Today, I had a great conversation with a friend concerning postdocs. During the call he used a term that I really like. Without any pretense of a "drum roll" moment, I'll just tell you- the term is "default postdoc." As you can imagine, it's simply the temporary employment a PhD researcher takes without giving much thought to how it impacts his or her career. Motivations can be bad luck, laziness, desperation, lack of aspiration or alternatives, the need to be in a specific area--anything.
It's easy to see how this can be bad for an individual's career, but they're also bad for the research enterprise. The availability of too many of these positions helps clog career pathways, obscure real opportunities and bring down wages. Some feel that limiting the availability of these positions will help fix many of the ills of the biomedical researcher workforce....
But to that I say, "good luck."
It's kind of like illegal immigration, a phenomenon that so many people detest for so many reasons it's amazing that it persists and thrives. But, when it comes down to it, why do the jobs exist? It's because there is work that needs to be done. Why do people take the positions even though the work is unappealing, has no security and limited prospects? Because it represents, for that individual, a better alternative.
Ending or severely limiting the number of these positions seems unlikely, so we need to find more alternatives.
Again, I'll tout the program at UCSF that is doing so much to address these issues for its doctoral students and postdocs. AND I'll even give Bruce Alberts (maybe I was grumpier yesterday) a pat on the back for literally putting the issue front and center in Science magazine.