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Is the Postdocalypse an Opportunity in Disguise?

A postdoctoral scholar (“postdoc”) is an individual holding a doctoral degree who is engaged in a temporary period of mentored research and/or scholarly training for the purpose of acquiring the professional skills needed to pursue a career path of his or her choosing.(1)

While the life of the humble biomedical postdoc was never a walk in the park, It used to be that the long hours toiling away for little pay or recognition would eventually lead to a decent chance that one day they’d be able to launch their own lab and do the science that they really wanted to do. Maybe, if they were really lucky, become a tenured Professor.

Sadly, this reality is fading away. And what used to be seen as a respite after finishing a PhD in order to learn a new skill, is now turning into a decade long holding pattern for many brilliant young minds. The reason for this is pretty straightforward, public funding for research grants have stagnated, with the NIH budget, the primary funder of Biomedical research, not even keeping up with inflation over the past decade.

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As for the grants that do get disbursed, those are going to an older and older crowd. With the average age of an R01 grant increasing (2). Your chances of becoming a Principal Investigator before you’re 40 are pretty dismal. Even more so if your work is too far outside the bounds of what’s currently popular.

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I’d also argue that the increase in the percentage of money Universities are spending on Administration vs Research or Teaching (see figure below from this study) is also cutting into critical science funding, which you can read about here.

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Whatever the cause, the sad result of this situation, which some people have aptly named #postdocalypse, is that a depressing percentage of highly skilled researchers are being forced to take non-research related positions. This is not just a soul crushing thing for the researchers who have spent almost a decade developing their craft, forgoing great financial reward and taking on massive student debt all for the ability to contribute to pushing scientific boundaries. It’s bad for us as a society, without continuing scientific progress.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be the end of the world….

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I’m going to put forth a crazy hypothesis, that Bio/Med PostDocs are perfectly suited to become Biotech Entrepreneurs. Now you may be thinking, “Woah now Jacob! Companies focus on Applied Research, not Basic Research!”….. and you’d be right. Except at the end of the day, Science is Science. And technological progress pushes scientific progress which pushes technological progress. It’s one awesome positive feedback loop. And in today’s funding environment, if your lab happens to be a profit generating company, you have a lot more freedom over what you research than most NSF/NIH funded labs.  But that’s a discussion for another day. 

For now, lets look at 4 Reasons Why Todays PostDocs are Tomorrow’s CEOs.  At the minimum, the average post doc has:

  • Grant writing experience: If you can write a successful NIH/NSF grant, a business plan is a piece of cake.
  • Solved a worthwhile problem: Compared to most app startups that are solving problems that can barely be called a problem.
  • Built a network: Research is not a solitary endeavor. To be successful, you had to have worked with your fellow colleagues, your PI, navigated the bureaucracies of your institution, all while trying really hard not to infect, mutate, blow up themselves accidentally.
  • Ability to endure long hours and minimal pay for future earnings all for an expected future payout:   Are you starting to see the parallels?

In addition to all that, I’d go as far as to say that even if a postdoc’s specific expertise is in an area that’s not directly translatable into a viable technology, all the skills they acquired will benefit them greatly in starting up a company in another area.

To close, I’m not saying only post docs or that one must even have a PhD to successfully start and run a biotech company. And I’m certainly not saying starting a company is easier than academia. But if you are a postdoc and you’re worried about your future, maybe there’s an option that ends with you doing the work you’re passionate about without having to compromise.

Is that such a crazy idea? What other skills do postdocs have that’d make them good entrepreneurs?