Postdocalypse now: a postdoc survival guide

The end is nigh. (It’s 2017, in case you’re still using the Gregorian Calendar).

The setting is a barren island; completely isolated from the rest of civilization (Australia).

The regime has been bolstering a struggling industry (government mandates have been established to boost the STEM workforce).

Nevertheless, the inhabitants have been forced into a fierce competition for survival (postdoctoral STEM researchers are fighting for jobs in an increasingly shrinking labour market).

Society is on the brink of collapse. (I’m taking some dramatic liberties here).

Welcome to the postdocalypse. The term was coined in 2016 by Harvard graduate Ethan Perlstein. It describes the seemingly never-ending period of fixed-term postdoctoral fellowships which scientists find themselves in, post-PhD. It’s a scientific twilight zone from which postdocs hope to emerge with a permanent position – if they ever make it out alive…

The perpetual postdoc

The perpetual postdoc period is an international phenomenon. It’s even sparked some scientific papers of its own.

In December 2016, a group of researchers (Hardy, Carter and Bowden; or HCB) from the University of Queensland, Monash University and the University of Newcastle released an article titled “What do postdocs need to succeed?”  It surveyed 284 Australian postdocs, predominantly in the STEM sector, about their postdoctoral experiences and career aspirations and has since been widely re-shared with #postdocalypse.

Postdoctoral fellowships have traditionally been viewed as the stepping stone to a tenured position (permanent job contract) at a university or research organisation. Over half of the respondents in HCB stated that their primary reason for starting a postdoc was to progress to a long-term research career.

But despite this, the majority of respondents don’t think this will be possible because of challenges such as inadequate job security and a lack of funding (HCB, 2016). This seemingly bleak career landscape has been created by several key factors (or apocalyptic precursors, if you will).

Too many postdocs…

Firstly, the number of research higher degree graduates is increasing: from about 4,000 in 1995 to nearly 10,000 in 2014 (Universities Australia, 2015), the vast majority of which are PhDs (ACOLA, 2016).  Universities have significant incentives to promote this trend. World rankings for universities are coupled to the number of PhD graduates, which also determines the allocation of federal bursaries (HCB, 2016).

Australian universities currently employ around 50,000 staff in full-time or fixed-term academic roles (ACOLA, 2016). There simply aren’t enough permanent positions for these PhD-qualified graduates to enter into. Instead, it’s estimated that 50% of Australian PhD graduates (Moore, 2015) enter into a period of short-term postdoctoral contracts: aka the postdocalypse. And their ranks are growing worldwide (Hayden, 2016).

…not enough funding

As the numbers of postdocs applying for research funding increases, research funding shrinks (HCB, 2016). Funding certainly isn’t easy to obtain. Australian Government research block grants have grown only marginally since 2000: most of the growth in funding has occurred in competitive grants (Universities Australia, 2015).

And now we’re squarely in the twilight zone. Because for postdocs to be hired and promoted, they not only have to demonstrate their publishing record, but also their track record of research funding (HCB, 2016). The competition is fierce.

More than 80% of the HCB respondents had a current contract of less than 3 years’ duration. Some of my colleagues have shared the personal struggles that these uncertain positions cause. Important life decisions, such as starting a family, are put on hold. Postdocs originally from abroad are impeded from applying for permanent residency.

But researchers are a resourceful bunch. A PhD may not translate into a lifelong career in research, and a lot of postdocs don’t want it to either. There’s a lack of Australian data about the career direction of STEM PhD graduates (ACOLA, 2016), but many seek jobs in government, industry, education or communications. The president and secretary of the Australian Academy of Science declared that “STEM PhDs are increasingly seen by employers…as some of the best generalist graduates on the market” (Field & Holmes, 2006).

Ditching postdocs for STEM start-ups

Rather than filling roles, many postdocs are creating their own through STEM start-ups. Ethan Perlman (who christened the “postdocalypse”) founded the biotechnology start-up Perlara in 2014 and has never looked back.

Both researchers and industry representatives have long shared the concern that Australia lags behind in terms of university and industry collaboration. The HCB survey also reported that the majority of postdocs lacked opportunities to undertake work experience or connect with industry partners (2016). But a change is in the air to build bridges between research and industry.

Industry platforms, incubators and the “Tinder” of research

The Expert Connect platform is a recently developed initiative to achieve exactly that. The platform provides small- and medium-sized businesses with direct access to researchers, as well as a funding boost to work on collaborative projects.

Start-up incubators, such as Cicada Innovations, TechConnect and the CSIRO’s ON programs, also provide opportunities for research commercialisation and could provide an excellent boost for postdocs looking to take their first steps into business. Chief Innovation Officer of Cicada Innovations, Ben Wright, says that they aim to teach researchers how to engage with both investors and customers, while IP expert-in-residence Dr Gavin Recchia enthuses that researchers need not choose between a career as an academic/entrepreneur: you can have both.

Similar outreach and engagement programs are also available to postgraduate students, through platforms such as AMSI Intern and Ribit. AMSI Intern is Australia’s leading PhD internship program, while Ribit is an online matchmaking platform connecting students with companies and startups (it’s described by director Liz Jakubowski as “Tinder for the tertiary network”).

It’s clear that the landscape of academia has changed. Only 2% of PhD graduates will follow the traditional career path of doctorate/postdoctoral fellowship/professorship (Field & Holmes, 2016). But with new avenues opening up every day, postdocs need not fear an academic apocalypse: they’re well-equipped with the skills for survival.

4 resources for postdocs

Expert Connect (powered by Data61 & CSIRO)

Cicada Innovations

TechConnect (UNSW)

ON Prime & ON Accelerate (powered by CSIRO)

– Larissa Fedunik

Representatives from the aforementioned platforms and incubators recently spoke at the Commercialising Research Forum as part of the Spark Festival Sydney.

Read more about commercialising research here and on the Science Meets Business website.

Heather Catchpole

Author: Heather Catchpole

Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs