Thursday, January 31, 2019

Postdocs are not junior faculty

Over the past decade, I have noticed a disturbing trend in Australian universities: postdocs are now often expected to be like junior faculty. Specifically, they are expected to apply for grants, recruit and supervise Ph.D. students, be involved in public outreach, help with teaching, engage with industry, ... This is quite different from the traditional role of a postdoc: purely to do research and not worry about money, teaching, and admin.

I don't think anyone is winning from this change. First, it is creating a lot more stress and anxiety for the postdocs. Second, their research productivity and quality are lower because they are distracted and spending significant time not doing research. Thus, the funding agency that is actually supporting them to do research is getting less for their money.

I think this change has been caused by several factors.
First, the job market for tenure-track positions has got even more competitive (from extreme to ridiculous) and so there is a hope that if you get a grant and have done some teaching experience (with stellar student evaluations) then you will have a better chance of getting a permanent position. Second, university management and funding agencies really want to promote the myth of scientific careers. Postdocs are "Early Career Researchers'' and so applying for grants etc. is just part of the ``natural'' progression in them developing into an independent faculty member. Management hopes that if postdocs believe this myth they will be highly motivated workers. They also see getting grants as a random process and the more applicants the better. More grants means more income from overhead and more status for the university ...
This career myth denies the painful reality that the vast majority of Ph.D. students and postdocs will not get permanent positions in research universities. If you are in doubt about this just do the following for your own department: divide the number of new tenure-track faculty hired each year (on average) by the number of Ph.D.'s graduated each year (on average).

The best thing for the vast majority would be to focus on doing some excellent research, enjoy what they are doing, gain diverse skills, and keep an eye out for exit strategies. The main hope for this to happen is for senior faculty to encourage them in these directions.


  1. I will give a specific example to highlight one of Ross' observations. My large engineering department graduates ~35 PhDs per year and we hire ~2 new tenure-track faculty. Fortunately, our PhD graduates are in strong demand for excellent industry/national lab positions.

    But the calculation is a little more subtle than those numbers might suggest. At top programs (at least in the US were I have experience), departments typically supply more PhDs to the academic job market (by having their graduates hired somewhere) than they absorb (by hiring people directly).

    Nevertheless, the general observation that only a small fraction of PhDs will go on to be research-oriented university faculty is a fixed "feature" of our university and R&D systems.

  2. Another data point: This approach seems to be heavily entrenched in UK universities. (It's almost certainly one of the background reasons why the 14 days of industrial action over pension arrangements last year got widespread support.)