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Why are postdocs limited to 5 years after PhD?

  1. Sep 18, 2013 #1
    Dear all,

    I genuinely cannot fathom a reason why most universities have a strict policy against hiring postdocs with five or more years of postdoctoral research experience. Could somebody please elaborate?

    I cannot imagine anybody benefiting from this arrangement.

    1. Universities and professors lose. They need cheap highly qualified labour. A postdoc with five years of experience will likely be much more productive than a freshly minted PhD graduate. Low pay or job insecurity would not be a deterrent to many highly qualified experienced postdocs.

    2. Postdocs lose. I would be happy to remain a life-long postdoc. I enjoy research and find postdoctoral salary and job security sufficient. I am unlikely to succeed becoming a professor, and even if I did I would find administrative duties less rewarding than pure research. Many of my friends feel the same.

    3. PhD graduates lose. Sure, if universities started hiring postdocs with more than five years of work experience in addition to postdocs with less than five years of work experience, it would mean increased competition for postdoctoral positions. Overall however it would be a good thing for PhD graduates, since most of them would be forced to look into alternative careers and eventually find a good job. As it stands now, half of PhD graduates continue as postdocs only to find out that in five years nobody will hire them (academia will not hire them because of this strange policy; non-academic PhD-friendly employers usually hire straight after PhD and see postdoctoral experience as a strong disadvantage).

    To be fair, in theory universities are allowed to hire experienced postdocs as research assistants or research associates, but in practice it rarely happens. As a result everybody seems to lose.

    Last edited: Sep 18, 2013
  2. jcsd
  3. Sep 18, 2013 #2


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    I believe it's because they regard postdoc as still another studentship. The fourth degree as you may say.
  4. Sep 18, 2013 #3
    Sure, but why? Who does it benefit? Everybody seems to lose because of this arrangement.

    Or if you insist that a postdoc is not a job, then why are research associate jobs for experienced postdocs almost non-existent? Surely a professor / funding body / university would benefit much more from an experienced researcher than from a recent PhD student (especially if the salary stays the same). Coincidentally it would also be a great thing for postdocs and other phd graduates...
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2013
  5. Sep 18, 2013 #4
    A couple of points. First off, perpetual postdocs is not a good idea, because they don't stay in a group that long, which means that they don't contribute to persistent knowledge in the group. This is a problem in many groups that only have PhD students and postdocs, that the know how disappears in a few years and new people are forced to reinvent the wheel. Better then to hire a more perment position, but here's the problem because that is much more risky, since they have to guarantue the pay for much longer and all of that.

    Another point is that is that the reason you think postdoc has a good job security now is because there's not so many of them (since many leave due to no permanent jobs). If if was the standard that everyone stayed indefinately then there would be way more postdocs (still competing for the same number of positions) and thus the job security (and maybe salary too) would drop drastically.

    And finally, I do believe that to really become a scientist that can take over the next generation of research you need to grow into a leadership role where you take charge of your own research, not just do what someone else already thought up. That being said however, I agree with you that there are too few "senior scientist" positions today. There really should be more permanent non-professor scientist jobs, to help fill the advancement gap and to ensure that the knowledge continuity in the groups can more easily be preserved.
  6. Sep 18, 2013 #5
    Thank you for your detailed reply, Zarqon.

    I however have to disagree with you on all points.

    It appears that universities do not find permanent research jobs to be a good idea, except for a very limited (and decreasing) number of cases. Most of the time it is cheaper and easier for them to hire temporary postdocs. I would of course love to have a permanent research job, but alas the ratio of permanent to temporary jobs in academia is dropping rapidly. So your point does not correlate with what is actually happening, and anyway you do not answer my original question here (I was asking about a 5-year limit, not about temporary vs permanent, which is a separate topic).

    I do not think that job security or salary for academic postdocs is good, it is in fact far worse than for anybody else with a PhD degree in physics: http://www.aip.org/statistics/trends/reports/phdinitial.pdf Therefore I do not expect that increased competition will push the postdoctoral job security and compensation much further down (at some point going the postdoctoral route will just not be a viable option for many PhD graduates, so it will balance out). However even if postdoctoral pay and job security drop dramatically, lower job security and salary is still better than none.

    I also wish it were the case, but universities hire less and less professors and more and more postdocs. So your third point is not grounded in reality and also does not answer my original question.

    Sorry if it sounded a bit harsh, but your ideas seem to correspond to much earlier time in history when most strong and motivated postdocs could get professor positions.
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2013
  7. Sep 18, 2013 #6
    Depends where you go - in the UK its not unusual to hire very experienced postdocs (at least in particle physics) and postdocs often become long term positions. So you can be a perpetual postdoc. I think this has happened because Universities don't want to hire more academic staff, yet at the same time experienced researchers are needed for the experiments to function.

    I have been a "postdoc" at the same university group for 9 years. Though a lot of people say this means I am not a "postdoc", I can't quite see the difference. I am funded off external money, and if that ever dried up I'm out of a job. I do have a permanent contract though. I can easily find many people who have been "postdocs" for 15+ years too.
  8. Sep 18, 2013 #7
    I think it would be a deterrent, especially if there are better options out there (even if not your first choice). The pay is already low enough and job security bad for many, that instead of a postdoc they get better terms and pay in industry. If you make the pay even lower, you will only accelerate the departure of good people (and be left with the ones who have no other options)
  9. Sep 18, 2013 #8

    Andy Resnick

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    I am unaware of any such policy, here or anywhere- what is your evidence to support your claim?
  10. Sep 18, 2013 #9
    Thanks, I guess you have a point here.

    Do you however think that postdoctoral wages would depress significantly if five year limits were to be removed? Do not forget that in many developed countries there is some sort of minimal postdoctoral wage, and current salaries are very close to or are at this limit. Other countries with deregulated academia are also influenced by these minimal postdoc wages, because academic job market is highly international.

    As for the deterrance, I would be happy to get a 10-20% salary cut if it meant that I could stay a postdoc as long as I produced excellent results. Or would you expect larger pay cuts?
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2013
  11. Sep 18, 2013 #10
    Sure Andy,

    A lot of universities in USA and Europe have a policy similar to this: http://postdocs.stanford.edu/admin/blog/archives/2011/05/stanford-univer.html
    In some countries this policy is nation-wide. Some universities do not explicitly declare it on their websites, but just state a five-year experience limit in thier postdoctoral job advertisements. Many awards and funding schemes are also limited to early career researchers.

    Again, any university may theoretically hire an experienced postdoc as a research associate, but in my experience it happens very rarely. One of the reasons may be that some grants explicitly support postdocs, and not research associates. The other reason may be that research associates seem to have slightly higher minimal wages in some countries/universities, and professors try to save money. The third reason may be historical, since in the past getting faculty positions for strong and determined postdocs was much easier.

    However as Hepman mentioned, it does not seem to be the case everywhere, and that is very reassuring:

    By the way Hepman, does it become harder in your experience to remain a postdoc as time goes by and academia evolves?
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2013
  12. Sep 18, 2013 #11
    nearly all UK postdoc fellowship schemes have an explicit requirement against experienced postdocs.

    I believe DOE labs in the US also have such a requirement.

    Informally many academics state they won't employ experienced postdocs (citing reasons such as "we want someone young and dynamic" or "we want someone without family commitments willing to work 16 hours a day" - both of these are real examples of feedback postdoc applicants were verbally given in an informal setting). Of course many other academics do not hold these views, but people with such views are far from a minority. No University has any such official policy though that I know of, it just depends on the academics outlook.
  13. Sep 18, 2013 #12
    Your options narrow because you are officially excluded from applying for many things, and informally some academics won't consider older postdocs. That does not mean its impossible to get a postdoc as you get older, just it will get harder.
  14. Sep 18, 2013 #13


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    I never thought an institution would bother having a policy that limits the timeline for post docs. However, that said, I suspect if an institution were to do something like this, it would have more to do with institution-provided funding.

    If you are a priniple investigator and you aqcuire external funding, you can pretty much hire whoever your want with that money, i.e. the best qualified individual.

    On the other hand, if the university is covering the pay, it may be in the interest of "furthing the development of scientific talent" or somesuch. Just like with graduate students, the idea is that the department will commit to funding so many post doctoral fellowships to provide opportunities for academic advancement. Then, just for the same reason that PhD support runs out after five years, so does the post-doc support. A department doesn't have any interest in 'supporting' someone who is not advancing in his or her career.

    What we "see" however - the phenomenon of people not holding more than two or three post-docs - I suspect has more to do with the people in the positions themselves.

    Imagine you're in your mid-thirties and have spent the last several years of your life working on a contractual basis with minimal benefits, no retirement savings or pension, it's been difficult to maintain relationships when you have to move every couple of years, much less start a family. You love your work, but despite putting in long hours and maybe even having made a substantial contribution to your field you know that you're not realistically going to be considered for a tenure-track position, or at least the the probability is low. It doesn't seem all that implausible that you would consider looking outside academia for something that's more stable, pays better, has better benefits, etc. And I think these are the stronger reasons for the diminishing post-docs with age. The post-docs themselves choose to leave.
  15. Sep 18, 2013 #14


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    I'm not in academia, but the analogy with hiring in industry seems a reasonable one IMO.

    if you get a job application from somebody who is still on the "entry level" job grade after 5 years, either they have no talent, or no ambition. Whichever is true, their CV is already near to the "reject" pile.

    If that seems harsh, remember people aren't interested in hiring the "best" candidate regardless of the expense of the hiring process. They want to find a "good enough" candidate, as cheaply and maybe as quickly as possible.
  16. Sep 18, 2013 #15
    I don't think it is that reasonable. Academia is much more structured than industry jobs.

    I suggest that what is offputting is that someone staying around in an entry position for many years in industry is RARE. You are applying rules of thumb to get the common applicant. If everyone did entry level work for a decade before they had a shot at moving up, no one would bat an eye at that. It would be normal.

    What you'd find removing hard limits, is that the majority of your applicants in academia ARE in postdocs for 5+ years (with the hard limit, they are forced to leave the field entirely after they hit the hard limit), so it wouldn't stand out.
  17. Sep 18, 2013 #16
    I don't really think this analogy works, because the job structure and bottle necks in promotion are very different to industry.

    A better analogy I have heard is imagine if teachers in high schools were all told either they have to become a manager within 5 years or they will be thrown out? No-one would think that is sensible. Yet that is essentially how many university research fields are being run.
  18. Sep 18, 2013 #17


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    There is an issue here that has been missed, I think (I did a "speed reading" through most of the posts). A "postdoc", by definition, is a "training". You are no longer a student, but you also do not have research funding, you do not yet have all the necessary ADMINISTRATIVE skill to seek funding, to carry all the responsibility of a faculty member or full-blown researcher. There's more to it in the day-to-day responsibility of being a physicist than just do research!

    Thus, a postdoc position where you get to carry out your research with some degree of independence (based on what you were hired to do), and at the same time, learn about the system and about being a physicist. You are now a peer, a Principle Investigator, no longer a student. This position is where you transition from a student into a practicing physicist.

    5 years into it, you are no longer can be considered as such. You HAVE been trained, or at least, have spent long enough time that you should know what you are doing. That funds should be used for someone else who's coming up the ranks. If the institution finds you important enough, or if the research group finds you useful enough, then they should find other funds to keep you working there. You should be employed in another capacity, but not as a postdoc.

    Note also that funding for a postdoc often comes out of research grants that itself may post a limit on who can be hired or kept in that position. The National Science Foundation, among its many goals, is to educate and train new scientists/professionals (outside of the Life Sciences). Such requirement puts a limit on "old", perpetual postdocs. Try justifying the "educate and train new scientist" goal in your year review report when you are hiring someone who has been a postdoc for 5 years or more. It is why many institution may put a limit on who can be hired.

    Note that for the US Nat'l labs, the restriction is even more "severe". Most will not accept someone for a postdoc position beyond 5 or 6 years after the date of their Ph.D, regardless of whether that person spent any of those years as a postdoc! In other words, the requirement, and the definition of what a "postdoc" position means is truly enforced here, which is the training of newly minted PhDs. I suspect that this is a directive from DOE, but I haven't looked at any documented evidence for this.

  19. Sep 18, 2013 #18

    Vanadium 50

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    This has a hint of "Once I am in, I'll shut the door behind me".

    Zz is right - a postdoctoral position is a training position. After ~6 years, you're either trained or untrainable, and in either case, continuing does not make any sense.

    There certainly are research scientist positions. They cost the grant typically twice as much as a postdoc: half of that is a higher salary and half of that is benefits. For the people who have argued here that there should be more such positions, who exactly will pay for them? In particular, if you have a 58 year old research scientist and his PI loses his grant, what should happen to the research scientist?
  20. Sep 18, 2013 #19
    Thanks for your input ZapperZ and Vanadium 50,

    Now I understand the situation much better. Do you think that decreasing the cost of a research scientist to roughly that of a postdoc (or only slightly higher) would have any positive effects as outlined in the OP? I know, this discussion would not change the system, but it may help me find my place in it.
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2013
  21. Sep 19, 2013 #20
    Interesting difference - in the UK I don't think the equivalent bodies see themselves as providing money to train new scientists, but to fund science research. Doing that means you can have fresh newly minted PhDs and more experienced people at the same time employed from research grants.

    Another difference - someone mentioned in the US they have distinct postdoc and research scientist positions. In the UK I don't think any such distinction exists, and postdoc just means someone employed to do research.
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2013
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