As Time Goes By

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Historical accounts of the early days of molecular biology are always galvanising. The protagonists, bold in spirit and cheerful in manner, set off like Dick Whittington in search of their own (conceptual) fortune. With a trusty fellowship under their arm and a skip in their step, these intrepid postdocs jauntily unite with a chosen mentor before ultimately establishing their own independent laboratories. It always sounds thrilling, and beguilingly easy.

Leaving aside the possibility of some seriously rose-tinted glasses being worn by the authors of such accounts, there’s also a major discrepancy in those narratives that’s faced by postdocs of today: those enabling fellowships are for two years only, or at most three. But why is this? Let’s hear from someone who was a postdoc back in the glory days of the 1970s…

“Two years were often enough because most projects used a single technique, not the multiple techniques that we use today. In my case, as a biochemist, I purified membranes and did enzyme assays. I didn’t have to do fluorescence and electron microscopy.”

So back in the good old days, a postdoc position could reasonably mean going somewhere else (abroad, or at the very least joining a different lab) for a couple of years, picking up a single technique or assay, and then applying it. Nowadays, of course, it’s nearly impossible to put together a first-author paper in that kind of way or in that kind of time, particularly if you’re starting a project from scratch. And the amount of data in individual publications has risen by an order of magnitude.

“This meant that one could do a lot in two years – and I did – but I must also say that I had an extra two years to capitalise on what I did in the first two, so much so that I went straight to EMBL [the European Molecular Biology Laboratory] as a group leader.”

So at the end of two years, you wrote up your results, published them, then either looked around for independent positions immediately, or secured extra funding to polish things to a fine finish. Again, things have diverged sharply in the 40 years since then. First, the probability of securing independent funding once you already have two years of postdoctoral experience to your name is extremely difficult, as noted in an earlier posting. This means you either have to rely on your mentor having money to support you for the remaining time, or you have to move on. And as you almost certainly won’t have a published first-author paper in that time, the likelihood of you being competitive for open faculty positions is extremely slim. Second, moving on at this stage probably means applying for an advertised postdoc position – meaning you surrender a large degree of control over your own career. You’re no longer proposing your own project (as you would do in a fellowship application), you’re offering to be hired for someone else’s.

“I remember as a PhD student my friends in the year ahead were getting phone calls offering lectureships(!!)”

Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven! Yes, once upon a time, junior faculty positions were so plentiful that PhD students were being approached for them. Those days are long gone, and the shortage of available faculty positions is a big contributor to the career bottleneck that’s experienced by postdocs with ambitions to remain in academia.

Clearly then, the fellowship system has not kept pace with the changes that have occurred to the career path since the 1970s. It now takes postdocs longer to become competitive for independent positions, and fewer independent positions are available, but fellowships are still predicated on the notion that you can achieve (almost) everything required to become independent in 24 months. The system exhorts postdocs to demonstrate independence, but the funding set-up is structured so as to make it harder for postdocs to retain control over their own research agendas.

Ultimately, it boils down to what science wants – in the main – from its postdocs. Are they simply professional researchers doing a job, or are they group leaders in training who are transitioning to full independence?

A step towards encouraging the latter would be to make fellowship schemes run for four years instead of two (or make it two plus two if you want greater oversight). This at least would acknowledge the working reality and give young scientists a chance to retain control over their own research direction for longer. Right now, like the patrons of Rick’s bar in the movie Casablanca, everyone’s waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for their exit visas.


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