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By the time Sophie Thuault-Restituito reached her twelfth year as a postdoctoral fellow, she had finally had enough. She had completed her first postdoc in London, then moved to New York University (NYU) in 2004 to start a second. Eight years and two laboratories later, she was still there and still effectively a postdoc, precariously dependent on outside grants to secure and pay for her position.

Thuault-Restituito is the face of a postdoctoral system that is broken. These highly skilled scientists are a major engine driving scientific research, yet they are often poorly rewarded and have no way to progress in academia. The number of postdocs in science has ballooned: in the United States alone, it jumped by 150% between 2000 and 2012. But the number of tenured and other full-time faculty positions has plateaued and, in some places, it is even shrinking.

Many postdocs move on to fulfilling careers elsewhere, but those who want to continue in research can find themselves thwarted. They end up trapped as ‘permadocs’: doing multiple postdoc terms, staying in these positions for many years and, in a small but significant proportion, never leaving them. Of the more than 40,000 US postdocs in 2013, almost 4,000 had been so for more than 6 year.

This problem is felt acutely in the large US biomedical-sciences workforce, but the trends are similar in many other countries and disciplines — and the economic drivers are too. Postdoc salaries have remained low — often less than the stipend and tuition costs of a graduate student. “We had the incentives all wrong, ” says Paula Stephan, an economist at Georgia State University in Atlanta who studies research labour markets. “We made postdocs so cheap that principal investigators had lots of incentives to hire them.” Senior scientists in the United States, who have been urging reforms for the scientific workforce as a whole, have identified the postdoc oversupply as one of the most urgent issues.

Experts acknowledge that change will be hard; after all, the National Academies made similar recommendations 15 years ago with little effect. But some institutions and countries have started to address the issue. Several US universities have enforced 5-year term limits, New Zealand inadvertently narrowed the pipeline when it slashed the number of postdocs available, and some laboratories are moving permadocs into stable, better-paid positions.

Anderson Thompkins, who also sat on the 2014 National Academies report committee, says that this type of planning should begin in graduate school, alongside raised awareness of the academic bottleneck that trainees will face. Whereas about 65% of US PhD-holders continue into a postdoc, only 15–20% of those move into tenure-track academic posts. The European situation is even more competitive — in the United Kingdom, for example, about 3.5% of science doctorates become permanent research staff at universities.

Postdocs don’t have to be forced out of the pipeline if, instead, they are never let in. That was the result when, in 2010, the New Zealand government decided to axe a scheme that had funded roughly 90 postdoc slots — eliminating nearly one-third of its postdocs in one fell swoop.

Before this, the government covered salaries for a huge chunk of the country’s postdocs, who enjoy salaries and benefits nearly equivalent to those starting permanent academic positions. For most labs, postdocs are too expensive to fund from research grants. So when the government funding disappeared — mainly a money-saving decision — so too did many postdoc spots.

Simon Davy, head of the school of biological sciences at the Victoria University of Wellington, says that the research culture of university departments loses vibrancy without any postdocs. His department of 35 research groups hosts fewer than 10 postdocs. His own lab has been lucky enough to have a couple of them in the past 5–6 years and he says that this has tripled his group’s productivity.

Labs stuffed full of trainees do not always translate to better results, says Gregory Petsko, chair of last year’s National Academies committee and a neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City. “I don’t think many of us need the labs to be the size we have them.” Petsko proposes combining various strategies — term limits, fewer postdoc positions and more staff scientists — to deflate the swollen postdoc population. That would stop the postdoctoral fellowship from being the default step after earning a doctorate. “I think the goal is to make the postdoc something special,” he says. “It should be hard to get a postdoc — harder than getting into graduate school.”

Davy points out that the solution needs to be global, or else postdocs denied jobs in one country will simply slide across country borders to find them elsewhere. In an ideal world, he says, postdocs would be able to take their funding wherever they like. “People should be going to the best labs, the best places for them to work and be trained, which are dotted around the world.”

As for Thuault-Restituito, she does not regret her postdocs. But if she had to walk that path again, she would move into another career much earlier. She agrees that fewer PhDs should be flowing into postdocs, and is frank with graduate students who ask her for advice: “If you are not 150% sure you want to do it right now, don’t do a postdoc.”