Gregory Petsko: The Post-doctoral Situation

Dr. Petsko recently chaired a National Academy of Sciences committee that investigated the science and engineering postdoctoral experience in the United States. In this talk, he discusses some of his own findings from participating on this committee including the fact that a large majority of post-docs do not continue with careers in academia and should be offered the chance to explore different career paths.

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Recorded: 2013
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About the Speaker

Gregory Petsko is Professor Emeritus of Biochemistry and Chemistry at Brandeis University and Professor of Neurology at Weill Cornell Medical College. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine and has received numerous other honors and awards. His lab studies protein structure and function with a particular focus on age-related neurodegenerative disease.

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  1. Keith Yamamoto says:

    A response and commentary from Dr. Keith Yamamoto

    There is much to like in Greg Petsko’s iBiology essay on “The Postdoctoral Situation”, which may previews an upcoming report from a National Academy of Sciences consensus committee on the postdoctoral experience in the life sciences, which Greg co-chaired. However, I contend that his proposed stipend-driven solution is seriously flawed.

    On the positive side, Greg acknowledges that we should be preparing life sciences trainees for the wide range of career options even earlier than the postdoc stage (“we probably ought to do it when they’re graduate students”), echoing a point that I have discussed and written about for the past eighteen years: the PhD should serve as the “hub” for career decision-making in the life sciences. “Spokes” radiating from the hub would represent further training required to reach different career endpoints that require or would benefit from PhD-level trainees— business, education, communication, policy, law, ethics, politics and so forth.

    In my “PhD as hub” model, life sciences academic programs would have direct responsibility for only one of the spokes— the one that trains PhDs who aspire to academic, government or private sector positions as “principle investigators”, i.e., leaders of research programs. Thus, this “postdoc spoke” would be selected only by a subset of PhDs who had made an informed choice to pursue PI positions. Postdoctoral training would acquire, for the first time, an explicit educational mission: train PhDs to develop and lead original, creative, impactful research programs.

    Importantly, an informed selection of the postdoc spoke requires that life sciences academic programs provide sufficient familiarity (albeit not explicit training) with all of the other career endpoints. Only by doing so as a part of graduate training will PhDs be empowered to choose a spoke—a career direction– with confidence at the time of the award of their degrees. In sharp contrast, our academic programs have developed in a culture that rejects even the validity of these career options, falling far short of providing a working familiarity, and communicating both esteem and a need to fill these positions.

    If we enable students to make informed career choices, the spectrum of the market for life sciences PhD trainees will adjust toward actual need, rather than being constrained by insufficient information and distorted by disrespect for most choices. Notably, the number of postdocs would decline dramatically, forcing changes in the composition and operation of postdoc-heavy labs, which typically see the “workforce problem” as the struggle to find enough hands to execute experiments, rather than the challenge to right-size our training programs.

    Greg proposes a hypothetical scheme to adjust the size of the postdoc workforce by manipulating postdoc stipends. Even as a hypothetical, concerns arise. First, this proposal assumes that we can predict the size of our postdoc training pool. However, such predictions are impossible in a community in which postdocs are undifferentiated with respect to career focus, in which career options are artificially constrained, and in an endeavor that is dynamic and expanding in directions and at rates that are largely undefined. It has been said that this is the Century of Biology, in which society will be shaped by biological principles, concepts and technologies in ways that are only just beginning to emerge. The scope and size of the workforce needed to implement these changes is unknown.

    A second problem with Greg’s “economic solution” is his assumption of an inverse relationship between postdoc stipends and the number of postdocs (“How do we shrink the enterprise by a factor of two? There’s an obvious way of doing that. We double the stipend.”). Several problems lurk here. Greg issues a call-to-action to the scientific community to “take control of the enterprise”, to prevent “top-down management of science”. But who exactly would make the decision to double stipends nationwide? Certainly, individual postdocs, individual institutions, individual states could not simply declare this change; such a decision could only be made from inside the Beltway.

    More importantly, how would the magnitude of the increase be determined? Stipend doubling has a nice ring to it, but will pricing postdocs out of the reach of PI’s with modest budgets have the desired effect on the overall workforce? What’s the evidence for the linear inverse relationship? Might a 20% stipend boost halve the postdoc pool? Or would it take a ten-fold increase? Is it smart to shift an even larger proportion of our grant dollars to personnel costs and away from the instrumentation and supplies needed to carry out the work? Is there a risk that doubling postdoc stipends might lure more students into graduate training, and is this a desired outcome? Or might the stipend increase suffice to make the postdoc a career endpoint, risking expanding and then freezing the pool?

    In my view, our goal for addressing “the postdoc situation” should be simple: provide students with the information they need to make informed, confident career choices on the day they receive their PhDs. (Indeed, the NIH Directors Working Group on the Biomedical Workforce recommended a new grant mechanism, and NIH has now launched the Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) grants, to support innovative approaches to effectively inform trainees about diverse career options.) We can allow the market to define itself accurately if we stop distorting it with inadequate preparation, and with a value system that favors “cloning” of academics while distaining “alternative careers”. If we empower students to make their own career decisions—from the bottom up—they will likely get it right. And while the outcomes may result in research groups that look different than those today, a right-sized, and right-focused, community of trainees will be happier, more successful, and will fill the needs of this century of biology, both inside and outside of our laboratories.

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