A year ago, my collaborator asked me to co-mentor his graduate student. I happily accepted the task and started to discuss with this young man routinely. During this process I figured out that he did not want to take on a postdoctoral research position, even though he had shown great promise in academic research. I did not have to ask to understand the reason, but it still sent a chill to my spine. Therefore, in the summer, I wrote a short commentary to alarm for the crisis of “Peak Postdoc”, i.e. the decline of postdoc supply, and post it in LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/posts/chi-ping-day-8b653123_last-month-a-very-talented-postdoc-whose-activity-6950621201371205632-m70j?utm_source=share&utm_medium=member_desktop). I am not super active in social media, so my posts usually received a few to a dozen reads. However, that post picked up reads quickly, reaching more than 100 in two or three days. It never happened before, so I guess that the message hit a nerve for many people. That was it. I felt that I haddone my job as a messenger.
About two weeks later, I received an email from my friend Dr. Ashani (“Ashi”) Weeraratna (https://www.linkedin.com/in/ashani-weeraratna-2026168/). By coincidence, almost at the same time, she tweeted about her frustration on the K grant review process for not considering the hardship of trainee applicants during the pandemic (https://twitter.com/AshaniTW/status/1533482178037829632). She was contacted by the editor of Trends in Cell Biology, who suggested Ashi to author a short article on this topic. Ashi happened to see my post, so she asked if I would like to work with her on writing a commentary. I replied within the first second to say yes - this was such an important trend that would impact everyone in academia, and the policy makers needed to be aware of it. I also suggested recruiting my former colleague, Dr. Kerrie Marie (https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/kerrie-marie-starting-springboard-fellowship-university-chi-ping-day/?trk=articles_directory) for this writing. We three could represent different stages in academic careers: well-established PI (Ashi), research scientist (me), and junior PI who just started independent research (Kerrie).
As we were writing it, we received many good suggestions and comments from the editor and reviewers. They promoted me to search for the data on the trend. The results are astonishing: over the last decade in academic life science research, the growth of Ph.D. students stagnates, their willingness to do postdoctoral training drops rapidly, and the proportions of Ph.D. who joined academia and industry are steadily decreasing and increasing, respectively. In 2020, for the first time, the latter surpassed the former. For those who are involved in academic research, these numbers are scary but hardly surprising.
Since we started this mini-project, a series of articles have been published by prestigious scientific journals to address the lacking-of-postdoc crisis from many different angles. We three authors brainstormed to suggest solutions, or at least some putative policy changes to mitigate the pain. We put all the points together to become an about 1,400-word commentary. On the last day of 2022, it is published online in advance (https://authors.elsevier.com/c/1gLOy3QxxSnJXG). I feel like a crow that warns comfortable humans of the coming danger by an unpleasant rusty voice. However, I’ve done my part, albeit a very small one. I could not express my appreciation more to Ashi, Kerrie, and Trends in Cell Biology, for the opportunity to work together on something that gives special meaning to my career.
So, my friends in academia, this is our New Year “gift” for you, too. Please let’s take the crisis serious and think about the solution.
(For those who look for graduate study or postdoctoral training, based on my experience in working with them, there is no better place than Ashi’s and Kerrie’s lab :) )