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Of Postdocs, Permadocs and Superdocs...
by staff
9 April 2015

Unanimously, postdocs are the backbone and major driving force behind successful research labs. They provide experience, tutorship to graduate students and an enormous amount of work. But what are the prospects for them? A thoughtful and highly informed editorial just published by Kendal Powell in Nature highlights the problems underlying the overflow of postdoctoral positions that marked the last 20-25 years of research funding schemes in the US and other scientifically "developed" Countries. As a result, these junior scientists may bump into paths that lead to the status of "permadocs", i.e. they maintain for over 5-6 years a status that is uncertain, insufficiently paid and devoid of benefits. A few of them evolve into "superdocs", senior scientists that enjoy working in the lab but never acquire scientific and financial independence. Most of them, however, quit science and completely change their professional lives, often at the cost of wasting an invaluable amount of knowledge and experience.

The solution to this problem is far from easy. Some institutions have simply narrowed the pipeline connecting graduate studies to post-doctoral careers, making access to a post-doctoral position a daunting task. Other Institutions have set a five-year time limit for post-doctoral positions. Some Countries are looking into the possibility of creating devoted governmental research endowments to support a limited number of postdoctoral positions with higher salaries and long-due benefits. The bottomline is that only a tiny fraction of talented junior people entering a postdoctoral track will eventually develop scientific and financial independence. You may see this as an extreme yet inevitable form of social Darwinism, but even so, "survival of the fittest" for academic careers in science presently involves an unacceptable waste of human and financial resources. There is an urgent need for designing and supporting alternative career tracks, even in academic labs, which may involve reshaping the structure of such labs. With less trainees and more experienced "staff scientists and research associates...

Time will tell if the system is able to self-adjust.