdocs in India did not have a voice.

The other difference there was that things took a long time to come. So we were pre-planning experiments for like three months, two months in advance, which is really not the way science can work.

Julie Gould: 2.50:

The reasons that there are so few postdocs in India are many, complicated and interrelated. Longer experiment times due to unreliable access to reagents, less funding directed to research, a demand for high impact factor papers...

But mostly, there seems to be an underlying bias that if you are from India, and you have done all of your academic training in India, you will not be hired for a permanent research position, because those who have done their training elsewhere around the world will have papers published in higher impact factor journals.

So Shambhavi and some of her peers and colleagues looked into this and ran a survey to see if this bias really existed,

Shambavi Naik: 3:28

We had a look at some of the premier research institutions and looked at all of their recent hires. And there's zero to minimal people who have actually done their entire education in India, who have been hired into faculty positions, right.

So that was one sort of evidence, But then we argued that “Look, it doesn't matter what the data shows.”

If PhD students believe that you're not going to hire an Indian postdoc, and hence, they have to go outside, and they have to study, do a postdoc outside, and only then that would help them come back into Indian science.

That should be your critical data point for you.

Because that means that your target audience believes there's a bias, right?

And hence, that was the reason for doing this survey, it was to figure out whether “Do more people than just us feel that there is a bias?”

What we found was that overwhelmingly PhD students felt that there was a bias, that they had to train overseas to get a job back in Indian academia. And this was about 70% of the students that were surveyed.

So that's a pretty significant proportion. So there's a growing voice, "Look, the bias is there. We understand the reasons behind it. We just need a better system, than the bigger impact factors to be recruiting people“.

Julie Gould: 4:43

But when they ask people if they would stay in India for a postdoc, the answers weren't what Shambhavi and her colleagues were hoping for.

Shambavi Naik: 4:50

The number one reason was for family. So it did not seem that they were keen on staying in Indian science for "Hey, we are doing great work," or "Hey, we have good access to this amazing expertise, and infrastructure."

It was "Because my family is here and we want to stay."

And that is really disappointing for Indian science. If the number one reason why your PhD students (and we stress a lot on our PhD students. India has been creating opportunities to have as many PhD students as we can.

And yet if they feel that the only reason they want to stay in and are the only the most important reason why they want to stay in India is for their family, that is a big call to Indian science to say that, "hey, this is an issue, we need to rectify this."

And that can come from a number of places, We automatically look up to scientists who are outside, We automatically have this bias that you have to be in a certain lab to be able to have a paper in Nature, right? You have to have certain names on your author's list to break into those double impact factor patterns.

Again, I'm not saying that all of this is completely true 200 per cent of time. But there are so many mental biases that we're always grappling with.

Julie Gould: 6:14

Africa seems to have a very similar situation. There are hardly any postdocs.

But there is a historical reason for this, says Melody Mentz-Coetzee. a senior researcher at the University of Pretoria's centre for the advancement of scholarship in South Africa.

And she works on a project called PERKA, which is a peer learning project across 10 Carnegie funded postdoc fellowship programmes on the African continent.

Melody Mentz-Coetzee: 6:38

So in the late 1970s, to the early 1990s are the key development agencies who are funding education in Sub Saharan Africa changed focus from higher education to basic education.

So really, at this point is when we started to see a lot of talented researchers being trained abroad, and many of those never returning home, the so called brain drain in Africa. And over a prolonged period of time, there was the neglect of African higher education systems.

And as a result, many institutions face a severe shortage of highly qualified staff. Many of the highly qualified staff are older, close to retirement. And so you do have this kind of "missing middle."

That's one of the reasons why the postdoc is not that common right now, because we've only recently started to have a very strong emphasis on increasing the number of PhDs in Africa, and doing that through African based training programmes.

Julie Gould: 7:59

Some of the Carnegie funded fellowships are just based at individual universities, like the "Building a new generation of academics in Africa fellowship" is based at the University of Ghana.

Other fellowships are part of a consortia like the African Academy of Sciences regional initiative in science education postdoctoral fellowship programme, supports postdocs across universities in Tanzania, South Africa, Botswana, Malawi, Uganda and Nairobi.

So one of the benefits of there being a lack of postdocs in this part of the world is that these programmes have been able to design their fellowships from scratch with a blank slate, and without any previous bias.

Melody Mentz-Coetzee 8:38

All of the programmes have a very strong emphasis on creating space for the postdocs to have time to focus on research, to develop advanced research skills, and then to be able to publish the research.

The programmes also all have a component where there is a structured opportunity for the postdoc to build other type of skills that you need.

So these would be skills like academic writing, proposal/grant writing, opportunities to build networks in the discipline, but also within the broader academic community.

Another common element on the programmes is that there's a strong emphasis on not only supervision, but also on mentoring. So many of the programmes have got a structured mentoring element where they really try to support the fellow to be able to be successful in the programme, but also to develop those unspoken skills that one needs to be successful in an academic career.

Juile Gould 9:56

This sounds like a dream programme, but there are still local challenges that even a dream postdoc fellowship cannot overcome.

Melody Mentz-Coetzee: 10:05

One of the challenges that many of the programmes have faced is that, even though you are designing a fellowship that is really well conceptualised, you provide a lot of support to the fellows.

You can put many things in place, but you are still operating within a particular context. So access to research funding, access to research infrastructure, even things like access to really fantastic wi fi all present challenges that no matter how good your programme is, the reality on the ground is that there are other hurdles that researchers have to overcome.

Julie Gould 10:55

But one of the benefits from starting from scratch is that you can learn from others.

Melody Mentz-Coetzee: 10:59

One thing we need to be quite intentional about

from the African perspective is that a postdoc is something that's temporary. I don't think we can be mandatory and say it's only x number of years, but it is a temporary position.

And after that, the postdoc needs to be equipped to move on to a position of greater seniority, possibly a longer term position or a permanent position. So avoiding almost that sense of stuckness without any good opportunities on the horizon.

Julie Gould 11:42

The concept of postdocs being stuck on a postdoc treadmill is familiar to many of you that are listening, I am sure. And as mentioned in part one of this series, the National Postdoctoral Association in the US has recommended that no one is a postdoc for more than five years.

In many countries in Europe, it's actually been written into the legal system that you cannot do a postdoc at a university for more than six years.

And as we mentioned in part one, this system is actually very well intentioned, but it does come with some challenges.

Originally from Bangladesh, Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, chair of the Mary Curie Alumni Association did two postdocs in Austria, totaling six years at the same institution, after which he was asked to leave because they did not have a permanent position for him.

Now, for personal reasons, he cannot leave Austria, but this has meant that he also cannot continue on the academic career track that he was hoping to be on.

Mostafa Moonir Shawrav: 12:34

There are a lot of researchers, a lot of postdocs, who would love to continue doing research, but not take into an academic position.

For them there is no other way. There is no staff scientists, for example, staff scientist position is almost, very little amount, if you will look at it in any university.

So this structural system, as well as of course, the budget is always a big issue in academia is kind of unfair, but it's quite important in postdoc career or academic career that you need to move around.

And for me also, personally, I'm originally from Bangladesh, I studied, worked in Netherlands then Belgium and Austria. I mean, I think I'm quite mobile, already. I don't want to move anymore. So but unfortunately, if you would like to choose an academic path, hen your freedom is kind of limited.

Julie Gould 13:33

In Japan, your freedoms as an academic or author limited, but in a very different way. Ruyki Hyodo is a postdoc at the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, and we heard from him in part one of this series too.

Now the Japanese culture is very different from any other in the world. And this filters through to the academic system too. It's well known that hierarchy is prominent in Japan, and it's largely down to age,

Ruyki Hyodo: 13:57

Lifetime employment, you do not stop your career, you just focus on one company. So that means in Japan, it's very maybe specific to Asia, but you really care about your age, even just one year younger or one year older, you have a very different time.

Okay, you have to respect that people because they are very old people. So and then we in language, we have very, very different, we have different forms.

When we talk about older people or younger people, it's totally different. So you can easily understand if people, to keep us talking and then we can understand who is older who is younger or something like that.

So that's why if you go to a PhD, that means you spent more than three years after a Master's degree and then going to industry, that means your first year over your industry is already in Japan it's delayed for three years at least. But you are the most beginner in the industry. So that's really age-sorted. In Japan everything is age-sorted.

Juile Gould 15:13

And this means that if you are on the academic career track, you can only be on the academic career track,

Ruyki Hyodo: 15:18

if you got a PhD, he means you have to go to postdoc after you get PhD.

So if you want to go to industry, you better stop at master degree or undergraduate. It's very difficult for a postdoc to go to that company, even they are talented, because they already get order in old enough too much. I mean, Japan,

Julie Gould 15:42

Japan's population is ageing, which means that fewer people are going to universities, and so fewer professors are needed.

This means that Japanese postdocs on the academic career track who do not have the option of leaving academia are going to be stuck on the postdoc treadmill for longer. The very problem that Melody said they're trying to avoid in Africa.

Julie Gould 16:00

Now living forever, as a postdoc might be the dream for some for those who don't want the responsibilities of becoming a manager in the lab.

But it's not a well paid job, it's actually not a very secure job at all.

A better option might be to go for a staff scientist role. And the way that science is going, says Shirley Tilghman, the president of Princeton University means that these roles may be more appropriate as part of the academic structure,

Shirley Tilghman 16:35

The way we do science is going to change, largely because the technology that we are now, so dependent on is so expensive, and is so complex, that we are needing increasingly very professional scientists to run these very large technologies, whether it is mass spec, whether it is cryo EM or a big, large genomics platform, you can't do these in your own laboratory, you must depend on these platforms.

And the places that have, I think, been most successful in making this transition to this new way of doing science, have created these platforms, and hired at really good salaries and with really good status within their institution, scientists to run these platforms.

You know, I think, for example, the Crick in London has this model. And as I understand it, it is working extremely well.

Julie Gould 17:34

But getting those in the ivory tower to even consider these ideas is the biggest hurdle.

Shirley Tilghman 17:40

It is not as though they don't exist, because in physics, for example, these positions have existed for as long as I've been watching physics departments.

So it is not that they're any structural impediments. It is more about culture.

And it's about changing the mindset of each individual principal investigator, who who kind of wants to circle the wagons and say, "Don't mess with my stuff. And that's the culture we have to change."

Julie Gould 18:10

There are many other ways in which Shirley Tilghman, and many other people inside and outside of academia are trying to change the culture of research.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many inequalities and problems within the academic culture and structure, which is forcing universities and research institutions to take a long hard look in the mirror to see what changes can be made.

In part three of this series, I'm going to have a look at some of the impacts that COVID-19 has had on postdocs around the world.

But until then, why not see what the rest of the Nature Careers team is up to?

You can follow their adventures on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and on the

Thanks for listening.

Sponsor message 19:02

This six part Working Scientist podcast Series is sponsored by the University of Queensland, UQ research creates change right across the world every day.

Nature Careers


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