Nature | Editorial

Crunch time

Overtime pay for postdoctoral scientists is welcome — but could mean fewer positions.

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Low pay and dwindling prospects of a permanent position have left many postdoctoral scientists feeling unloved. Yet last week, postdocs received appreciation from an unusual place: the US Department of Labor. In a long-overdue revision of the country’s overtime regulations, the department explicitly included postdocs among those who are eligible for overtime pay if they earn less than US$47,476 per year. As we report, rather than pay overtime, many funders and universities are expected to raise the minimum wage for postdocs above that threshold.

The regulations are not perfect. They leave out those whose main responsibility is teaching, and the 1 December 2016 deadline to comply is tough for labs that operate on long-term budgets keyed to multi-year grant cycles. And the overtime threshold, which may become the de facto minimum pay for postdocs, still fails to meet the $50,000 per year minimum recommended in a 2014 report on the biomedical workforce by the US National Academies.

Many established scientists look back on their postdoc wistfully as a time of unparallelled focus on research. Yet the postdoc now too often gives way to the ‘permadoc’. Postdocs may languish in that position for more than a decade, sometimes bouncing from one position to another. Their careers are in stasis even as their lives march on. Today’s postdocs are older than ever. They raise families and care for elderly parents. Many can hardly be considered trainees: they are functioning as lab managers or staff scientists, but are paid at a lower rate.

The stagnation comes because the number of academic faculty positions has not kept pace with the swelling postdoc ranks — a reality that is now receiving more attention, thanks in part to the laudable efforts of a cadre of established scientists who have made it their mission to address the postdoc plight. Francis Collins, head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), joined their ranks last week, when he announced plans to raise the pay for some NIH-funded postdocs to match the new overtime threshold. Other funding agencies should do the same.

Such changes do not come without trade-offs. The NIH budget is finite and higher postdoc salaries, however funded, are likely to translate into fewer postdoc positions — a consequence that worries the US National Postdoctoral Association in Washington DC. It also concerns principal investigators already struggling under flat research budgets.

But the change is needed. Principal investigators should take a hard look at their own labs and hiring practices. Do they need so many postdocs? A bigger lab does not necessarily mean greater impact.

Even graduate students can help to ease the postdoc glut. Many do not think hard about their own careers until they are well into their studies. Postdoc positions are so abundant — because they are cheap — that they have become the default career choice even for graduate students who have begun to doubt that they want to continue in science.

Graduate students should be encouraged to prepare earlier for careers outside academia. For example, the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester has gone beyond the standard ‘alternative’ career seminars and made career preparation a mandatory part of the curriculum, with required workshops held periodically throughout a graduate student’s education. Students initially grumbled at being asked to spend more time away from the laboratory. By the end of the programme, 92% of them said they are glad that they did.

Such changes can go far to bring about reform — not just in the United States, but around the postdoc world.

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