Brief Report: Penn Science Policy Group – “Training The Biomedical Work Force: Natural Selection Or Pyramid Scheme?”

(BPC Newsletter Brief Reports are quick, up to the minute summaries of happenings on campus relevant to the postdoc community.)

By Tom Bebee, Ph.D.

Last night’s Penn Science Policy Group (PSPG) presented the topic “Training the biomedical work force: natural selection or pyramid scheme?” In response to changes in biotech and academic funding during the 1990s, there has been a steady increase in the number of STEM doctoral students (~30% increase). This growth has led to an increased number of STEM, and specifically life science, postdocs in the US (~40% increase). Unfortunately, academic tenure track positions for this growing population of postdocs has not grown at the same rate, and the same can be said for the biotech industry where new hiring and growth has plateaued. As only ~20% of postdocs will secure a tenure track position, and with the current academic funding cuts, the question is not can we continue on the current trajectory but rather how can we adjust the training model in STEM. Several proposed changes are outlined here: (1) Instituting a 5 year maximum tenure for postdocs while increasing postdoc salaries. This will reduce the number of available positions but will select for the most talented postdocs. Along these lines are a proposed funding mechanism for “super-postdocs,” paid at a higher salary that extends beyond the 5 year time-frame. This has already been initiated in the National Cancer Institute (NCI) (although only 50 positions for ~40,000 postdocs). (2) Reducing the number of graduate students admitted to doctoral programs, thus reducing the number of PhDs generated. (3) Implementing earlier education and career/mentoring efforts at the undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral levels with emphasis on career paths outside of academics and industry. This would require mentorship teams encompassing other mentors outside of the academic setting. (4) Redirecting some of the NIH/NSF funding away from R level funds toward more training level grants (i.e. T, F, and K awards). This could reduce number of trainee spots by “regulating” the available funding for trainees. (5) Increasing the NIH/NSF budget to accommodate more new faculty and retain trained “postdocs” to bridge the gap to independent faculty positions.
What is clear about the current situation regarding the surplus of STEM, and specifically life science postdocs, is that effective change will require a consensus and directed efforts at the national, university, and individual laboratory level. Moreover, the change will not be immediate and will require time for any of these proposed efforts to alter the landscape of the academic PhD training programs.

For more info, see or follow @UPennSciencePol.


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