Report: The Impact of Postdoctoral Training

By: Sam Garnett

February 02, 2017

In the January issue of Nature Biotechnology , economists Shulamit Kahn & Donna K Ginther published their findings on the impact of postdoctoral research on early-career scienctists in a report titled "The impact of postdoctoral training on early careers in biomedicine".

The researchers examined data from over 10 000 biomedical US awarded PhDs from 1980-2010 to investigate the frequency and length of post-doc research, and the impact of doing postdoctoral work on a scientists’ early career. On average, around 80% of new biomedical PhDs entered into a postdoc, that lasts for an average of 4 years, with only some variation from year to year. The paper discusses a few reasons why one may enter a postdoc or not, including marital and family status as well as immigration status, and that those with higher academic ability are more likely to enter into a postdoc. Despite this, the report found disparities in financial and career success between non-postdocs and ex-postdocs. Of the ~80% of recent PhDs entering postdocs, meant to be a training position, just 27% of employed ex-postdocs had tenure-track academic research positions. Meanwhile, more non-postdocs had positions in government/non-profit and industry than those who did postdocs. Those in postdocs had much lower starting salaries, with salaries only reaching those of non-postdocs by 13-15 years after receiving their PhD, where the authors note that “In-fact, ex-postdocs gave up 17–21% of their present value of income over the first 15 years of their careers.”

In summary the authors conclude:
“Outside of tenured/TT academia, employers did not financially value the training or skills obtained during postdoc training. Instead, ex-postdocs pay an earnings penalty for up to 15 years. For the nearly 80% of recent cohorts of ex-postdocs who ultimately end up without a tenure-track academic job, the time spent in a postdoc position not only constitutes a sizeable financial sacrifice, but does not yield the desired academic career. Based on these findings, the majority of PhDs would be financially better off if they skipped the postdoc entirely.”

This view echoes those of the postdocs and trainees who participated in SPE’s STEM working group event and published in our White Paper, which states that many feel inadequately trained and prepared for both the academic and non-academic job market. We hope these reports will lead to changes in the training structure that will help young scientists have success and also make use of the large talent pool we have in biomedical science.

Read the full report in Nature Biotechnology here