Postdocs face daunting career prospects; how can publishers help?

A postdoctoral researcher reveals the challenges faced by early career researchers — and six things publishers can do to help

Dr. Farron McIntee, a life sciences researcher at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, writes about ways publishers can help early-career researchers (ECRs). Her story is followed by a section on Elsevier's programs for ECRs.


Farron McIntee, PhDI was member of an international panel of three early career researchers at the STM Annual Frankfurt Conference., where we discussed the challenges we're facing in the pursuit of our respective careers. Phill Jones, the panel moderator, shares his motivations in this Scholarly Kitchen blog post and summarizes our panel discussion here.

According to the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA), a postdoctoral trainee 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 our own choosing. A looming concern is that upon reaching the end of our training there is low probability that we will transition to the type of position we have been trained for, a tenure-track faculty position. In fact, in my own field, biomedical research, only about 15 percent of postdocs in the US get tenure-track jobs, according to the 2012 NIH Workforce report. This issue has also received mainstream media attention recently. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) established a working group in 2011 to develop a model for the US biomedical research workforce and is working to implement its recommendations, many of which target ECRs.

Postdocs and early career researchers conduct bench research with a goal of publishing in highly regarded journals. Publication record is an important component of research grant applications and demonstrates to grant reviewers that you are a productive researcher. As the competition for research grants has continued to increase, a record of funded research is extremely important when applying for faculty positions. In many instances, the timing of when a manuscript is accepted directly impacts when you will be able to submit a competitive grant application.

Publisher outreach to ECRs in the form of seminars or webinars offering strategies to streamline manuscript submission to acceptance process could have an important impact.

As postdocs, we conduct the majority of the experimental work for our publications, and have some input when deciding which journal our manuscripts are submitted to. However, there is no direct method to determine whether a study is suited for a particular journal. For example, my study may fit the general description provided by a journal, but an editorial review determines that it is outside of their current scope or does not fall into the interests of their readership. The training experience of an ECR is highly dependent upon the managerial style of their faculty mentor; as a result, instruction in important functions such as peer review can vary greatly. Presently, ECRs receive no standardized training as peer reviewers. Publishers would serve themselves and ECRs alike by offering peer review training.

Because the vast majority of postdocs will not be able to secure a tenure-track faculty position, many of us are exploring alternative careers. The level of support for alternative career development varies by institution. Depending on their institutional environment, some postdocs do not have the proper resources to explore other career options. Postdoc mentors meet their mentee's desire to explore additional career opportunities with varying levels of support. The principal investigators that currently serve as mentors to postdocs and other ECRs have not been trained to provide guidance to trainees' pursuit of careers outside of academia.

In 2013, the NIH started a funding mechanism called the Director's Biomedical Research Workforce Innovation Award: Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST). The award makes it possible to provide institutionally sponsored training experiences to postdocs and graduate students so they can be exposed to the various career paths that are compatible with their PhD training. At some institutions, ECRs have established nonprofit consulting firms to provide industry experience on a volunteer basis to those exploring futures outside of academia. Publishers can assist by advocating that ECRs spend time planning their career and developing skills in case they are amongst the group that is not able to secure permanent faculty appointments.

Another area that was discussed during our panel was the use of social media by ECRs for networking or building their reputation amongst peers. In my experience, as well as that of my fellow panelists, our social media profiles are largely limited to personal use. Another potential area for publisher engagement is to foster the usage of social media for sharing experiences and connecting ECRs nationally and internationally. I was actually inspired to open a "professional" Twitter account following the Frankfurt conference.

Hopefully after reading this, you are enthusiastic about connecting with postdocs and other ECRs. The best way to engage directly is to contact an institution's office of postdoctoral affairs or postdoctoral society. Most postdoctoral affairs offices send out newsletters and communications frequently. Postdoctoral societies are comprised of postdocs that have been elected or have volunteered to serve the postdoc body at their institution. Another option would be exploring a partnership with the National Postdoctoral Association directly for a particular initiative.

Elsevier's Early Career Resources

Elsevier offers a wide variety of educational resources for early career researchers. Here are some highlights:

  • Training workshops. Elsevier organizes over 350 global face-to-face workshops every year to give ECRs with valuable training skills on getting their research published, conducting efficient and impactful peer review and writing successful grant funding applications (among many other topics). In addition, our online training program reaches thousands of researchers who share common challenges across all research fields. Read more.
  • Online Journal Finder. To determine which journal would be the best fit for your manuscript, you can use our Journal Finder tool on
  • Early Career Resources online. Elsevier offers online training and tutorials on a wide variety of topics, including writing, publishing, reviewing, grantsmanship and publication ethics. You can find these at Publishing Campus.
  • Research Access and training for BEST institutions. Elsevier has been supporting the NIH's Broadening Experiences in Scientific Training (BEST) program since 2013 by offering research access and training workshops and resources to all institutes that receive the BEST award.
  • Social media and networking support. Mendeley supports social media and networking by identifying experts in a particular field and helping ECRs find interesting contacts or public groups related to their research interests. It supports the creation of an academic profile, uploading papers and publicizing research to show the world your professional research profile.

— Hannah Foreman (@ECRPubConnect)


Elsevier Connect Contributors

Farron McIntee, PhDDr. Farron McIntee (@FarronMcIntee) is a postdoctoral scholar at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Currently, she serves as the treasurer of the Washington University Postdoctoral Society. Her graduate studies were completed at the NYU Langone School of Medicine. There, she served as president of her graduate program's student council for a year.

Hannah ForemanHannah Foreman is Head of Researcher Relations for Elsevier. She joined Elsevier in 2007 as Marketing Communications Manager for journals in Physics and Astronomy. With more than 10 years' experience in communications and relations roles, she now leads the Researcher Relations team in Amsterdam. This team focuses on delivering information innovatively to editors, authors and reviewers of Elsevier journals, together with ensuring that Elsevier maintains its close partnerships with these vital communities. She has a professional and academic background in European business and speaks four languages.

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