Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs

Lab leaders wrestle with paucity of postdocs

A complex mix of politics, economics and shifting career priorities has made it hard for principal investigators 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 experience in high-level computing. The problem: he’s struggling to attract a single qualified applicant. Earlier this year, he had to re-advertise for the position after two previous rounds of recruiting failed to produce any qualified candidates. He’s worried that if he can’t bring in someone soon, projects will be left undone and his long personal history of grants and publications could see a slowdown. “I’m extremely concerned about the long run,” he says. “At the moment I’m not running on empty, but I might be before long.”

Madeline Lancaster, a neuroscientist at the University of Cambridge, UK, can relate to that. In July, she received a total of 36 applications for a postdoctoral position in her laboratory, many fewer than the couple of hundred that she originally expected. “I had been nervous that I wouldn’t be able to go through all of the applications,” she says. Those 36 didn’t lead to a single appointment. “I still have not filled the position,” she says. “There seems to be lots of competition for strong candidates.”

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

‘Reduced to a trickle’

Coveney and Lancaster aren’t the only principal investigators (PIs) facing a postdoc crunch. Other researchers in the United Kingdom, the European Union and elsewhere have reported a sudden drop in applications from qualified applicants, a sign of a potentially drastic shift in the scientific labour market. “I don’t know anyone worldwide who currently doesn’t complain how hard it is to find postdocs,” 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 part. “There are a lot of things in the current state of the world that are amplifying the problem,” say Alisa Wolberg, a haematology researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Wolberg co-authored an opinion piece that addressed the “perfect storm” behind the postdoc shortage in an April issue of The Hematologist, the official members’ newsletter of the American Society of Hematology. Whatever the causes, the consequences are widespread. PIs are having to change their approach to recruiting postdocs, and to rethink their expectations for their teams as postdocs worldwide are re-assessing their value and their futures.

Coveney is particularly concerned about a sudden drop in the number of applications from the European Union, a once-reliable source of highly trained postdoctoral talent. “I noticed it was already tapering off fairly soon after the Brexit result came out,” he says, referring to the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on leaving the bloc. “It’s got a lot worse since.” He didn’t receive a single application from an EU-trained researcher in his last few rounds of recruitment. That’s a significant loss because several PhD programmes in the EU are churning out researchers with the sort of high-end computer skills he needs. “Those are the people I would like to recruit and we just aren’t getting them.”

Brexit has undoubtedly created “substantial barriers” to European PhD students who might want to work in the United Kingdom, Coveney says. PhD researchers from the EU would need to apply for a three-year work visa to take up a position in the United Kingdom — a process that can take a month or more to be approved, and can cost more than €730 (US$740) in fees. The actions of the UK government have also created a climate in which foreign researchers simply don’t feel welcome or wanted, Coveney says. He suspects that a growing number of PhD students in the EU will find opportunities closer to home instead of navigating those obstacles and perceptions to come to the United Kingdom.

The numbers suggest that the EU postdocs who are already in the country are staying, at least for now. According to Advance HE, a non-profit higher-education monitoring organization based in York, UK, the estimated total number of postdoctoral researchers from the EU working in the United Kingdom declined slightly from 12,495 in the 2019–20 academic year to 12,185 in the following academic year. Over that same period, the total number of postdocs working in the United Kingdom dropped from 50,865 to 50,675.

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

Musacchio didn’t have much trouble recruiting postdocs a decade ago, when he first moved to Germany from his home country of Italy. But the stream of applicants “slowly reduced to a trickle”, he says. He thinks that potential candidates are now choosing different paths. “In Germany, a lot of people are finding jobs in industry right after getting a PhD,” he says. “This wasn’t always 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 are willing to take a postdoc position are increasingly looking for opportunities to learn “cool” techniques. “Basic science has lost some of its appeal, partly because of the complexity,” he says. “People are choosing techniques over topics.”

The dwindling supply of postdocs probably reflects a growing trend of scientists moving away from university-based research, Lancaster says. “It’s not just about postdocs. You see really established PIs starting to leave academia. People choose academia for the intellectual freedom. But now there are private institutions offering that same intellectual freedom with better salaries and working conditions. What is academia even offering any more?”

Feeling undervalued

The growing competition for postdocs hasn’t necessarily made them feel more wanted, says Jonny Coates, an immunology postdoc at Queen Mary University of London and the founder of UK & EU Pdoc Slack, an online community of several hundred postdoctoral researchers. In his view, many postdocs and PhD students want to leave academia precisely because they feel unappreciated. “It’s the way we’re treated by PIs, 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 that he’d like to fulfil the remainder of his postdoctoral contract but that he’s looking out for other options.

Salary is certainly an issue, Coates says. For example, first-year postdocs funded by the European Molecular Biology Lab earn nearly £34,400 (about US$40,700) if they’re in the United Kingdom. In Germany, the yearly salary for first-year EMBL postdocs is just over €42,200. That’s notably less than the €50,000 to €70,000 that PhD holders could expect to make in industry, according to a 2020 report from Labiotech.eu, a media site that covers biotech trends in Europe. In the United States, the stipend level for a first-year postdoc funded by a National Service Research Award is $54,840, which is less than half what someone with a life-sciences PhD might be able to earn at a start-up or other industry job in that country.

A Nature survey of more than 7,600 postdoctoral researchers around the world uncovered widespread anxiety and uncertainly about their job paths. Half of the respondents said their satisfaction in their position had worsened in the previous year, and 56% had a negative view on their career outlook. Less than half would recommend a scientific career to their younger self. One-quarter (24%) of respondents said they had experienced discrimination or harassment during their current stint as a postdoc.

New approaches to recruitment

The evolving postdoctoral landscape has forced PIs to rethink their approach to recruitment. Markowetz’s lab website currently features an animated slideshow touting three open postdoc positions in his lab. The presentation notes that, in the past five years, five previous postdocs have gone on to PI positions and three others have created start-up companies. One slide shows a picture of Markowetz next to the words: “I want to support ambitious postdocs to reach the next level of their careers.” Speaking to Nature, Markowetz says, “It’s so hard to get postdocs. All of my friends here have the same problems. I have to be more proactive. I have to explain to people what they get if they come to me.”

Lancaster has changed her approach, too. 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 postdocs to find her, she repeatedly posted the hiring announcement for her unfilled lab position on Twitter. “It seemed to be getting a lot of attention,” she says. As her search continues, she will keep trying to spread the word. “You can e-mail people that you know are training PhD students in a field that will fit with your lab. Let them know you’re looking for postdocs.”

Wolberg says that she recruited one of her recent postdocs thanks to a virtual conference, perhaps the quintessential symbol of science in the 2020s. The conference included a session in which scientists could interact with trainees. “I came right out and said that I was looking for postdocs, and someone contacted me.”

Wolberg is still looking to add more people to her team, and she doesn’t want to limit her options. Like many PIs, she has to accept the possibility that she might not be able to find another postdoc, no matter how hard she tries. “We have a lot of science going on, so we need people,” she says. “I’ll be recruiting someone. If it turns out to be a postdoc, that will be great. If it’s a graduate student, that will also be great.”

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