Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Future of Postdocs: Impediments and possible solutions

I’m currently a postdoc and have been hunting for jobs since my funding is run out by the November of this year. Recently, I came across an article in Nature 1 which was investigating the plight of postdocs and some of the suggestions in the anvil, which was forwarded through my ‘Young Scientist’ mailing list. However, I thought present my thoughts on this problem, from a postdocs perspective.

Problems and Causes    

While, I cannot comment on the whole Postdoc population, as the experiences changes from person to person, institution to institution and from subject to subject, the following are some of the causes I have observed as problems facing a postdoc to land a career:

Government Regulations:

I’m now under a work permit which restricts my employment to my lab.  As such, I couldn't teach or even provide tutoring services. In this context, I recently attended two interviews with Indian institutions and in both the cases my lack of teaching experience is what stood out. The head of the department of one of the universities was hostile even before I presented myself. Her only contention is that I don't have teaching experience. I’m not sure,however, if it is absolutely necessary, as I have a friend who is now an Assistant Professor in one other IITs with a postdoc in France and with no teaching experience. But she was alumni of an IIT unlike me who was in Europe for my Masters as well. With PITS, they are only interested to know, if I can teach or not. That's their only question and the entire interview was for 5 minutes. They had no interest in my research or its significance. However, the inability to pursue teaching seems to limit the number of jobs for which I'm eligible.
Further, as postdoc opportunities are LMO (Labour Market Opinion) exempted, not many companies are interested in sponsoring visa for postdocs.

Student or Employee:

This is a question that many postdocs have but many articles highlights the dilemma only when it comes to salary and benefits and not in job-hunting. Put it simply, as a postdoc, should I apply as fresh graduate or an experienced employee? How are the companies considering the postdocs’ candidature, as a fresh talent or otherwise? No clarification is available till date, in this regard.

Lack of opportunities:

  1. Lack of assured funding: In most cases, funding is ad-hoc. Without assured tenure, a postdoc is in a continuous state of job-hunting, which saps his zeal for science and make his/her productivity suffer.
  2. Lack of learning opportunities: I have been processing time series data throughout my PhD and postdoc but mostly using MATLAB. However, industries who have similar jobs expect Java, Hadoop and similar hot tools. Unfortunately, this is not easy as our access rights are limited on the software we could install. As a mac user, I cannot afford another computer for just learning these skills as I also have to provide for my family.
  3. Lack of academic positions: In Postdoc manufacturing countries like US, this is a problem but in countries like India the problem is nepotism and racism or whatever.
  4. Difficulty in creating start-ups: Start-ups require a team and for most NSERCs, confined to their cubicle, it is difficult to get a team to work for a start-up and then come the problem of visa.


In almost all of the cases, the next opportunity of the postdoc is determined by a set of factors: reputation of the supervisor, reputation of the institution, recommendations of the supervisor and the work of the postdocs. When the article was suggesting “super-star” postdocs, it made me flinch as it is a purely subjective term. Anything from the style of writing to cultural differences may set a postdoc’s supervisor off, and in some cases the postdocs are made just a scapegoat. So to be a “super-star” postdoc, scientific acumen and hard-work are not enough!

Proposed Solutions are inadequate

Upper limit for postdocs

One of the arguments in favor of imposing the upper limit on the duration of a postdoc is that they would enter the stream to find a job and move out. While the intention is good, the practice is made difficult due to many factors:
  1. Its roulette not science anymore: As I had mentioned previously, the career prospect for a postdoc is highly dependent on the reputations and recommendations of his supervisors, the reputation of his lab and himself. While landing in such “super-platforms” itself is dictated many similar factors. Hence, by this limit, many postdoc would be devoid of opportunity to reinvent and prove themselves. For example, it is extremely difficult for a PhD from a small university in France to land a postdoc position at MIT or Stanford. He can either slowly move upstream or should roll-over and die, if this system is to be fully implemented.
  2. The suggestion also did not address the question of postdocs who had already exceeded the said limit with no permanent career options

The Elite Postdoc

                This suggestion was to limit the number of PhDs entering the postdoctoral stream. While it is appealing, it fails to answer the future of the PhDs. University PhDs of industry-favorite subjects like computer engineering would have little trouble, PhDs from research laboratories with little connection to the university, like the author himself, are the ones likely to suffer from this proposal. Further, it is not easy for non-natives to find job in France and many other countries due to governmental regulations, culture differences, language, xenophobia, etc. When I was in France, I attended training in the University for PhDs to help them in job-search where the instructor told me that a resume with a French name on it is 7 times more likely to get an interview call.

The ‘Superdoc’

                This is funniest of all the suggestions. The suggestion is to provide better salary and benefits. First, this would only change the title and would have not real change in reality. Second, it is already being practiced without much help to the postdocs.  It is just a temporary solution, which is difficult to implement in many cases due to lack of funding and would effectively be reduced to the first suggestion.


From the article, I believe the solutions proposed are nothing but political gimmicks to transfer the blame from the policy maker to the postdocs. In contrast to the above solutions, I suggest the following:
  1. Instead of restricting the PhDs and postdocs at the fair end, restrict the students who move from one grade to another. It is an old Indian system, every year 10% of the students are made to sit in the same grade and only the rest are promoted to the next grade. During 10th and 12th grade, the filtering is severe where only 50% of the students move forward.
  2. Instead of encouraging students to pursue science, they should be encouraged to pursue subjects that are likely to benefit their future. Of course it is difficult to make such predictions, as the opportunities are a result of a complex combination of factors ranging from political to socio-economic factors.
  3. Postdocs are not idiots. They learn new techniques and tools every day. They could easily acquire the skillsets required to succeed in their job with little training. Companies like Tata Consultancy Services and Cognizant Technology solutions had excellent training programs (I don’t know if they have now) for undergraduates. However, I don’t understand the reason they don’t want to train the postdocs for their companies. In US and Canada, I increasingly seen companies looking for specific talents and able to jump to work with no efforts. Ex: Amazon. I’m not sure if Microsoft and Google have any training program. However, if these companies are encouraged to absorb postdocs, the problem could easily be moderated.
  4. Governmental regulations, which are mostly political gimmicks, are the biggest of the problems. Be in Maharashtra, India where MNS demands people from other regions to leave Maharashtra or in Canada where Tories blame “brownies” stealing Canadian Jobs. Further, the “licence raj” in Canada is another major impediment.
  5. Socio-economic factors such as racism, xenophobia, and nepotism further aggravates the problem.
Hence, my humble opinion is that instead of proposing “shallow” solutions and being hypocrites, all parties concerned should try to stem the source of the problem and not port the problem from one shoulder to another.


1              Powell, K. THE FUTURE OF THE POSTDOC. Nature 520, 144 - 147 (2015).

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