Briana Mason, PhD, was excited to move from Boston in February 2020 to launch her medical research career through a fellowship at the University of Texas (UT) Health Science Center at San Antonio. During her first tour of the lab, she recalls with a laugh, she exuded “that chipper, ‘I’m going to give 200%’ vibe” to her new colleagues.
Weeks later, Mason’s lab was among those shut down by the center at UT Health San Antonio to prevent the spread of COVID-19. She hadn’t started her experiments and no one could predict when she could.
“I was afraid of what that meant” for carrying out the projects she needed to establish her foundation as a researcher, Mason says.
Postdoctoral fellows at medical schools and teaching hospitals around the country have lived for a year with the same worries, wondering how lab shutdowns triggered by the pandemic, paired with limitations in labs that have reopened, will affect their nascent careers — particularly their ability to build credentials by completing experiments and publishing papers.
Many share Mason’s feelings: She’s grateful to have returned to her lab last year but says, “It feels like I’m lagging behind. When people say, ‘You’ve been here for a year,’ I feel like I’ve been here for five months.”
Such setbacks have implications for academic medicine writ large.
“I’m worried what the effect is going to be in terms of individual careers and the robustness of the scientific pipeline,” says Antony Rosen, MBChB, vice dean for research at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Fortunately, many postdocs and research deans say their worst fears about a “lost generation” of researchers have not materialized, as postdocs have resumed projects and launched new ones. But progress remains slow and the future looks murky: Supply shortages and limited lab hours leave researchers well behind where they were a year ago, and hiring freezes at universities have severely shrunk the job market for those who complete their fellowships — with some even having job offers rescinded.
Jeff Markowitz, PhD, who’s looking for his next position after his current postdoc at Harvard Medical School, says of searching for work amid the pandemic, “It’s been a wild ride.”
Special pressure for postdocs
“Everyone was stressed out.”
That’s how Jackie Bader, PhD, a postdoc at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Tennessee, described the mood among her colleagues there and at other academic medical centers when their labs closed.
While the closings affected researchers at all levels, the shutdowns and partial resumptions have posed particular challenges for those just starting their careers. Postdocs are PhDs who land fellowships (usually for two to four years) to create and run experiments under the tutelage of more senior investigators, then get their results published in journals. That work carries high stakes, for it serves as a stepping stone to the next career stage, such as on a college faculty or in a corporate lab.
“The postdoc period is that defining part of your training where somebody says you can ride your bike without training wheels,” observes Emma Meagher, MD, vice dean and chief clinical research officer at Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mason hadn’t even started pedaling when the labs closed at UT Health San Antonio. With the clock ticking on her four-year fellowship and no idea when she’d get back in the lab, she wondered, “Would this time be counted as part of my allotted time as a postdoc?”
At VUMC, Bader realized that, even after research restarts, “you have a shorter period of time to get high-impact papers out to start your career. The experiments are essential for getting preliminary data that will help you generate grants.”
They are not alone in their worries. In a released last month by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 69% of postdocs said the pandemic “will negatively affect their career trajectory” — the highest rate of angst among researchers at any career stage.
Limits in the labs
While medical schools and university hospitals reopened at least some of their labs within a few months, the labs instituted restrictions that have slowed the research comeback. These include social distancing rules that require researchers to work at specific spaces in pre-scheduled shifts, which limits their time, and to remain so spread out that sometimes only one person on a project team can be there.
Postdocs understand the requirements and express gratitude that the labs reopened, but they note that those requirements have turned collaboration with teammates into an inefficient process of emails, calls, and online meetings. Every step takes longer than it used to, and researchers can’t just extend their lab time or pop back in to test a new idea.
The distancing also makes it difficult to establish relationships with other researchers who would normally be working nearby on their own projects — and who could step in as informal consultants to a colleague who needs help.
“You don’t do anything in a bubble,” Bader says of scientific research. “There are people that are better at certain things. If you establish a relationship with them, you can have them analyze a piece of your data or an endpoint.”
To fill that need, Rosen suggests that schools establish systems to efficiently share technical assistance across projects. “If one of these young people needs a little assistance in order to turn something on in order to finish an experiment,” someone from another project can be tapped to lend a hand, he says.
When they are in the lab, researchers often have had trouble getting supplies. Supply line shortages have made it difficult to buy some basics, such as chemical or biological materials, as well as special equipment. At Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina, postdoc Yutian Feng, PhD, has been waiting since June for an instrument to handle small amounts of radioactive material so that he and his fellow researchers don’t have to.
When they do find supplies, postdocs face new challenges in paying for them. Some of the grants that fund their projects are expiring, even as prices for certain materials skyrocket because of the shortages. “I just applied for another grant so I can get more supplies” for a project, notes Marhiah Montoya, PhD, also a postdoc at Duke.
Some academic medical institutions, such as VUMC and PSOM, provide bridge funding to help researchers cover costs related to the pandemic’s impact on their projects. VUMC has provided nearly half a million dollars so far, says Katherine Hartmann, MD, PhD, vice president for research integration.
Money alone, however, cannot address a problem faced by many projects that rely on mouse experiments. Labs that culled their colonies for the shutdowns (because they could not properly care for all the mice with limited staff) are still rebuilding those colonies through breeding. “That has limited how much the postdocs can do,” explains Babatunde Oyajobi, MBBS, PhD, director of the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs at UT Health San Antonio.
As they ramp up their work, postdocs share Mason’s concern about their fellowship tenures expiring before they complete their experiments and submit their findings for publication. Rosen says medical schools have to give young researchers more time over the next several years to build their credentials, such as by extending deadlines for fellowship terms, projects, and publications.
“We need to be intentional about giving people longer to manifest their talents,” he says.
A big relief for many researchers came last year from the NIH, which established a process on most of its grant deadlines for early career scientists, specifically identifying postdocs as among those eligible.
“There is a lot of understanding that this [the pandemic] was impacting postdocs in a way that was not their fault,” Oyajobi says.
Other governmental and private funders, including medical schools and university hospitals, have also extended grant deadlines and have taken other steps. VUMC and PSOM, for example, have eased the process for requesting and receiving extensions to the fellowship terms of postdocs.
Such measures should help researchers finish experiments, get published, and move to the next phase of their careers. But if they want that next stage to be a faculty position, a logjam has to clear.
Cameron Prigge, PhD, a postdoc at Duke, is among those who had a potential job yanked away last year as hiring freezes set in. “I had an interview for a good job where I wanted to be,” she says. She waited for the second interview to be scheduled, only to be told that the slot was put on hold. She says she knows postdocs who had job offers rescinded.
Prigge and Markowitz, the postdoc at Harvard Medical, say that entry-level faculty job openings appear to be increasing. Prigge has begun applying again; Markowitz has gone on several interviews.
But like the mouse colonies, the job market has not returned to pre-pandemic levels. It’s unclear if it will.
Postdocs and other early career researchers “are emerging into a world that has few openings,” Rosen explains. “Institutions are financially more uncertain than they were before.”
He worries about the long-term trajectory of today’s early career researchers and urges the academic medical community to find ways to provide more permanent, foundational support for the new realities those researchers face. He says that support should include not just time and money but also broader explorations of the career paths that scientific researchers can take beyond teaching.
“We don’t just want people to survive” the short-term challenges wrought by COVID-19, Rosen says. “We want them to be able to move forward and thrive.”