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A significant, perhaps growing proportion of research at universities is carried out by postdocs¹. Postdocs are typically employed on fixed-term contracts. Personally, I know several people who have been employed on chains of temporary research contracts for well over ten years, including some all the way to retirement: their work is good enough to satisfy their PI, but not good enough (or perhaps not interested) for promotion. Some may seek to move to industry, not because the work is more interesting but because a permanent contract is easier to get, such as suggested in this Dutch-language article), but a response in the same article denies that there is a brain drain.

Is there any evidence for a brain drain from academia to industry, lured by permanent² contracts?

NB: although personal stories/anecdotes are interesting (I could offer my own) it would be even more interesting to see if there is actual research into this question.


Edit: I welcome answers that challenge the assumption that job security as a researcher is more easily achievable outside academia than inside. Some PhDs do of course become professors, but I've rarely seen professors that have much time to do research, as opposed to supervise research. My question supposes the perspective of people who wish to do research themselves rather than in a supervisory role.


¹I use postdoc here in the meaning of any time-limited contract which is mainly or entirely focussed on research.

²Of course, no job is certain until retirement, but getting a mortgage without a permanent contract is likely hard/impossible.

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    From personal experience -- yes. I am a postdoc and I want to keep doing what I'm doing, but I have grown roots where I live (own apartment, child in elementary school struggling to learn a new language, etc) and will not be willing to constantly move to other cities, not to mention countries, for new jobs. Industry offers a way out: if I have to move, it's only once more for the nearest future. – LLlAMnYP Mar 22 '17 at 15:14
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    People move from academia to industry at every stage of their career, and that's a fact. But how do you define "brain drain"? What kind of evidence are you looking for? Statistics? Comparing the percentage of people that left 30 years ago compared to now? But that's potentially with very different conditions... – Federico Poloni Mar 22 '17 at 15:35
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    PhDs have always moved from academia to industry. And sometimes they move back from industry to academia. The current academic system creates more PhDs than it requires to maintain itself, and has so for a century or more. I would not call this 'brain drain' - the system functions more or less as it is designed to. – Jon Custer Mar 22 '17 at 15:56
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    @NateEldredge Is it? In the USA, is it possible to get a mortgage for a person with an employment contract that shows an ending date 18 months from now, with an informal commitment from a PI I'll probably find money to extend your contract? (I find it surprising mortgages can exist at all in a country where people can be fired at will, but that's another discussion) Let's take it to chat. – gerrit Mar 22 '17 at 17:26
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    As a researcher at a national lab, with experiences at IBM Watson and Bell Labs (in the old days), I'd have to say you seem to have a very black and white view of academia vs labs vs industry and where the 'best' researchers should go. Not all PhDs want to go in to academia. Not all PhDs should work in academia. – Jon Custer Mar 22 '17 at 17:38
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I can only provide anecdotal data, I was going to do this as a comment, but it got too big.

I'm a postdoc (finished my phd in 2012), and I'm tired of it. In some cases (fapesp, brazil) postdocs don't have any rights or benefits (no vacations, for instance).

Worrying about how I'll provide for my family from next August, when my contract ends, compromises my performance... More than that, I don't have continuity, I can't think of anything medium term, because I have no idea where I'll be in one year.

I really like the projects I'm working on. But this whole thing has taken its toll on my and on my family. I'm seriously considering changing careers to get some kind of stability. I'd like to stay on research, but maybe research doesn't want to stay with me :)

update: I do not have kids, it is just me and my wife. We are postponing that exactly because I don't want to subject a kid to this. And its easier to move around when its only the two of us. If I'm honest, I don't know of any other non-religious profession that requires this kind of commitment. Maybe the military, but at least you got benefits, sometimes housing. And financial stability, if not geographical.

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Brain drain?

The term brain drain to me has a decidedly negative connotation of a loss (here to academia).

In contrast, I'd like to point out that education is one of the main functions of a university. From that point of view, highly educated people leaving university for industry is not a loss but an intended outcome. And that makes it close to impossible to measure how many researchers that should have stayed are leaving because of conditions*.

Here in Germany, we distinguish between (more-or-less pure) research institutions and universities, where that educational aspect is more pronounced. And in general, academia over here produces far more people finishing "lower" levels than are required to fill in the free positions higher up (e.g. we have 2 - 3 times as many habilitations per year than newly filled professorships).

I grant that there may be an hen-and-egg question here.

I see more of an IMHO totally unnecessary waste in the transition from researcher to research manager within academia - in that I totally agree with OP.


Where to find job security?

I would like to do research without wondering all my life in what country I will live 2–4 years from now.

IMHO this is a totally understandable wish for security and the possibility to plan ahead. I guess there are very few people who don't need this for their whole life.

The question does suppose such is more achievable outside academia than inside, but do correct me if I'm wrong.

I'm not sure whether you get much more of this security with a career in industry - that is, without paying by something else / other drawbacks.

  • The father of a friend once said that you may expect to be able to work where you like or what you like - but to be able to find employment covering both wishes would be extremely good luck.

  • Industry may also expect you to move to a different country, or you may be transfered to another site which is, say, 200 km away.

  • Also, those highly interesting start-up companies where working is so much fun and everyone so enthusiastic and full of ideas [like in academia] - they tend to fail (not because fun in work or enthusiasm is inherently wrong - but they are high risk enterprises - or e.g. the founders may move on to a different job, and the thing is silently closed down).

  • OTOH, I know people who got themselves technical positions in academia in order to have long term contracts and reliable working hours.

  • I took a different route and a now somewhere between industry and research (feel free to contact me if you'd like to know more)

In the end you'll need to find out for yourself what your priorities are and how much career and what else you are willing to trade in for job security.


* Personally, I have left academic positions because of conditions - not the length of fixed-term contracts, though. And I found the official length of the contract far less important than how the respective institution (supervisor) deals with the fact that they can offer only fixed term contracts.

  • This is interesting advice about how to handle and evaluate academic fixed term positions, but at best indirectly answers the question (by calling into question its premise). – henning -- reinstate Monica Mar 23 '17 at 6:30
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    "Industry may also expect you to move to a different country, or you may be transfered to another site which is, say, 200 km away." I don't understand this. There are the same expectations in academia. It's rare (and sometimes actively discouraged) that you can stay at the same place. As a result, I know full professors who's home is hundreds of kilometers away from their work place, because their family got tired of moving well before tenure was achieved. – Roland Mar 23 '17 at 8:16
  • @henning: I took the second question from OP's comments below the question. But yes, essentially my point is: while the question "how many people educated to what level does academia provide [per year]?" would easily be answerable, the question of brain drain from academia to industry - which I take to mean unwanted losses - is essentially unanswerable because there's no black-and-white for the reasons why people move from academia to industry (and maybe back). – cbeleites supports Monica Mar 24 '17 at 10:03
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    @Roland: "There are the same expectations in academia." OP started from the finding that academia expects them to move on frequently. My point is: that's not unusual in industry, neither. So going from academia to industry may not help that much with finding a permanent home. Commuting 200 km or moving is just equally bad whether the position is in industry or academia, IMHO. – cbeleites supports Monica Mar 24 '17 at 10:13
  • There's a difference between "it's not unusual" and "it's mandatory to move every 1-2 years". Besides in developed countries there are protections for when an employer asks an employee to move for work. The same is obviously not true for academics, as you change employers. – user9646 Feb 8 '18 at 10:07

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