Despite the position being billed as a stepping stone on the way to tenure-track academic employment, many postdocs, discouraged by their poor prospects, are questioning their career choices and instead looking to non-academic jobs as an alternative. However, as Chris Hayter and Marla A. Parker reveal, making this transition is not as easy as it might first appear.

Why are postdocs’ career prospects worthy of such attention? Among the most educated of the population, they shouldn’t be having any problems finding work, right?

Wrong. Our recent research, published in Research Policy, finds that, viewed collectively, several factors hinder postdocs’ ability to move into non-academic scientific positions, driven to leave academia by their poor prospects of obtaining faculty positions. These barriers must be reduced both for their benefit and to gain maximum returns on public investment in research and development (R&D). Failing to enable the transition to non-academic careers — or, worse, preventing them from doing so — has serious consequences for individual postdocs and taxpayers alike.

So what’s the deal? Why can’t postdocs just simply change their focus? Or why not just avoid the postdoc position altogether?

The transition of postdocs to non-academic jobs is complicated by the fact that both doctoral training and postdoc positions primarily aim to prepare individuals for tenure-track academic employment. Some postdocs aren’t familiar with labour market data revealing the grim chances of academic employment or, in many cases, understand their long-shot odds but choose to ignore them. Furthermore, having limited focus on their academic training, most postdocs do not possess the networks or skills that might enable them to obtain jobs and succeed in non-academic careers.

Well, all postdocs have to do is network differently and gain additional skillsets that make them ready for non-academic positions, right? Not so fast.

The search for non-academic employment is often discouraged or penalised (e.g. ignoring postdocs) by their supervisors. Of course, many supervisors do support the career interests of postdocs, no matter where they’re placed.  But supervisors themselves often lack the skills or social networks to help mentees get jobs in industry or government. Further, placing postdocs in a tenure-track academic position is a source of pride for many supervisors.

While these behaviours are likely unusual, they nonetheless occur within university and national policy environments that have yet to prioritise non-academic employment opportunities for postdocs. This is partly because most universities do not view postdocs as an institutional responsibility, leaving the locus of responsibility for postdocs with individual supervisors, which means little structure and leaves open the possibility of socially irresponsible behaviour. For example, one finding from our work is that some PIs ask foreign nationals to accept pay levels below National Institutes of Health (NIH)–mandated salary minimums as a condition for their visa renewal or misappropriate intellectual property generated by postdocs.

Despite the glum reality, there is some hope.

A few federal and university programmes exist to help transitioning postdocs with their transition. For example, the NIH’s Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) programme offers a limited number of university programmes that provide training and externships to postdocs, and other entrepreneurship support through which postdocs have learned valuable skills.

However, the fact remains that most universities do little to prepare postdocs for anything other than academia, just as national-level policies do little to incentivise PIs and universities to do so.

For postdocs moving into non-academic sectors, the realisation that one will not achieve a lifelong career goal, and the barriers encountered during their transition, are sources of stress, anxiety, anger, and depression; a topic that deserves future investigation.

Change is normally slow to come to academia but universities vis-à-vis postdoc supervisors are expending enormous public resources to train postdocs (and PhD students) for jobs that do not exist, and are at times treating these postdocs — however infrequently — irresponsibly in the process. Perhaps it’s time to do something about it.

This blog post is based on the authors’ article, “Factors that influence the transition of university postdocs to non-academic scientific careers: An exploratory study”, published in Research Policy (DOI: 10.1016/j.respol.2018.09.009).

Featured image credit: Banter Snaps, via Unsplash (licensed under a CC0 1.0 license).

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the LSE Impact Blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please review our comments policy if you have any concerns on posting a comment below.

About the authors

Chris Hayter is an Assistant Professor in the Center for Organization Research and Design in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University in Phoenix, AZ. He has interest and experience in academic entrepreneurship, innovation policy, and institutional strategy in higher education.

Marla A. Parker is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science in California State University – Los Angeles. She has research interests and experience in STEM human capital development, cultural competency, and entrepreneurship.

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