Science

Lab heads are struggling with a shortage of postdoctoral fellows

Lab heads are struggling with a shortage of postdoctoral fellows
Written by boustamohamed31

Modern empty biological applied science laboratory with technological microscopes, glass test tubes.

A complex mix of politics, economics, and changing career priorities makes it difficult for principal investigators to recruit new lab members.Credit: Getty

Peter Coveney, a chemist and computer scientist at University College London, is looking to hire a postdoctoral researcher with high-level computing experience. The problem: He’s struggling to attract any qualified applicants. Earlier this year, he had to run a new ad for the position after two previous rounds of recruitment failed to produce a single qualified candidate. He worries that if he can’t get someone on board soon, projects will be left unfinished and his long personal history of grants and publications could see a delay. “I’m extremely concerned about the long term,” he says. “I’m not running on empty right now, but I might be soon.”

Madeline Lancaster, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge in the UK, can relate. In July, she received a total of 36 applications for a postdoctoral position in her lab, far fewer than the several hundred she originally expected. “I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to go through all the applications,” she says. These 36 did not result in any appointments. “I haven’t taken the position yet,” she says. “There seems to be a lot of competition for strong candidates.”

Lancaster’s difficulty in finding a postdoc is particularly notable because she has an intriguing project—the next postdoc will help grow “mini brains” in the lab to improve understanding of neural development—and a strong track record in publications. “We’ve been doing really well lately,” she says. “I thought we would have more interest than five years ago, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

“Reduced to a trickle”

Coney and Lancaster aren’t the only principal investigators (PIs) facing a postdoc crisis. Other researchers in the UK, European Union and elsewhere have reported a sudden drop in applications from qualified candidates, a sign of a potentially drastic change in the scientific job market. “I don’t know anyone in the world who isn’t currently complaining about how hard it is to find postdoctoral fellows,” says Florian Markovec, a cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge.

The reasons for the shortage are complex: politics, the economy, and changing career priorities for new PhD students all play a role. “There are a lot of things in the current state of the world that exacerbate the problem,” said Alyssa Wahlberg, a hematology researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wolberg co-authored an opinion piece which addressed the “perfect storm” behind the postdoc shortage in an April issue of The hematologist, the official newsletter of the members of the American Society of Hematology. Whatever the causes, the consequences are widespread. IPs need to change their approach to postdoc recruitment and rethink their expectations for their teams as postdocs around the world reassess their worth and their future.

Coveney is particularly concerned about the sudden drop in applications from the European Union, once a reliable source of highly qualified postdoctoral talent. “I noticed it was already going down quite soon after the Brexit result came out,” he says, referring to the UK’s 2016 referendum to leave the bloc. “It’s gotten a lot worse since then.” It did not receive a single application from an EU-trained researcher in its last few recruitment rounds. This is a significant loss, as few PhD programs in the EU produce researchers with the high-end computing skills it needs. “These are the people I would like to hire, but we just don’t get them.”

Brexit has undoubtedly created “significant barriers” to European PhD students wanting to work in the UK, says Coveney. EU PhD researchers will need to apply for a three-year work visa to take up a post in the UK – a process that can take a month or more to be approved and can cost upwards of €730 (US$740) in fees. The UK government’s actions have also created a climate where foreign researchers simply don’t feel welcome or wanted, says Coveney. He suspects that a growing number of EU PhD students will find opportunities closer to home rather than deal with these barriers and perceptions to come to the UK.

The figures show that EU postdocs already in the country are staying, at least for now. According to Advance HE, a not-for-profit higher education monitoring organization based in York, UK, the estimated total number of EU postdocs working in the UK fell slightly from 12,495 in the 2019-20 academic year to 12,185 in next academic year. Over the same period, the total number of postdocs working in the UK fell from 50,865 to 50,675.

European researchers have their own problems when it comes to recruiting postdocs. Andrea Musacchio, a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany, has enough funding to hire a postdoc. In 2020, he won the Leibniz Prize—one of the highest honors awarded to researchers in Germany—from the German research foundation DFG. “I can make very competitive offers with a higher salary scale than you would expect for postdoctoral positions in Germany,” he says. But when he advertised a recent job opening on Twitter, he only received five applications, and none of them were “serious.”

Musacchio didn’t have much trouble recruiting PhD students a decade ago when he first moved to Germany from his native Italy. But the flow of applicants is “slowly dwindling to a trickle,” he says. He believes that potential candidates are now choosing different paths. “In Germany, a lot of people get jobs in industry right after getting their doctorate,” he says. “This has not always been the case. Ten years ago, people said you should do a postdoc anyway to prepare for a job in industry.”

Musacchio also suspects that PhD recipients who wish to pursue a postdoc position are increasingly looking for opportunities to learn “cool” techniques. “Basic science has lost some of its appeal, partly because of complexity,” he says. “People choose techniques over topics.”

The shrinking supply of postdocs probably reflects a growing trend for scientists to move away from university research, says Lancaster (see Nature 583, 645–646; 2020). “It’s not just about postdocs. You see really established PIs starting to leave academia. People choose academia for intellectual freedom. But now there are private institutions offering the same intellectual freedom with better wages and working conditions. What else does academia even offer?”

I feel undervalued

Increasing competition for postdocs hasn’t necessarily made them feel more desirable, says Jonny Coates, a postdoc in immunology at Queen Mary University of London and founder of the UK & EU Pdoc Slack, an online community of several hundred postdocs. According to him, many doctoral students and doctoral students want to leave academia precisely because they feel unappreciated. “This is the way we are treated by private individuals, by senior management and by academia in general,” he says. “People don’t feel valued by anyone in the system. For his part, Coates says he would like to fulfill the remainder of his postdoctoral contract, but that he is looking for other opportunities.

Pay is certainly an issue, Coates says. For example, first-year postdoctoral fellows funded by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory earn close to £34,400 (about US$40,700) if they are in the UK. In Germany, the annual salary for first-year EMBL postdocs is just over €42,200. That’s significantly less than the €50,000 to €70,000 that PhD holders can expect to make in industry, according to a 2020 report by Labiotech.eu, a media site that covers biotech trends in Europe. In the United States, the stipend level for a first-year postdoctoral fellow funded by a National Service Research Award is $54,840, less than half of what someone with a PhD in life sciences can earn in a startup or other industry job in this country.

A Nature A survey of more than 7,600 postdoctoral fellows worldwide revealed widespread anxiety and uncertainty about their career paths (see Nature 588, 181–184; 2020). Half of those surveyed said their job satisfaction had worsened in the previous year, and 56% had a negative view of their career prospects. Less than half would recommend a science career to their younger self. A quarter (24%) of respondents said they had experienced discrimination or harassment during their current tenure as a postdoctoral fellow.

New approaches to recruitment

The evolving postdoc landscape has forced PIs to rethink their approach to recruitment. Markowetz’s lab website currently includes animated slideshow advertising three open postdoctoral positions in his lab. The presentation notes that over the past five years, five previous PhD students have moved on to PI positions and another three have started startups. One slide shows a picture of Markovets next to the words: “I want to support ambitious postdocs to reach the next level in their careers.” Speaking to Nature, Markovets says, “It’s so hard to get postdocs. All my friends here have the same problems. I need to be more proactive. I have to explain to people what they get if they come to me.”

Lancaster also changed his approach. In the past, she could occasionally find qualified postdocs simply by checking her e-mail. But such unsolicited messages have essentially disappeared, she says. Instead of waiting for PhD students to find her, she repeatedly posted the job posting for her vacant lab position on Twitter. “It seemed to get a lot of attention,” she says. As the search continues, she will continue to try to spread the word. “You can email people you know are training PhD students in an area that will fit your lab. Let them know you’re looking for postdocs.”

Wahlberg says she hired one of her last PhD students thanks to a virtual conference, perhaps the epitome of science in the 2020s. The conference included a session where the scientists could interact with the trainees. “I went right out and said I was looking for postdocs, and someone contacted me.”

Wahlberg is still looking to add more people to his team and doesn’t want to limit his options. Like many PIs, she must accept the possibility that she may not be able to find another postdoc no matter how hard she tries. “We have a lot of research, so we need people,” she says. “I’ll hire someone. If he turns out to be a postdoc, that would be great. If it’s a graduate student, that would be great too.”

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