The Post-Doc Problem

What's in a name?


Have you noticed that, after you have defended your thesis, after you have become a “PhD holder”, the epitome of an almost ten-year long, arduous, albeit exhilarating path, the rejoicing is short-lived? Very quickly, and with the exception of a handful of a happy few whose brilliance sets them on track to get immediate tenure, or of those who choose the often-labelled “infamous” private sector, you become that manifestation of the early-stage career researcher…the “post-doc!”

Pausing for a minute to reflect on the name, it is striking that it does not appropriately reflect the fantastic achievement you have just concluded, that of securing the highest-level diploma issued by universities. It does not indicate a rank, level or privilege. It does not tell what it is you will now be doing. Instead, it describes you in terms of a temporal characterisation: you are not a this-and-that here and now, you are a post-something! In addition this post-doctorate phase is hard to capture and can vary to mean various things from country to country. It is the phase between the PhD award and the permanent position. It is also a period when the researcher is gaining in independence and recognition, and it can be compulsory for those who choose the academic track. It is a temporary period of additional research training, ‘temporary’ being the key word here. And yet, we know too well that this period of limbo can sometimes last years…

The times they are a-changin’

How is it that we cannot better explain that moment in a career? Post-doctorate holders do not typically have an academic status – no tenure – while many researchers in their post-doctoral stage work in various kinds of teaching positions and research projects, under a variety of titles. At a time when PhD holders were few, this was not a problem: you would commit to a one- or two-year period in another laboratory, preferably even more prestigious than your initial one, and then you went on to an academic career with added experience.

Nowadays, however, the situation is very different. On the one hand, Europe has been very successful in increasing the number of PhD holders in the past couple of decades. Between 2000 and 2009, the number of new doctorate graduates increased by almost 40 % across OECD countries (from 154,000 to 213,000).

On the other hand, the Lisbon agenda whereby each EU country should strive to spend 3% of its GDP on Research and Development has not been reached, with very few exceptions. This has implications in terms of R&D and higher education funding and, consequently, on the number of academic positions available to this cohort of young researchers. Actually, even if the Lisbon agenda goal had been reached, one might argue that it would not – and even should not – necessarily translate into a proportional increase of tenures. So the bitter conclusion is that there are far too few positions in academic environments to hire everyone who has a PhD and aims for an academic career. This was already true to a certain extent 10 or 20 years ago, and it is thus even truer today. Universities cannot realistically be expected to provide tenured positions for all researchers.

Academic institutions are aware of this conundrum and are attempting to bring it to the attention of their graduate students, but they have a hard time coming to terms with this reality. Many PhD students still wish to have an academic career, despite the competitiveness of the milieu.

In a recent conversation, a local researcher told us that after her PhD and two consecutive post-doctoral contracts at her research organisation, she became unemployed as there were no permanent positions available, and institutions are not allowed to give several consecutive temporary contracts. This particular situation is absurd and represents a huge loss both for the researcher and the institution, which now will have to train yet another new post-doc with uncertain future prospects. Unfortunately, these kind of stories seem to be frequent nowadays and do reflect a systemic problem.

In the USA or Japan, more PhD holders go to the business sector than in many European countries. What may be different in the US, is that going private is not considered “failure” and rightly so. After all, not everybody has the right mind-set or urge to do blue-sky research, even amongst PhD holders. Practical applications and industrial placements are not “lesser outcomes” than professorships. In Europe, it seems, we have a growing number of largely disillusioned and frustrated researchers who might have a better life outside of academia but are left out in the cold without many prospects for a future career and with, in particular for those who have a family, limited financial opportunities and social security coverage. But the times they are a-changin’.

So what’s to be done?

Dissatisfaction with academia often results in many young (and not so young) researchers quitting and opting for a more secure job. Surely, these moves from academia and ‘into the wild’ would be a harsh blow for some. Still, our societies and job markets should be able to absorb and benefit from these highly trained researchers being employed in industry, government, university administration, research councils, hospitals, start-ups, museums and so on, whether in research or non-research positions. Researchers can find satisfaction in other sectors and careers, too.

It goes without saying that having more trained researchers is good for the economy and society; and it goes hand in hand with a growing demand for highly skilled persons outside academia (e.g. having more research-intensive businesses and a healthy growing economy). In some European countries the industry landscape simply does not offer enough opportunities for researchers. Generally speaking, however, professional outlooks for PhD holders appear quite good. According to results of the OECD survey of doctorate holders  (2013 - there is hardly any unemployment among the PhD holders and high earnings demonstrate there is good demand. OECD data also showed that even when PhD holders were not working as researchers, their jobs were related, in most cases, to the subject of doctoral degrees, and that doctoral graduates were satisfied with their employment situation.

Universities are increasingly adapting their doctoral training schemes, paying more attention to skills that can be useful outside academia, like management, policy or communication. Use of university career centres is recommended to make students aware of the various career opportunities outside academia. It is key to improve the level of exposure to other possible career paths for PhD students so that they do not opt for academia simply because they think it is the only path for someone with a research degree. Those who wish to continue as researchers outside academia, in industry for instance, would benefit from taking up an industrial doctorate or an industrial post-doctorate. Those PhD graduates who do not wish to do research as work, should carefully consider whether to go for a post-doc or start getting experience on the job.

Finally, those who are committed to, and fit for, a research career in academia, should be ready to take on a risky (yet fulfilling) path and to fully understand the downsides. One is to be ready for long working hours, lower pay (compared to the private sector), instability, geographic mobility, personal sacrifices (long distance relationships, postponed maternity) and competition, at least in the early stages of their career. 

What is certain is that Europe needs to better understand the career paths of its early career researchers, and whether our research systems and job markets offer sufficient possibilities for realising their full potential. Reliable figures and indicators are hard to come by as there is no consolidated career tracking platform or survey. It is a tough exercise to track early career researchers due to their high mobility. Large-scale initiatives such as the former OECD survey or the US national survey of doctorate recipients are laudable initiatives. Certain European universities do track their PhD graduates in a regular fashion, in order to get information on their training programmes and graduates’ careers; yet, much more can, and should, be done in a coordinated fashion.


The views expressed by the authors of the Science Connector Blog articles do not necessarily represent the views of the European Science Foundation as a whole, or of its members.

3 Replies
  1. Anonymous
    Lars says:

    We try to collect job offers for PostDocs and researchers in Europe in one place, both jobs in academia, for research organisations and for companies. Hopefully this resource can be part of the answer. If you only want an alert once there is something in your field you can simply select the relevant categories and subscribe to our free job alerts.

  2. Anonymous
    JCW says:

    Thanks Thomas Ottersen - you may also want to look at a recent tweet post on this subject @Euroscientist

  3. Anonymous
    Thomas Ottersen says:

    Wow. Spot on. Thank you for sharing this and pinpointing the glaringly ugly downsides to academic research and life in halls of knowledge.

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *