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Running in place: Graduate students and postdocs face anxiety as their stints lengthen

April 2005-- When Hopkins neuroscientist Solomon Snyder was awarded the National Medal of Science, he marked the occasion by applauding the contributions of a group often forgotten in such triumphant moments—his students. “I am grateful that the work of my students over the past 40 years has received recognition,” he says. “During that time, the importance of the dynamic interaction of teacher and student in scientific discovery has become more and more apparent to me.”

Snyder's acknowledgement of students' critical role must cheer not only his own charges, but also the hundreds of other graduate students and postdoctoral fellows who toil in Hopkins laboratories year after year. Though the principal investigator on most grants is the laboratory chief, “most of the work here is done by grad students and postdocs,” says IBBS director Stephen Desiderio. Their long apprenticeship is requisite for an academic career, and it is not unusual for them to spend 60 to 80 hours a week in the lab. But as the academic job market tightens and the age of reaching scientific maturity—when you claim an independent lab, academic appointment and grants—creeps steadily upward, some wonder whether the system needs tweaking.

“By the time you begin your own research, you may be 36 or 37 years old,” says Abebe Tesfaye, the president of the Johns Hopkins Postdoctoral Association. “You may be 40 before you get your first grant. It's very difficult to transition to an independent position when you've spent the past five years working 10 or 12 hours a day on your PI's project.”

This same conclusion was reached by National Research Council reports in 1994, 1998, and 2000.  A more recent report cites the average age for landing the first NIH grant as 42. It suggests that the long number of years spent in postdoctoral positions “stymies the development of the most promising young researchers and the novel ideas they could contribute to science.”

As a remedy, the report recommends creation of career transition grants to help postdocs become independent researchers—an idea that “sounds good but may be quite difficult to implement,” says Levi Watkins, associate dean for postdoctoral affairs. “I just don't see its being realistic,” he says, pointing out that in today's tight funding environment, money for such grants would need to be diverted from other sources. Moreover, he says, “most of our postdocs make the transition and do quite well.”

Still, postdocs feel anxious. “Right now there is enormous concern about professional and career issues,” says Wendy Sanders, director of the Professional Development Office, which provides career assistance to junior faculty, fellows and students. “There aren't as many academic research positions as previously, and that, combined with a greater than usual number of grad students and postdocs, makes the competition for [academic] jobs quite intense.”

Acknowledging that “the leap from being a postdoc to attaining that first position is enormous,” Sanders says Hopkins provides more assistance than most institutions. In addition to classes in writing grants and research papers and delivering research talks—free to postdocs and students—the Professional Development Office sponsors a few career-related events each month.

Recognizing that nearly half of Hopkins postdocs transition to nonacademic careers after leaving the University, the office convenes 10 to 12 panels a year on alternative job options, including positions in industry.

“Biotech and pharmaceuticals are probably the biggest draw for our graduates,” Sanders says.

Some faculty advisers are aware of the competitive pressure students and postdocs feel and are troubled by it.

“They are under an enormous amount of stress,” says molecular biologist Randall Reed. “They think that if you don't have three publications in three high-profile journals, you won't be successful. That may be a misperception. I wish the emphasis were even more on what, and not where, you publish.”

Still, things have changed a great deal for postdocs since 1992, say Sanders and Watkins, when the first Postdoctoral Association in the country formed at Hopkins . Surveys carried out soon after the PDA's founding showed that immense variability in stipends and poor health and dental benefits were the major concerns of Hopkins postdocs at that time. Those issues have been addressed, says Watkins, with minimum standards for stipends and full medical and dental coverage now provided for all. “We also put a limit of six years on how long you could train here as a postdoc,” he explains. “Both preceptor and postdoc now know that you can't be here making $30,000 a year indefinitely.”

 Says Tesfaye: “The majority of our postdocs are quite satisfied” with their experience here, viewing it as a privilege and an honor to be part of this scientific community. The work that goes on at Hopkins is first-rate,  she adds, and most postdocs view that as the most critical aspect of their training. 

--Deborah Rudacille

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