Permadocs: An illusion of eternity

The postgraduate factory keeps producing Ph.D. holders at unprecedented speeds worldwide. Some of these people manage to figure out early that they will not reach a tenured professorship or even a tenure-track position. They will either move forward to a new career outside academia or seek another career path inside academia. The former is mentioned sometimes as a “post-academic” or “post-ac” career and the latter as an “alternative-academic” or “alt-ac” career. I do not endorse any of these terms as they imply that professoriate is the path to follow and all the rest are inferior options.

There is a third group of people, the “permanent postdoctoral” or “permadoc” researchers. Collectively, this term refers to people working many years in research labs funded by “soft-money” (e.g., grants, fellowships, and R&D projects). Effectively, they are “eternal” postdoctoral researchers without any job security. Also, they may face a salary cap that does not match their numerous years of experience, as funding agencies dictate the maximum amount they can receive (e.g., FWF in Austria). Despite all these, there are a lot of permadocs: 10% of all USA postdocs in 2013.

There are many reasons why one sticks (or stucks) to be a permadoc. Some hope that once the professor goes into pension, they will be the (obvious) replacement. It sounds like a really long time investment for securing a job, doesn’t it? Some become bound to a specific location (e.g., because of the “two body problem“). But what happens when your lab decides to switch institutions? Some people enrolled in a Ph.D. program because they love science and want to continue their research without elevating to principal investigators or professors. Can they?

There have been attempts in many countries (e.g., the 6-year limit in Germany) to reduce the time one stays in fixed-term-contract postdoc positions. This article summarizes nicely such attempts, their severe side effects, and bypasses. And so does PHD Comics:

“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham –

As scientific research becomes more and more complex and interdisciplinary, we need experienced people with deep expertise to run and manage large labs and infrastructures. Still, the academia has not evolved to create an intermediate level of staff scientists in research-intensive institutions. One can either be a Ph.D. student aiming for the thesis or a tenure(-track) professor. And in between, the void filled by short-term contracts for postdoctoral researchers. There are no institutionalized positions for permanent research staff to support the needs for modern research. Despite people actually enjoying to serve such a role. I cannot imagine for example how a tenured professor of medicine can do all the administrative and management work needed to run a University research lab of 20-30 persons without the support of experienced collaborators (e.g., lab managers in biomedical sciences). Neither I can imagine that a lab can afford to recycle and retrain postdocs every few years, losing in the meantime all the collected knowledge due to the departures.

My strong opinion is that universities must create tenured (i.e., permanently-funded) staff scientist positions for their research labs and for as long as the labs operate. It is the least gesture of appreciation to all the hard work these permadocs put each and every day. Hiding them in fake “administrative staff” and “teaching staff” positions or making them run from the one grant application to another for a fixed, low salary is both inappropriate and demotivating.

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