Lab leaders grapple with shortage of postdocs

Lab leaders grapple with shortage of postdocs
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Modern Empty Biological Applied Science Laboratory with Technological Microscopes, Glass Test Tubes.

A complex mix of politics, economics, and shifting career priorities has made it difficult for principal researchers to recruit new lab members.Credit: Getty

Peter Coveney, a chemist and computational scientist at University College London, is ready to hire a postdoctoral researcher with senior computing experience. Problem: Struggling to attract a single qualified applicant. Earlier this year, he had to re-advertise the position after no qualified candidates had been pulled out in the previous two rounds of recruitment. He worries that if he doesn’t bring someone in soon, projects will be left unfinished and his long history of personal donations and releases could see a slowdown. “I’m extremely worried about the long term,” she says. “I’m not running idle right now, but soon I might be.”

Madeline Lancaster, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, England, may be involved. In July, he received a total of 36 applications for a postdoctoral position in his laboratory; this was a few hundred less than he had originally expected. “I was nervous that I wouldn’t be able to pass all the applications,” she says. These 36 people did not lead to a single appointment. “I still haven’t filled the position,” she says. “There seems to be a lot of competition for strong candidates.”

Lancaster’s struggle to find a postdoctoral fellow is particularly notable because he has an intriguing project – his next postdoctoral will help grow ‘mini-brains’ in the lab to improve understanding of neural development – and a strong publication track record. “We’ve been doing very well lately,” she says. “I thought we’d get more attention than five years ago, but it doesn’t look that way.”

‘Down in a drop’

Coveney and Lancaster aren’t the only principal investigators (PIs) facing a postdoctoral crisis. Other researchers in the UK, the European Union and elsewhere have reported a sharp drop in applications from qualified applicants, a sign of a potentially drastic shift in the scientific labor market. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t complained about how difficult it is to find postdoctoral researchers around the world,” says Florian Markowetz, a cancer researcher at the University of Cambridge.

The reasons behind the shortage are complex: politics, economics, and shifting career priorities for new PhD holders all play a role. “There’s a lot of things that magnify the problem in the current state of the world,” says Alisa Wolberg, a hematology researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wolberg co-author sight piece Addressing the “perfect storm” behind the postdoc shortage in the April issue hematologist, the official members’ newsletter of the American Society of Hematology. Whatever the cause, the consequences are common. PIs are forced to change their approach to recruiting postdoctoral fellows and rethink their expectations for their teams as postdoctoral professionals around the world reassess their values ​​and futures.

Coveney is particularly concerned about the sudden drop in applicants from the European Union, which was once a trusted source of highly educated postdoctoral talent. “I noticed that it was already declining right after the Brexit result came out,” he says, referring to the UK’s 2016 referendum on leaving the bloc. “It’s gotten much worse since then.” In the last few rounds of her recruitment, she hasn’t received a single application from an EU-trained researcher. This is a significant loss, because many doctoral programs in the EU agitate researchers with the kind of high-level computer skills it requires. “These are the people I want to hire and we can’t get them.”

Coveney says Brexit has undoubtedly created “significant barriers” for European PhD students who may want to work in the UK. PhD researchers from the EU will need to apply for a three-year work visa to take up a position in the UK – a process that can take a month or longer to be approved and can cost more than 730 Euros (US$740) in fees. The UK government’s actions have also created an environment in which foreign researchers are not welcome or wanted, Coveney says. He suspects that a growing number of PhD students in the EU will find opportunities to come to the UK closer to home than to navigate through these barriers and perceptions.

The numbers show that the EU postdocs already in the country remain, at least for now. According to Advance HE, a not-for-profit higher education monitoring organization headquartered in York, UK, the estimated total number of EU postdoctoral researchers working in the UK has increased from 12,495 in the 2019-20 academic year to 2012. It dropped to 12.185. 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 struggles when it comes to recruiting postdoctoral workers. Andrea Musacchio, a cell biologist at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Physiology in Dortmund, Germany, has ample funds to hire a postdoctoral fellow. In 2020 he won the Leibniz Prize, one of the highest honors given to researchers in Germany, from the German research organization DFG. “I can make very competitive offers for postdoctoral positions in Germany on a higher pay scale than you might expect,” he says. But when he posted a new opening on Twitter, he only received five applications and none of them were “serious.”

When Musacchio first moved to Germany from his native Italy a decade ago, he had little trouble recruiting postdoctoral fellows. But he says the flow of applicants is “starting to trickle down slowly.” He thinks that potential candidates are now choosing different paths. “Many people in Germany find employment in industry soon after completing their doctorate,” he says. “This wasn’t always the case. Ten years ago, people said you already had a postdoctoral degree to prepare for a job in industry.”

Musacchio also suspects that PhD recipients eager to take up a postdoctoral position are increasingly looking for opportunities to learn “cool” techniques. “Basic science has lost some of its appeal, in part because of complexity,” he says. “People choose techniques over subjects.”

Lancaster says the dwindling supply of postdoctoral papers likely reflects the trend of scientists moving away from university-based research (cf. Nature 583, 645-646; 2020). “This isn’t just about postdocs. You see really established PIs starting to leave academia. People choose academia for intellectual freedom. But now there are private institutions that offer the same intellectual freedom with better wages and working conditions. What more does the Academy offer?”

feeling worthless

Jonny Coates, a postdoctoral fellow in immunology at Queen Mary University of London, and Jonny Coates, founder of UK & EU Pdoc Slack, an online community of several hundred postdoctoral researchers, say the increasing competition for postdoctorals doesn’t make them feel more sought after. According to him, many postdoctoral and doctoral students want to leave academia because they feel they are not fully appreciated. “This is how we are treated by PIs, senior management, and academia in general,” he says. “People don’t feel valued by anyone in the system.” Coates says he wants to fulfill the remainder of his postdoctoral contract, but is looking for other options.

Salary is definitely an issue, Coates says. For example, first-year postdoctoral programs funded by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory earn around £34,400 (about US$40,700) in the UK. In Germany, the annual salary for first year EMBL postdocs is just over €42,200. According to a 2020 report from, a media site covering biotechnology trends in Europe, this is quite low, between the €50,000 and 70,000 that PhD holders can expect to earn in the industry. In the United States, the salary level for a first year postdoctoral fellowship funded by the National Service Research Award is $54,840, which is less than half what someone with a doctorate in life sciences might earn in a start-up or other industry. job in that country

AND Nature A survey of more than 7,600 postdoctoral researchers worldwide revealed widespread concern and uncertainty about work paths (see Figure 1). Nature 588, 181–184; 2020). Half of those surveyed said their satisfaction with their position had worsened in the previous year, with 56% having a negative view of their career outlook. Fewer than half offer a scientific career to their younger selves. A quarter (24%) of respondents said they have experienced discrimination or harassment during their postdoctoral studies.

New approaches to recruitment

The evolving postdoctoral environment has forced PIs to rethink their approach to recruitment. Markowetz’s lab website currently has a animated slide show He’s touting three open postdoctoral positions in his lab. The presentation notes that over the past five years, five previous postdoctoral fellows have moved to PI positions, and the other three have formed start-ups. A slide shows a picture of Markowetz alongside the words: “I want to support ambitious postdocs to reach the next level of their careers.” “Getting postdocs is very difficult,” Markowetz told Nature. All my friends here have the same problem. I should be more proactive. I have to explain to people what they will get if they come to me.”

Lancaster also changed its approach. In the past, he could sometimes find qualified postdocs just by checking his email. But such spam messages have essentially disappeared, he says. Instead of waiting for the Postdocs to find her, she repeatedly posted the hiring announcement for the unfilled lab position on Twitter. “It seemed to get a lot of attention,” he says. As her search continues, she will continue to try to spread the news. “You can send e-mails to people you know who have trained doctoral students in a field suitable for your laboratory. Let them know that you are looking for a postdoctoral fellow.”

Wolberg says he’s recruited one of his latest postdoctoral fellows, thanks to a virtual conference that is perhaps the most important symbol of science in the 2020s. The conference included a session where scientists could interact with the trainees. “I went out and said I was looking for postdocs and someone contacted me.”

Wolberg still wants to add more people to his team and doesn’t want to limit his options. Like many PIs, he has to accept the possibility of not being able to find another postdoctoral post no matter how hard he tries. “We have a lot of science, so we need people,” he says. “I’m going to hire someone. If he turns out to be a postdoc, that’ll be great. If he’s a graduate student, that’ll be great too.”

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