The postdoc life

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The postdoc life

Brains, gusto, grit and humor on the (tenuous) path to a tenured job

May 19, 2016
Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson

"I can't imagine doing anything else," said Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson, a postdoc in the Fred Hutch lab of developmental biologist Dr. Cecilia Moens.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Wanted: Qualified candidate for short-term position. Science doctorate required. Average weekly work hours may range from 40 to 60-plus. Must take direction well. Must be capable of working completely independently, sometimes alone in a laboratory at 1 a.m. May be asked to secure own source of salary and research support. Unique opportunity to chip away at problems that plague humanity or answer burning questions about the nature of life itself. Starting salary less than $44,000 annually.

Sound appealing? Nearly 6,000 newly minted Ph.D.s sign up for this position every year.

It’s the American postdoc, and depending on who you talk to, it’s an essential training ground for academic scientists, the unsung hearts and hands behind many of the research discoveries you read about in the newspaper, the people who actually “do” research, or a cheap source of labor to propel the machine of scientific progress.

Some postdocs may categorize their jobs as all of the above, depending on the day.

However you view it, the “postdoc” — the term commonly refers both to the job and the person doing it, perhaps as a reflection of how deeply these postdoctoral scientists-in-training integrate themselves into their careers — is a required step for those who want to join the ranks of tenure-track research faculty, the scientists who lead academic research teams (and who are the postdocs’ bosses and mentors).

“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” said Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center postdoc Dr. Minna Roh-Johnson about academic research — and her goal to one day lead her own laboratory team as a principal investigator, or PI.

“But that’s probably because I’ve never done anything else,” she quipped.

The postdoc numbers problem

At 34, Roh-Johnson is deep into her second postdoctoral fellowship, working on the laboratory team of Fred Hutch developmental biologist Dr. Cecilia Moens. Roh-Johnson moved to Seattle three years ago from New York, where she completed her first postdoc at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine

As one of the many postdocs who aspire to tenure-track faculty positions, Roh-Johnson is following a relatively rigid training path, each step more specialized and (potentially) more arduous than the one before.

Developmental biology captured her imagination in college at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Roh-Johnson said, when she’d signed up for an independent research course her third year because she needed a class with a flexible schedule. She was originally planning to apply for jobs teaching high school science after college, but the research she did — studying how fruit flies develop — proved so much more interesting.

“I was hooked,” she said. She hasn’t left the lab world since.

Whether Roh-Johnson will be able to make the career of it she wants, however, remains a question.

Of the nearly 100,000 U.S. college students who graduate with biology degrees every year, close to 8,000 go on to earn a Ph.D. in the field. Of those who make it through the seven years (give or take, according to the National Science Foundation) to complete a Ph.D. in life sciences, nearly 70 percent enroll in a postdoc — the highest percentage in any science and engineering field. And of those postdocs, approximately 15 percent go onto faculty positions.

Not all postdocs sign up for a second round, as Roh-Johnson did, but it’s not uncommon these days. About 20 percent of Fred Hutch postdocs go on to another postdoc, said Dr. Karen Peterson, who leads Fred Hutch’s Office of Scientific Career Development. Peterson tracks the fate of most Hutch postdocs as they progress in their careers.

The academic “pipeline” of which the postdoc is a key part was set up many decades ago, when laboratory teams were smaller and competition less fierce for faculty jobs. These days, any given lab — the term commonly refers to both the physical laboratory space and the people who work in it — houses a single research faculty leader and anywhere from a few to a few dozen postdocs. With such skewed ratios, it’s clear that not all of those postdocs could attain a tenure-track position (especially as many of those faculty members are working well past standard retirement age). 

So depending on how you view it, the U.S. academic postdoc may have a numbers problem. Of course, many postdocs don’t want a faculty job and feel their training is an essential step on a different pathway — to industry research jobs, to a second postdoc, to more permanent academic research posts that aren’t faculty positions. But many researchers still view the training system through the faculty-track, academic lens, said Peterson, who is herself a former postdoc.

“There are too many postdocs in this country, ergo the world, and not enough tenure-track positions for them,” she said. “If you look at the stats, the tenure-track faculty career is the alternative career at this point.” 

Dr. Karen Peterson

The key to being a successful postdoc is a combination of skill and luck, said Dr. Karen Peterson, who leads Fred Hutch's Office of Scientific Career Development.

Photo by Bo Jungmayer / Fred Hutch News Service

When you’re too busy for a plan B

Roh-Johnson knows the numbers are stacked against her, but she’s approaching her faculty job hunt with a mix of optimism, passion for her chosen career and a healthy dose of dread.

A nearly yearlong timeline is standard for the faculty job hunt, and postdocs have to walk a fine line when determining whether they’re ready to go on the market. They need a certain number of publications, preferably in prestigious journals, which takes time — sometimes a lot of time. But their funding is limited to defined, short-term fellowships.

This year, Roh-Johnson wasn’t quite ready for the “real deal” faculty search of sending out several dozen applications — she’s still working on a publication and has a year of funding left to support her postdoc work — but she put out a few feelers to her “dream jobs,” she said.

She doesn’t have a backup plan for what she’ll do if she doesn’t land one of those rare faculty jobs, Roh-Johnson said. Any plan B would require too much time away from her focus on applying for faculty positions.

But it’s not because Roh-Johnson doesn’t have her eyes open — in fact, she knows she’s in an even more precarious position than some because her husband, Dr. Jarrod Johnson, is a postdoc at Seattle’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and also wants a faculty job. Roh-Johnson and her spouse face what’s (not so) jokingly referred to as academia’s two-body problem, where both members of the couple are faculty hopefuls.

The relatively few faculty positions open each year are scattered at universities and other academic research institutes — like the Hutch — throughout the country. With the exception of certain academic research clusters in places like Boston, New York and the Bay Area, many of those job openings are not within commuting distance of each other.

What will Roh-Johnson and her husband do if they don’t find a reasonable solution to their personal two-body problem? That’s TBD, too, she said. They know it will be a tough decision if one of them lands a dream job and the other doesn’t, or if they both get dream offers — on opposite sides of the country. But even though she has no idea how they’ll face that decision if it comes up — whose career would get priority? Who would be the “trailing spouse”? The couple doesn’t see any other path than the one they’re treading, Roh-Johnson said.

“We’re going to do the best we can as individuals, cast a wide net and hope for close positions,” she said. “Nobody is willing to step down on their goals … If we both didn’t try, nobody would be happy.”

Finding a fit in a competitive market

Although postdoctoral research, and academic research in general, might seem like a career world unto itself, the characteristics that make a postdoc successful are not so different from those in any job, according to Peterson. In talking about previous Fred Hutch postdocs who’ve impressed her, Peterson uses words that wouldn’t seem out of place on a general career advice website: “outside the box,” innovative, strategic, networking.

Another word also applies to a successful postdoc.

“Luck,” Peterson said. “Lucking out on getting a good project that gives you good results that ends up with good papers. Skill, of course, is part of it too. But it’s the skill and luck combined.”

Overall, though, a successful postdoc “is a person who is going to be thinking about their career path,” she said. “Being thoughtful about where do I want to go, and how exactly how am I going to get there?”

As goal-oriented as Roh-Johnson is, she does sometimes entertain doubts. When asked why she wants a research faculty position, she hesitated.

“I sometimes ask myself that,” she said. “I don’t want the answer to be, because I don’t know anything else.”

Her response is partly a reflection of the often-insulated nature of the academic pipeline — Roh-Johnson said she loves the freedom of academic research, but she doesn’t know enough about the for-profit research world to say whether a career in industry would strip those freedoms most important to her.

But in talking with her, it’s also clear how deeply Roh-Johnson feels about her work. She’s currently using the see-through zebrafish as a model to study the beginning stages of melanoma metastasis.

Roh-Johnson gestured animatedly when describing her broader vision for the research team she hopes to someday lead — to understand why cells behave the way they do in the complicated context of their environment, be it in a healthy developing animal or in cancer.

Roh-Johnson said she loves many aspects of research, not just the parts where she carries out experiments at the lab bench or in the fish room. She even likes writing grant applications, which is lucky, because science faculty can spend close to half their time applying for funding.

“I like thinking about what’s not known,” she said. “I get deep into the subject and ask, what can I do that others can’t?”

Last fall, dipping a toe into the job hunt, Roh-Johnson had planned to apply for just one job — a position she really, really wanted. She didn’t even get an interview. She was disappointed, but not too surprised, she said — she knew she needed to publish her recent work before having a fighting chance.

But then people she knows at two other institutes contacted Roh-Johnson and asked her to apply to faculty jobs they had open, and both groups flew her out for interviews. She was surprised — and gratified — at their interest, she said.

“I thought, there’s a cycle, you apply, you either get the position or you don’t, and you move on. But what I’m learning is that a lot of it is networking.”

She didn’t get the first job she interviewed for. But the second organization is so interested in her that they’ve recently flown her out for a second interview and invited her husband for an interview for a second faculty position — a solution to their two-body problem that almost never happens, Roh-Johnson said.

In some ways she realizes this opportunity would make their lives much easier, in terms of reducing tough choices. But it also presents a new source of stress: she’s not sure yet if the position is the best fit for her specific research goals.

“It’s not just about having my own lab, where I can say, ‘Oh, I have the Roh-Johnson lab’… I want to do the research that I want to do, so I want to find a place where I feel like I can achieve the goals I’ve set out for myself,” she said. “In a field where you really can’t be picky, you’re all of a sudden wanting to be really picky. So what do you do?”

Rachel Tompa, a staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, joined Fred Hutch in 2009 as an editor working with infectious disease researchers and has since written about topics ranging from nanotechnology to global health. She has a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of California, San Francisco and a certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Reach her at rtompa@fredhutch.org.

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