Africa’s postdoc workforce is on the rise — however at what value?

Conceptual illustration depicts African postdocs climbing

Illustration: Fabrizio Lenci

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Johnblack Kabukye struggles to elucidate to his colleagues again residence in Uganda why he’s doing a two-year stint as a postdoctoral researcher in Sweden. “Should you say you’re doing a grasp’s or a PhD, it’s clear what meaning,” says the digital-health specialist, who labored as a doctor for a decade earlier than switching to analysis. However a postdoc? “It’s not a factor that’s understood,” he says.

The talents he’s studying at Stockholm College whereas constructing digital well being instruments tailor-made to sufferers’ wants are actually helpful for his job as a doctor and informatician on the Uganda Most cancers Institute (UCI) in Kampala. However the postdoc format itself — a short-term place designed to bridge the hole between doctoral pupil and tenured educational — makes little sense in Uganda, the place it’s common to have a everlasting instructing job at a college earlier than even embarking on a PhD.

“I’ve not heard of a single postdoc alternative in Uganda,” Kabukye says.

That would quickly change throughout Africa. The variety of folks gaining PhDs within the continent is rising, and so is the necessity for postdoctoral employment. “There may be undoubtedly better consciousness of the postdoc place, and an increasing number of postdocs,” says Gordon Awandare, pro-vice-chancellor accountable for educational and pupil affairs on the College of Ghana in Accra.

However because the continent’s postdoctoral employment wants have grown, so too have fears that the issues created by a proliferation of postdoc positions in different components of the world — which critics say entice younger researchers in a cycle of poorly paid, short-term positions with no job safety — might additionally come up in African international locations.

Breaking floor

Postdoc frustration is a recurring theme in research that have a look at early-career researchers. Two world surveys of postdoctoral college students by Nature, one printed in 2020 and the opposite final yr, discovered that greater than one-third of respondents had been dissatisfied with their lot. A scarcity of job safety, career-advancement alternatives and funding had been the most-cited causes.

Nature’s surveys underscore the dearth of postdoctoral researchers in Africa. Of the three,838 postdocs surveyed in June final yr, solely 91 had been primarily based on the continent. The variety of respondents (who had been self-selecting) had been too few, and too geographically concentrated in three international locations — South Africa, Nigeria and Egypt — to be seen as consultant of the continent. But, they provide tantalizing glimpses of an rising section of the worldwide analysis workforce.

For instance, African postdocs had been older than the worldwide common, with greater than 40% aged 41 or older. They had been additionally extra more likely to be doing their postdoc of their residence nation (68% in Africa in contrast with 39% globally) and so they had been a lot much less probably, than the worldwide common, to be employed on fixed-term fellowships or contracts (see ‘Employment issues’). Their pay additionally stands out: 60% mentioned they earned lower than US$15,000 per yr — the bottom possibility survey-takers might tick, and a fraction of what most postdocs are paid in Europe and North America. Decrease prices of residing play some half within the decrease salaries, however not sufficient to justify the hole (see ‘A continental shift’).

A CONTINENTAL SHIFT. Graphic compares age and pay of African postdocs – results taken from 2023 Nature survey.

Postdocs in Africa had been additionally extra more likely to report having a second job alongside their postdoc than had been different respondents, on common (33% of respondents in Africa, in contrast with 10% of respondents general). The most typical cause was to offer additional earnings (71%), whereas 57% mentioned their second job gave their abilities and profession prospects a lift. Nonetheless, notes Awandare, the tendency of many African postdocs to have everlasting educational positions earlier than changing into a postdoc may very well be a confounding issue on this measure.

But, and maybe stunning given their low pay, Africa-based postdocs had been probably the most optimistic about their futures of all respondents from the geographical areas represented. General, 64% of Africa-based respondents reported that they felt constructive about their future job prospects, in contrast with 41% globally. Postdocs in Africa had been twice as more likely to say that their postdoc roles had been higher than they imagined (25% in contrast with 12% general). And 42% of respondents in Africa felt that they’d higher prospects than earlier generations of postdocs, far exceeding the 15% world common.

EMPLOYMENT MATTERS. Graphic shows results taken from 2023 Nature postdoc survey.

That optimism is smart to Awandare, who thinks that postdocs in his nation may really feel extra vital than do their friends who work in massive laboratories abroad. Along with his management position on the College of Ghana, he based and runs the West African Centre for Cell Biology of Infectious Pathogens on the college. He says postdocs on the centre are handled the identical as college members. “In some superior establishments, they wouldn’t get that recognition and standing,” he notes.

And despite the fact that their salaries are low by worldwide requirements, postdocs at his centre will be higher paid than entry-level everlasting college workers who solely train, he says. It’s because postdocs are usually paid out of profitable worldwide grants. “Ten to fifteen years in the past, many of those positions would have been abroad — however now funders, to their credit score, more and more present positions on the continent,” he says.

A special set-up

Employment buildings additionally differed between Africa and the remainder of the world, in accordance with Nature’s survey. Though comparable proportions of postdocs had been employed in academia in Africa as they had been globally (round 90%), the proportion of part-time postdocs was greater in Africa — 12% in contrast with the worldwide common of 5%. One in every of them is Felista Mwingira, a parasitologist on the College of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania. She exemplifies how African early-career researchers have been forging forward of their analysis careers within the absence of a proper construction of postdoc positions.

Mwingira obtained her PhD in 2014 from the College of Basel in Switzerland on the age of 33 — which she says may be very younger for researchers in Tanzania. By the point she began her research, she was already completely employed by her college in Tanzania, and was capable of return to that put up after ending her PhD. Again residence, she might take three months paid maternity depart for every of her two kids, born 4 years aside. And though juggling pregnancies and citing kids with the calls for of a tutorial profession was a problem, it meant she had job safety — one thing postdocs on the identical stage of their lives in different components of the world typically lack.

Mwingira’s work after her PhD was not technically a postdoc. However as her kids obtained older, she sought out a mentorship association at her college that gives her with analysis coaching and, typically, more money from the initiatives she works on. It’s not a proper postdoc, however she hopes it would assist her to achieve the publication ‘factors’ required within the Tanzanian college system to progress up the tutorial profession ladder — one thing that doesn’t depend upon more-senior positions changing into obtainable. She hopes to be promoted within the close to future, however says she would additionally wish to embark on a full-time postdoc place to “sharpen my scientific abilities”.

Thus far, Mwingira considers herself fortunate. Her kids are actually 4 and eight, and whereas she says that her life as an early-career educational nonetheless has ups and downs, she is grateful for the soundness she has loved to date in her profession. “I believe that I’m higher off in comparison with postdocs in high-income international locations.”

That feeling of being higher off than folks elsewhere actually doesn’t translate to sub-Saharan Africa’s most outstanding analysis nation: South Africa. There, postdoc numbers have been rising for a few a long time, rising from round 300 in 1999 to almost 3,000 in 2019 (ref. 1), and nationwide surveys reveal postdoc frustrations that mirror these raised globally, with some country-specific gripes as well.

Heidi Prozesky is a analysis scholar on the Centre for Analysis on Analysis, Science and Expertise at Stellenbosch College. She is likely one of the folks behind South Africa’s first PhD tracer research, printed in its last type in July 2023, which tracked the whereabouts of almost 6,500 PhDs who had graduated within the nation between 2010 and 2019. That survey discovered that round 20% had accepted a minimum of one postdoctoral fellowship, both at residence or overseas, on finishing their PhDs, with a gentle development seen over the twenty years. The postdocs spent a median of three years within the place, though one-quarter reported spending greater than 4 years. One-third reported having accepted a couple of postdoc — typically, they mentioned, as a result of different work was not obtainable.

A standard chorus within the South African survey, which echoes the findings of Nature’s world surveys, is that postdocs really feel like they’re in limbo: neither college students nor workers. In actuality, postdocs in South Africa are technically college students. This protects them from paying tax on their earnings, that are stipends, not salaries. However this designation additionally breeds resentment, as a result of it means postdocs are handled like college students: they will’t apply for grants and sometimes don’t have any funding to journey to conferences or attend workshops.

Along with the shortage of alternatives, postdoc pay in South Africa is low in contrast with residing prices. Final yr, the Nationwide Analysis Basis’s non-taxable postdoc stipends began at 200,000 rand (US$10,700). Feminine postdocs are allowed as much as 4 months paid maternity depart. Nonetheless, primary personal medical insurance coverage doesn’t come as normal, which means that postdocs must pay for it out of their stipends in the event that they need to keep away from state well being care, which many individuals in South Africa view as woefully insufficient. The tales of some postdocs “would make you cry”, says Palesa Mothapo, who heads analysis help and administration at Nelson Mandela College in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. “These folks have PhDs. And so they find yourself going hungry.”

Rising pains

South Africa’s predicament stems partly from bottlenecks within the educational careers system. The variety of folks with a PhD graduating yearly greater than tripled between 2000 and 2018, growing the demand for postdoctoral work. Postdoc positions have additionally elevated, however additional up the profession ladder, the variety of roles has been static. A research printed this yr1 within the South African Journal of Science discovered that the variety of postdoc positions grew ten instances quicker between 2007 and 2019 within the nation than did the expansion in entry-level everlasting jobs in academia.

Portrait of Palesa Mothapo looking at ants in an Eppendorf tube

Palesa Mothapo at Nelson Mandela College in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, says there must be extra dialogue round transferable abilities for African postdocs.Credit score: Stefan Els

However many additionally view South Africa’s postdoc malaise as a consequence of incentive buildings within the nation that place a premium on analysis publications. Postdocs have change into low-cost, low-commitment hires for universities that need to enhance their output of analysis publications, which in South Africa earn the host establishments or departments money subsidies from the federal government. Postdocs typically have publication targets written into their appointments, Mothapo says. “However these papers don’t translate to cash for the postdoc. It goes to the establishment, to the host.”

There may be some trigger for cheer. Final December, the Nationwide Analysis Basis introduced it might elevate its minimal annual postdoc stipend to 320,000 rand per yr for brand spanking new fellowships from 2024. However merely growing postdoc stipends is unlikely to create extra educational positions for postdocs who’re on the lookout for extra job safety. And the bottleneck appears to be worse for some teams. In accordance with Prozesky, South Africa attracts loads of postdocs from the remainder of the African continent. Most include the expectation that it’ll result in a everlasting job. The PhD tracer research discovered that many individuals from the remainder of Africa find yourself disillusioned and feeling discriminated in opposition to. They battle to maneuver on from the postdoc standing, and might face lengthy delays in visa approvals when shifting between posts. “They name it educational xenophobia,” says Prozesky.

Charles Teta, a Zimbabwean environmental chemist who did two postdocs in South Africa after a PhD in his residence nation, says that he seen that South African residents had been much less more likely to take the postdoc route than had been immigrants like him. “South Africans usually tend to get lectureship posts,” with out having any postdoc expertise, he says. As well as, a rising variety of funding streams will not be open to non-citizens — even those that are everlasting residents. Finally, these restrictions trigger folks to depart, he says.

Teta left South Africa final yr to cowl the maternity depart of an environmental-science lecturer at Queen Mary College of London. There, he enjoys the chance to show — one thing he wasn’t anticipated to do throughout his postdocs. It’s been a cheerful alternative to date, and he hopes to seek out one other, comparable place when his present one ends. He doesn’t miss the analysis treadmill, which, he says, “didn’t translate to psychological and monetary well-being”.

A name for creativity

Mothapo says that the inflexible deal with analysis in South African postdoc roles is a part of their drawback. “The colleges will not be inventive,” she says. As a result of postdocs are restricted in how they will train, and might’t apply for their very own funding, she notes, they’re lacking out on studying abilities which might be useful for staying in academia, and that might open up various profession paths in trade.

Extra-creative programmes have been trialled throughout the continent. Since 2019, the US Nationwide Institutes of Well being (NIH), the Invoice & Melinda Gates Basis in Seattle, Washington and the African Academy of Sciences have been working the African Postdoctoral Coaching Initiative (APTI). The programme combines a two-year postdoc at a NIH institute in america with a two-year analysis grant that fellows can take again residence to construct their very own analysis programmes. Notably, it’s open solely to researchers who’ve everlasting positions already.

Daniel Amoako-Sakyi, an immunologist on the College of Cape Coast, Ghana, launched into an APTI fellowship in late 2023. He’s a postdoc in mid-life, and the fellowship has proved to be a very good match. He’s just a few months into his place on the Nationwide Institute of Allergy and Infectious Ailments in Bethesda, Maryland, the place he’ll spend the following two years organic causes for the variance in efficacy seen in new malaria vaccines. His 15-year-old daughter has enrolled in a US highschool, and his partner, a fellow educational, goals to separate her time between america and Nigeria.

In Bethesda, Amoako-Sakyi has not one of the useful resource constraints that restrict him in Ghana. Antibodies that will take months to ship to his residence nation arrive on his doorstep in a single day. He expects the chance will supercharge his profession, and hopes he’ll have the ability to tackle some postdocs of his personal when he returns residence. He doesn’t count on it is going to be troublesome to seek out them. “I believe most researchers are on the lookout for the appropriate atmosphere to flourish,” he says.

What comes subsequent?

There are few certainties about the way forward for African postdocs. Those that spoke to Nature hope that their postdoc coaching will speed up their careers — by serving to them to win grants, get promotions and broaden their analysis networks. In Uganda, Kabukye hopes to have organized funding and collaborators by the top of his postdoc in order that he can keep on his analysis designing and implementing digital-health instruments in resource-constrained settings. “Ideally, I’d have positions on the UCI and at one other college, to foster collaboration and alternate,” he says.

Portrait of Johnblack Kabukye

Doctor Johnblack Kabukye from Uganda is doing a postdoc constructing digital well being instruments at Stockholm College in Sweden.Credit score: Johnblack Kabukye

Nonetheless, with many of the continent’s analysis funding nonetheless coming from sources outdoors Africa — except a handful of nations, akin to South Africa and Egypt — it’s probably that overseas funding will preserve driving the creation of postdoc alternatives. And that may imply the positions aren’t at all times tailor-made to native wants.

Mothapo says that she typically hears analysis funders speak about the necessity to create extra postdoc positions. Nonetheless, there may be not sufficient dialogue across the specific wants that African postdocs could have, particularly the transferable abilities that they’ll want in the event that they need to transition to sectors akin to trade. “I’m nervous about their locations,” she says.

Mwingira echoes her concern. She thinks that extra formalized postdocs in Tanzania might result in bottlenecks within the coaching system, as has been seen in South Africa and elsewhere. “These issues will come up in Tanzania, too, however worse, due to the low salaries,” she says.

However Amoako-Sakyi doesn’t assume that the creation of extra African postdocs has to lead to frustration as they compete for uncommon educational posts. Many may already be employed by universities at that time of their careers. A postdoc might permit them to win grants from funders in order that they will arrange their very own analysis teams and create alternatives for the following technology. He additionally thinks that the biotechnology trade in international locations akin to Ghana will develop, additional growing the demand for researchers within the nation.

Nor does Amoako-Sakyi assume that African postdocs want to finish up in the identical unfavourable panorama that postdocs occupy elsewhere on the earth. Such fears will not be unfounded, he says, as a result of ideas are sometimes dropped at the continent and adopted with out occupied with the native context. However as his personal fellowship reveals, there are methods to tailor postdocs to African settings. “We must be very intentional about how we do it and attempt to right previous errors.”

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