. . .is not very pleasant, according to this report. It never has been, but it’s not getting any better. This should sound familiar to many people:
it is notoriously difficult to determine how many postdoctoral scholars there are, let alone what kind of training they are or should be receiving. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) define a postdoctoral scholar as “an individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path” (Bravo & Olsen, 2007). Most postdoctoral “trainees” conduct research under the supervision of a single Principal Investigator (PI), and there are no explicit guidelines to determine what training a postdoc should receive or when this training is complete. In reality, postdoctoral research is often not a training period at all, but a time when experienced junior researchers contribute significantly to the goals of a PI’s grant. There is no expectation of specific training, and no defined period in which the training takes place: “training” ends only when the postdoc takes another job.
To be fair, I don’t see how any meaningful guidelines could be drawn up for what kinds of specific training would be needed. That’s the problem with the postdoctoral world: you’re a bäckfisch, more than a grad student who hasn’t defended a dissertation, but less than someone with experience in an academic or industrial job. The situations postdocs find themselves in vary wildly; they almost have to vary wildly. You’re also supposed to, as much as possible, be starting to make your own way, and that means very different things in different labs.
One disturbing point raised in this article is the possible rise in fraud and dishonest behavior in research labs as a result of the postdoctoral glut. The competition has gotten nasty, and desperate people will do desperate things. As the Nature News commentary puts it:
. . .a whopping 58% of scientists in the UK report said that they were aware of colleagues feeling tempted or under pressure to compromise on research integrity or standards. Asked whether they felt this way themselves, just 21% of scientists aged 35 or over said yes; strikingly, that figure shot up to one-third of those aged under 35.
Worth noting. And as Nature goes on to say, correctly, even though postdocs have complained about their situation forever, under the current conditions senior scientists really can’t go on ignoring them. And they can’t go on ignoring the fact that only a small number of their students and postdocs will, or can, go on to a similar academic career to their own. The lack of those prospects, and the denial of that lack in some quarters, is probably the root of the problem.
A related article is found here at Bloomberg – another worthy attempt to get across to people that there is no across-the-board shortage of qualified scientists and engineers. Good luck! Many have tried. Here’s a particularly appropriate quote, in reference to the IT field:
“There’s no evidence of any way, shape, or form that there’s a shortage in the conventional sense,” says Hal Salzman, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers University. “They may not be able to find them at the price they want. But I’m not sure that qualifies as a shortage, any more than my not being able to find a half-priced TV.”
Oh yes indeed. But next week, and the week after, and the week after that we’ll see more people talking about the terrible shortage of tech and science people. Bet on it.