Northeastern University’s College of Science is waiving postdoctoral fellowship experience for many faculty applicants, via a novel hiring model called Invest.
The premise of Invest is that too many strong scientists leave academe after earning their Ph.D.s due to the widespread expectation that they’ll spend years in unstable, low-paying postdoc jobs before hopefully landing a tenure-track faculty position. So by eliminating the postdoc requirement (real or perceived), Northeastern’s Invest program aims to attract a bigger, more promising pool of faculty candidates.
Other features of the program: scientists across disciplines are invited to apply, and a collegewide (not departmental) committee reviews applications with an eye toward interdisciplinary scholarship and possible joint appointments between units.
Invest seems to be working. Ten scholars have been hired so far, following two hiring cycles. The most recent cycle, which just ended, saw approximately 800 applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds—an “enormous number,” said Carla Mattos, professor of chemistry and Invest search committee chair.
“By removing the postdoctoral requirement, we have access to a much larger net of very talented, brilliant applicants across the demographic of society,” Mattos said. “This includes people who might have just decided, ‘I’m going to go into industry,’ or, ‘I’m going to have some other career.’ So now we start competing with those pools of applicants, also—people who feel like they’ve really reached a point where they’re ready to go out into the real job market, right? And I think that’s a substantial portion of very, very talented people.”
Inviting candidates from across the sciences also deepens the candidate pool, Mattos said.
“If we specified a particular area of research, a lot of these very talented people wouldn’t see themselves applying to the position because, well, that’s not what they’re doing,” she said. “And the other thing that that does is bring in this multidisciplinary group of people, which is now where science is going—a lot of the things that are happening today at the cutting edge of science make use of multiple disciplines, and a lot of people don’t see themselves as necessarily in one particular area.”
Ultimately, Mattos said, “When you broaden your areas and do away with this postdoc requirement, you have a much broader pool of applicants to choose from, and you can handpick these super, super-talented people that are in this sea of applications.”
Invest is the brainchild of Hazel Sive, dean of the College of Science, who described the program as “an opportunity to open up academic tracks to people who might have been put off them because of the long trajectory from Ph.D. training into a faculty position. It’s become a long, arduous road.”
Sive continued, “The postdoc started as a kind of a short period to learn a new technique or something to fill in your knowledge gaps and has turned into this very long period. And it’s become de rigueur in certain areas. And what that does is to tend to put people off from going into academia, or to select for a certain demographic of people—or just certain people—who are willing to go through this very long period before they feel that hirable.”
Invest is not a faculty diversity initiative per se, but Sive said that if it ends up increasing faculty diversity, that’s another benefit.
“I’ve been in faculty hiring for a long time. I’ve looked at various kinds of approaches to try to hire across the demographic of society that have been promoted, and some didn’t work as well as one would like,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking, ‘What is the challenge here, and what can we do to really encourage people who are getting off the academic track, even though they are really brilliant and talented? What can we do to keep them?’ And one of the things was to short-circuit that time into a faculty position.”
Sive added, “If you go into industry with a Ph.D., you can go there pretty quickly directly after your Ph.D. But that’s not matched by going into an academic track. And matching that industry track with the academic track was the kind of approach that we wanted to take.”
Invest actually offers faculty hires the option to begin at Northeastern as science fellows—essentially postdocs—to ramp up their research programs before they start out on the tenure track. A few hires have opted for this route, Sive said, but not the majority. (Few hires are even on campus yet, given the long lag time in academe between hiring and start dates.)
Some applicants and hires also have pre-existing postdoctoral experience. This is of course not required by Invest’s hiring standards, but applicants with such experiences aren’t disadvantaged, either.
About half of the college’s funding for hiring is dedicated to Invest. The other half funds more traditional faculty searches.
Academe’s ‘Permadoc’ Problem
Academic science’s postdoc problem—sometimes referred to as its “permadoc” problem, due to the increasingly long time many Ph.D.s serve in these positions—is well-known. A major 2014 report from the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine was highly critical of how universities treat postdocs. But that report, like an earlier one from the National Academies drawing the same conclusions, didn’t lead to widespread reform. Many institutions have adopted a five-year limit for employing individual postdocs, but there’s little evidence that their actual working conditions or prospects have improved. A 2020 survey by Nature, for instance, found that 51 percent of postdocs had considered leaving science because of mental health concerns related to their work.
Respondents to the survey took issue with their relatively low pay, job insecurity and work-life balance, and more. Thirty-one percent of respondents said they worked 10 extra hours per week beyond their contract, and 8 percent said they worked 20 extra hours. Almost everyone (97 percent) reported working on weekends and days off.
In what is perhaps part of the COVID-19-era Great Resignation, or even a sign that Ph.D.s are increasingly eschewing postdocs, in particular, on their own terms, some principal investigators have recently begun to report difficulty filling postdoc positions in their labs. Sive said she’s heard talk of this trend, but Invest predated it. In other words, the program is not a reaction to any changes in the postdoc applicant pool, but a reaction to the postdoc problem itself.
“I think it’s generally true that if you do a terrific body of work as a Ph.D. student, you’re very likely to do a terrific body of work as a postdoctoral trainee, and you don’t have to keep proving yourself over and over again,” she said. “It bothers me that someone is sitting there for years, trying to get the next fantastic paper, when they’ve already got a bunch. What is the landscape here? Certainly it’s benefiting the adviser’s research group—which is fantastic, contributing wonderful research to the United States and to the world and benefiting the postdoc to some extent—but there is an important question as to when is enough. When have you shown what you can do? And I think that that is a time for the most vibrant hiring.”