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Annual Meeting 2015: The Post-doc Challenge

The number of PhDs in Denmark has doubled between 2006 and 2010, and as a result, the number of postdocs and adjuncts has doubled between 2006 and 2013.
The number of associate professor positions are not increasing at the same rate as the number of postdocs and PhDs are, neither nationally nor globally.
Chair-Liselotte-HøjgaardThis discrepancy has caused a so-called ”Post-Doc Challenge,” and the Danish National Research Foundation used its annual meeting with center leaders, Niels Bohr professors, representatives from the political system, and other councils and foundations to debate the problem and identify possible solutions.

The DNRF chair, professor Liselotte Højgaard, opened the meeting by presenting the publication The Post-doc Challenge, which the foundation had prepared in advance of the annual meeting in light of meetings and an online survey with postdocs from the foundation’s Centers of Excellence.

“Postdocs represent a massive talent pool; they produce outstanding research, transfer expertise between laboratories, and increase the internationalization of Danish research. Their discoveries lead to ground-breaking research that benefits us all, and they deserve dignified careers with systematic guidance and clear career counseling,” said the chair.

Director-Søren-Peter-OlesenThe DNRF director, professor Søren-Peter Olesen, then presented the results of the foundation’s survey of 253 postdocs who have been affiliated with a Center of Excellence between 2007 and 2014. At follow-up meetings, the foundation has learned that a large number of postdocs want to continue their careers at a university. Various reasons were mentioned as a motive for this choice: it could be the university’s scientific environment and ability to conduct curiosity-driven research, but also that the postdocs in many cases do not believe that they have the right skills to take jobs in other sectors. It was therefore interesting that the survey results indicated that the current position satisfaction ratings were very similar for post-docs who remained in universities and those who had taken jobs in other sectors.

Post-doc-Réka-ForraiPostdoc Réka Forrai from the Center for Medieval Literature was the next speaker and her presentation was an excellent example of the enormous talent and commitment that characterizes the group of postdocs at the foundation’s Centers of Excellence. With a bicycle as the recurring metaphor, Forrai was able to illustrate the post-doc position factually; postdocs are the most mobile cohort in the academic spectrum, historically; as compared to “the wandering scholar” causing trouble, and humorously; describing how being a postdoc is like riding a bike – a burning bike that is.


Center-leader-Bo-Brummerstedt-IversenIn his presentation entitled The Dilemmas When Hiring Postdocs, center leader Bo Brummerstedt Iversen stressed the post-doc’s challenge by emphasizing that he hires more PhDs than postdocs in his Center for Materials Crystallography.

For Brummerstedt, postdocs represent a particularly valuable workforce because of their highly specialized technical skills, their high scientific output, and their international perspective and netword. But for him the PhDs have a broader role to play, and therefor he choses to hire more PhDs than post-docs.

The photo shows himself in the background from his own postdoc years in the U.S. For Brummerstedt Iversen as for many others the post-doc years coincided with the time he was starting his family.

Director-Hans-Müller-PedersenThe director of the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation, Hans Müller Pedersen, was invited to speak about How Denmark uses its research talents. He recognized the appropriateness of addressing the issue right now, in a time where the agency is also considering whether the challenge with many post-docs and few jobs at the universities is becoming a structural problem that requires action. The large group of post-docs are starting to become a post-doc proletariat, and the political system is facing a great task in gathering the necessary knowledge in order to ensure the many post-docs more stable and permanent links to the job markets within and outside the universities.

Associate-professor-Christian-BrobergerAssociate professor Christian Broberger from the Swedish Karolinska Institute addressed this question in his presentation: How does the post-doc challenge change the global research system? Is the post-doc period a time where you assemble a list of publications or a time where you develop your research skills? The challenge with the many post-docs is natural; the employment structure in the universities is such that there are relatively few professors, slightly more associate professors, and many PhDs and post-docs. Broberger sees this more as an opportunity than as a problem, but the challenge is to attract the best of the best and develop their talent, and this requires more than just putting together a solid list of publications.

The gender balance in the panel was not ideal, however, every panel member contributed in a constructive and committed way to the debate.

Looking ahead

Rector Brian Bech Nielsen, CTO Jesper Nerlov fra Haldor Topsoe, Corporate Vice President, Søren Bregenholt from Novo Nordisk og center leader David Lando were also invited to look to the future and answer the question What can universities, businesses and centerleaders do for postdocs?


Rector Brian Bech Nielsen described the universities’ obligation towards post-docs in one sentence: “It is our job to let the post-docs go at the right time with the right skills”. The message conveyed by Bech Nielsen was that the job insecurity comes with the post-doc position, but universities have an obligation to limit unnecessary job unsecurity. Further, he agreed with the comments and suggestions the DNRF poses in the publication The post-doc Challenge: A change of culture is needed in order to ensure systematic career advice and mentoring for post-docs, and further more universities should work closer together with industry to clarify in which ways the post-docs’ skills are valuable to other sectors or other job markets than the universities.

Jumping directly on this issue, CTO Jesper Nerlov posed the question, why Haldor Topsoe does not hire more post-docs? This has a number of reasons. Firstly there are not enough post-docs in Denmark with the required technical skills, and secondly PhDs are more attrative to Haldor Topsoe for two reasons; they have closer ties to industry, and HT hire on potential contribution to the business and not publication lists.

Both Brummerstedt and Nerlov’s talks pointed to a key message; we need to work toward opening the shutters between universities and other job sectors at an earlier stage than we do today.

Novo Nordisk has actual programs for this; The Novo Nordisk Star Program, Elite post-doc programs, and the Lifepharm PhD school at University of Copenhagen. In his talk about what brings innovation about, Søren Bregenholt emphasized that excellent academic environments are key, and that must drugs are discovered at academic institutions. For those reasons Novo Nordisk very actively pursues relevant network at universities, and their programs are one way to attract excellent PhDs and post-docs to Novo Nordisk’s innovation ecosystem.
David Lando’s take on ‘The post-doc Challenge’ added a new perspective to the issue as he focused on limitations in the Danish hiring procedures and salery structures. In order to secure the top candidates for Danish research it is Lando’s experience that he needs to work around the rules to some extend as the competition for the best post-docs is fierce internationally in the field of ecomomics. Lando is center leader at Center for Financial Frictions (FRIC).

The DNRF would like to extend its gratitude toward all participants at the annual meeting for the constructive debate.