Posts by David Kent
A little while back I wrote a blog post called “Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees,” which proposed that PhD programs finish in 4 to 5 years and that thesis committees take a more active role in the future career options of their students. The formal degree structure permits such suggestions and their broad application, but what happens when you graduate and enter the black hole of a postdoctoral fellowship? There is no degree, no formal university structure, no defined endpoint, and a huge amount of variability in the reasons people find themselves there.
This makes broadly applicable solutions much more difficult in postdoctoral land, but it does not prohibit the identification of the key issues facing this cohort of early career researchers and the proposal of some solutions that can be picked up by individual institutions. In my mind, the quality of postdoctoral fellow training is compromised by three core issues:
- The supervisor holds all the cards – salary, promotion, contacts, reference letters, and people who work with/for them – and therefore has an incredible impact on the postdoc’s future success. If there is an issue with a supervisor, there are few outlets and this can definitely lead to a wide range of unproductive and unhappy situations.
- Non-academic careers are seen as a failure. You’ll notice in my PhD post that I used the word demonized and here I’ve used failure. This is because I think the problem is different at the postdoctoral level. By choosing to undertake postdoctoral work, one loses the career story line of “I did my PhD with the intention of moving into a career in ____” and the majority indeed set out to pursue the professor path. When this option is selected against (for any number of reasons), the default position by many is to see the career move as a failure to reach the goal of professor.
- Smart people don’t like to fail. There are two problems here. The first is that most people in the group of postdoctoral fellows who do not have a sufficient CV or skill set to become a professor do not admit it (and I want to stress to men that you are more likely to have this reality/expectation disconnect than women). The second problem is that making the lateral move to another career is challenging to explain or justify (despite it often being the best decision for everyone).
A secondary mentor program would be a simple and inexpensive way to help deal with many of these issues. The key characteristics/components of such a program could be:
- non-mandatory – if the postdoctoral fellow does not wish to use a formal mentor structure, they should not be required to do so.
- regular checkups – this would be up to individual departments/institutes, but should probably be at least once a year and would need to take place with some regular frequency.
- confidentiality – an agreement not to discuss confidential items with the postdoctoral fellow’s supervisor (e.g. non-academic career pursuits).
- career assessment – the secondary mentor should provide advice on whether the career goals are realistic considering the CV and research skills of the fellow.
Such a program would not only benefit postdoctoral fellows but would also serve to make faculty mentors aware of the different options (internships, jobs, workshops, etc.) being considered and pursued by trainees in their departments. Moreover, it would give the postdoctoral fellow a second port of call for collaboration suggestions, research advice and even a reference letter from someone with a formal role in their training.
A much larger issue that will be the focus of future ramblings will be the dire need for young researchers to take their own careers into their hands. Very few people will be tapped on the shoulder to be tempted away from an academic setting and making such a change requires an active interest from the postdoctoral fellow themselves.
The next post in this mini-series will focus on simple suggestions for helping out at the early career researcher stage (and the hopeful transition to tenure track). Until then!
Before we get to today’s post, a final reminder for postdoctoral fellows to help inform the policy that governs their status, salaries and future opportunities in Canada by filling out the CAPS postdoctoral survey. Earlier this month, I wrote a UA news article on its importance and encourage you all to read through it and forward to your postdoctoral colleagues (including international postdocs in Canada and Canadian funded postdocs abroad!) – today is the last day for the survey, so please consider filling it out. And now, back to our regular programming:
Last month, a colleague (thanks Steve!) forwarded me a correspondence in Nature that complained about the enormous amount of wasted time that goes into preparing grant proposals. The authors extrapolated that over 400 years of cumulative researcher time in Australia alone was spent on preparing applications that would not get funded. In some small defence of the current system, it is important to give appropriate consideration to the best experimental design and the best team of collaborators and researchers to work on the project and this should take time, though some streamlining would almost certainly help curb some wasted effort.
Importantly, this link got me thinking about other places where researchers waste time and the most egregious example of time wasting has to be the submission of the same research paper to multiple different journals each with their own style requirements. Authors will spend weeks altering the same data set and core ideas to fit the new journal’s style, resulting in a colossal waste of researcher time and money. This could all be solved with a simplified and unified submission style that was accepted by all journals. Post-acceptance, authors would be more than happy to spend weeks making it fit the journal’s style and requirements.
Prior to acceptance, peer reviewers are being asked to judge whether or not the research paper has the necessary quality and scope for a journal. It does not really matter what font, reference style, or abstract length the manuscript uses or even whether or not the results and discussion are one section or two. What matters is the quality of the research and ideas and whether they fit with the journal.
The current system burns through hours of potentially productive research time while the manuscript gets bounced through two or three journals’ individualized peer review systems. A unified paper submission style would result in quicker turnaround times, less peer review burden (since all papers would have essentially the same structure), and should require minimal effort to enact worldwide. The one concession I would make is to have options for “short paper” (e.g. 2-3 display items) or “long paper” (5-7 display items) to best match with journal options for brief reports and full articles.
The core components of any life science paper are the same across the major journals: a brief summary, some context for why the experiments are being undertaken, a description of the experimental results and the implications of these results for the wider field.
I challenge our readers to give me any reason why we should not push for a single paper submission style as soon as possible.
It’s the one-year anniversary of the Black Hole moving over to University Affairs. Jonathan and I are very pleased with the added exposure and it’s been a real treat to work with Léo, Peggy and company over the last 12 months – Happy Anniversary! We hope that our readers have enjoyed the content and that they continue to follow along and contribute with excellent comments and guest posts.
Another important message attached to this summary, though, is for postdoctoral fellows to help inform the policy that governs their status, salaries and future opportunities in Canada by filling out the CAPS postdoctoral survey. Last week, I wrote a UA news article on its importance and encourage you all to read through it and forward to your postdoctoral colleagues (including international postdocs in Canada and Canadian postdocs abroad!).
The January to March period has been quite active on the site, with wonderful back-and-forth commentary and great ideas coming from our readers. This is exactly the type of activity that allows us to seek to fill any gaps we have in the blog topics and adjust the messages that we deliver from our life sciences backgrounds to be more inclusive and relevant for other fields. Please do keep the contributions coming.
January-March blog posts:
- Success in research requires stability: The long con
- Cause and effect in scientific funding
- Patenting at academic institutes
- Capital gains in the knowledge market
- The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
- Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?
- Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!
- Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees
- 2013 taxes for Canadian postdocs: The goal is consistency
Nearly 25% of the total traffic was generated by the Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees post which also had a good following on reddit where the discussion was lengthy (85 comments!) – this sets a good precedent for the forthcoming articles on proposed solutions for the postdoctoral and early career researcher articles to come out this quarter.
Comments on the UA site were also quite regular with excellent discussions on Jonathan’s “Misallocated Incentives“ article and my “Fewer Postdocs at Higher Salaries” article. One thing that definitely resonates with us over and over is the tendency for our posts to focus on the life sciences. It’s difficult for us to write with any authority on other fields and while there are many parallels that we feel are worth talking about generally, there are also many people from other fields that do not find themselves in the same situation for many topics. As always, we would welcome posts from those in other fields – especially on topics such as sessional positions, temporary contracts, and non-academic careers.
- In addition to the UA news article, I wrote an article for the Signals Blog (formerly the Canadian Stem Cell Network blog) on stem cell bioenergetics.
- Our fellow UA blogger (Melonie from Speculative Diction) was published in the Globe and Mail, “Who will hire all the PhDs? Not Canada’s universities.”
Each year, our site gets flooded with visitors looking for information on taxation policy with respect to Canadian postdocs. Of course, much of this enthusiasm was sparked by the decision in Budget 2010 of the Canadian Government to stipulate specifically that the 2006 scholarship exemption would not be applicable to postdoctoral fellowships. Some of our readers are no doubt part of that affected cohort (2006-2009) and may find information they are looking for in our previous entries:
- 2012 Taxes for Postdocs: Dredging up the Past
- 2011 Taxes for Postdocs: At least we know the rules this year
- The CRA response to CAPS (guest blogger Carl Wonders)
- Let the Discussions Begin (guest blogger Marianne Stanford)
- 2010 Canadian Taxes: Did you get your T2202 and T4a?
- Budget 2010: Post Docs, be careful what you wish for…
The inconsistent status of postdoctoral fellows across the country has resulted in some very unfortunate personal situations for our highest tier of young academics, including back-dated claims from the Canada Revenue Agency of thousands of dollars, long legal battles and differences of several thousands of dollars of take home pay for postdoctoral fellows due to receiving a different tax form for the exact same national fellowship.
For those who started postdoctoral fellowships in 2010 and beyond, the rules are much clearer, though things are not particularly satisfying when the relative compensation of graduate students and postdocs is considered. There are swathes of graduate students on tax-exempt Canada Graduate Scholarships worth $35,000, many of whom will move on to postdoctoral positions that result in less take-home pay (~55% of postdocs reported earning $40,000 and under in a 2009 Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) survey).
From a federal tax perspective, it is abundantly clear that postdoctoral fellow income is now fully taxable irrespective of the tax form you may have been issued. Note that (as I understand it) the Quebec provincial government still recognizes postdoctoral fellows (and their fellowships) as a component of training and the monies received are not taxed at the provincial level, but please do consult your local postdoctoral society for the best, most up-to-date information.
The argument put forth by the government in their response to the CAPS letters about the scholarship exemption and its applicability to postdoctoral fellows was that postdoctoral fellows – like training lawyers, accountants, and medical residents – are engaged in a temporary period of advanced training. This comparison reveals two issues that require major national lobbying efforts to address:
Unlike the comparator groups:
- The vast majority of postdoctoral fellows will NOT end up in the profession that they are purportedly training for.
- Postdoctoral fellows wages often are static, extended benefits are not always available, and there is often no access to EI or Canada Pension.
In the post-Budget 2010 world, these are the core issues that need to be addressed. Postdoctoral fellows need to figure out who they are and what they do and present it in a clear and coherent manner to policymakers. I would also encourage our readers to volunteer just a little of their time to help out with the efforts of their local postdoc association and with the national CAPS group.
It seems that my last post created a bit of a stir and unfortunately I was away for a week and didn’t catch up to the comments right away. I think it’s important based on those comments to clarify a few things about my perspective on this before going into ways that we can manage the core issues.
First, I am not advocating for low postdoctoral salaries in Canada – far from it. I know there are many underpaid and undervalued highly educated people out there and the crisis is especially bad in the humanities (low to no funding) and life sciences (very lengthy doctoral and postdoctoral terms). The main point I was trying to make in the article was that we need to provide good sound reasoning why increases are needed and where the money should come from. I also would stress again that the idea of paying more grant dollars into salary will not be palatable without such a measured approach.
Second, I do not view academic research like a private-sector capitalist endeavour and find the comparison to coal mining unfair. To me, research is the stuff governments pay to get done for the public because the private sector won’t pay for it. Unfortunately, that gives academic researchers extraordinarily little bargaining power – if we stop doing academic research, few will notice the effect immediately. Moreover, coal miners worked in the 1800s because they had to in order to feed families. Despite the chronic undervaluing of postdoctoral fellows, these postdocs are not starving nor do they have “no other option” to make more money – they can (and do) leave. It doesn’t mean that academic researchers should be poorly paid, but it does again mean that the case for increases needs to be strongly argued and well justified.
One other point from the comments is the one that Erika made, SB and BP echoed and Paul delivered home strongly – the current system drives people out for the wrong reasons and we are losing excellent people by chronically undervaluing and failing to support them properly. I agree with you all and hope that I’m not ignoring the points in the proposal below (part 1) and in future posts on postdoctoral fellows (part 2) and early career investigators (part 3).
Part 1: Graduate training
The best way to reduce the strain on the system and still produce highly educated people is to have students enter and exit graduate programs with great speed and great motivation. The first step to this solution is that Master’s degrees that take 3+ years and PhDs that take 6+ years simply must stop. As the majority of students who obtain a PhD will not become professors, it is a terrible investment of their time, monies and energy to focus on highly specialized research for such a period. I constantly hear the argument that more years afford more opportunities to get more publications and I cannot deny the truth in that, but that is a metric for those pursuing academic careers and could easily be accomplished with 1-2 years of postdoctoral research in the same group for those that wish to finish up such projects. For the remainder of people, they should go off (actively!) to non-tenure track careers before becoming completely alienated by academia.
Aside from shortening the time to obtain degrees, there needs to be better management of the people being produced and the key to this is active and honest career guidance from thesis committees and departments. There are three big problems in the way we currently train:
- Students do not know what their options are.
- Non-academic careers are demonized.
- Students who lack the skills to become a tenure-track professor are not being told in an honest way. At a minimum, such weaknesses should be identified so they can be addressed throughout the PhD.
These problems are addressable, but solutions require some tough conversations and some even tougher shifts in mentality along with a modest amount of resources. The most effective route of ensuring these points are addressed at the graduate student level has to be through thesis committees, but institutions should also play a role.
Thesis committees should be mandated to enquire about and record (and possibly even assess) a student’s post-graduation intentions at annual meetings. This will not only force consideration of non-academic careers, but also show the student that professors value such careers and the individual student’s development. The skeptic will say that professors don’t value other careers and such advice will be lip service and, in some cases, I would agree. This is where the shift in mentality has to occur and these outcomes and records might need to be tied to funding, promotion, etc., in order to work. I suspect (and hope) that the latter could be avoided through good departmental record keeping and consistency in institutional graduate program training requirements.
Wedded to this active career management is the need for institutions to provide specialized career services for students. A great example of such programs is what my current institution does in the way of careers advice and professional skills training. Much of this is restricted to internal websites, but do click for an overview of careers and skills initiatives. The most promising programs that I have come across are private one-to-one career advice sessions, mock interview panels for academic and non-academic positions, and specialized workshops on communication skills for life scientists.
Point 3 is a little bit harder as it will be tough to tell clever people that they aren’t quite clever enough or cite poor oral, written, teaching, or supervision skills as insurmountable deficiencies to an academic career. The problem will be amplified by some students’ inability to receive criticism and this again stresses the need for committees to be involved with legitimate benchmarking exercises. If someone’s oral presentation skills are bad in year 1, tell them they need to improve them and support their attendance to workshops, conferences, etc. Check back in a year and ask “what have you done to improve your communication skills?” – if the answer is “nothing,” then students are digging their own grave.
Overall, we need to encourage active career management in order to avoid surprises for students about the chances of an academic career, the options outside of academic, and the utility of a PhD. This needs to be done by individual students primarily, but needs strong support from universities and supervisory committees.
In a couple of weeks, I’ll tackle the postdoctoral fellow cohort and finish off with solutions for early career researchers.
There has been a lot of rumbling over the last few years about how poorly compensated postdoctoral fellows are and how the system churns out too many doctoral students. Many have suggested that the best solution is to trim the number of positions and increase the salaries of those remaining. However, I suspect that many of the people arguing for better pay and fewer postdoc positions do not consider that they might be part of the cohort who would lose their jobs if such a measure were undertaken.
I imagine that just about everyone would like to have more money and more job security, so I always find the “pay me more” arguments tough to swallow unless they are backed up with some good reasons and a clear plan for how things will be paid for. There are certainly good examples of exploited and underpaid postdoctoral fellows – I know this is especially prevalent in Canada and would love to remedy it. However, there are several things one must bear in mind before proposing radical solutions that involve removing swathes of people from the most productive and independent part of their academic careers.
- The research needs to get done – cutting the number of postdoctoral fellows means fewer hands, and fewer heads, undertaking research. If you told a leading scientist that their lab would shrink by one-third and they would pay the same amount of money to accommodate salary increases, they would not need to be a mathematics professor to disfavour this approach.
- Some projects work out and others do not – the postdoctoral period of research is a time of great independence and involves undertaking very risky/adventurous research projects that often do not work out. We all understand this does not necessarily reflect on the innate abilities of a particular person, but if we don’t let the risky projects get started, then they won’t ever be tried.
- Selecting the “lucky ones” will be really, really hard - we already find ourselves in a state where fellowship applications get ranked as “fundable”, but do not end up getting funded.
- The squeaky wheel gets the grease – the vast majority of complaints seem to come from two places: the life sciences and the humanities. One suffers from chronic underfunding (humanities) and arguably deserves a greater share of the research pie, while the other (life sciences) suffers from over-subscription where hordes of trainees end up competing for the same jobs and spend 4-6 years (or longer!) as a postdoctoral fellow before getting past the first round of a job search.
In the life sciences, I feel that this debate always gets confused because it comes back to the two reasons that people find themselves in postdoctoral fellow positions:
- Academic training (i.e., a springboard to a PI job)
- Research (i.e., they enjoy doing bench science, and want a career doing it)
I see the former as a group who would tolerate lower pay for a few years to get the potential independence and security of a tenure track post and I see the latter as those who want a stable career in science asap (i.e. higher pay, benefits, etc). If two such groups are classed as one and the same by institutions (or themselves!), it is a guaranteed recipe for big fights about how to best represent the core issues of postdoctoral fellows.
Overall, I don’t like the idea of cutting off people from the academic track before the postdoctoral stage. Therefore I think a sensible approach is to create a system that allows postdoctoral fellows begin their training but regularly challenges them to consider alternatives. I’ll be describing the core components of this system in my next post – stay tuned.
I just finished a bit of a marathon read which gives advice to early career researchers on how to best situate themselves for success in research. The guide, Charting a course for a successful research career was written by Emeritus Professor Alan Johnson and offers some good advice for early career researchers. Its audience is extremely broad (international early career researchers in all disciplines) and the tone is quite conversational and as a consequence I found it slightly ethereal and felt the take home messages were sometimes difficult to extract. Nonetheless, a targeted read through the table of contents for the section(s) most applicable to you should get some useful tidbits out, so do take a look.
Overall, the guide insists that early career researchers must take control of their own career and focus on planning – with this I could not agree more. We have long advocated on this site the real need for PhD students and postdoctoral fellows to regularly assess their career options. Nobody else is as concerned with what you do with your training (mothers excepted) so please do not stick your head in the sand without considering how much you want to pursue academic research – the environment is too competitive to simply drift into your career.
Check out some previous posts on this topic if you are interested:
- The importance of leaving academic science on good terms
- Novel ideas for the biomedical research workforce, anyone in Canada listening?
- Engaging early – changing direction before graduation
- Introducing career streams into academic research
- Career streams in academia: Who foots the bill?
- To postdoc or not to postdoc?
- Professionals in High Demand
- Old Debate, More Participants: What do 80% of PhD holders do for a career?
- Say NO to the Second Post Doc!
For those planning on pursuing an academic career, Professor Johnson makes an excellent point that should not go unnoticed. Think ahead. Not just about where your project will go or what the next cool technique is, but make sure you are thinking about where science is going. Johnson suggests reading vision statements of universities, granting councils and political parties and asking how your research will be funded in 10 years. This is sage advice and will position you much better for hiring committee questions around your future “fundability”.
When I was in Canada going to university in the late 1990s/early 2000s, there was a massive push on training engineers – Nortel was booming, RIM was emerging, and all roads led to the tech sector. When Nortel collapsed, the ripple was felt across the entire sector and many young engineers found themselves without jobs, some of whom are now in completely different fields. Is the life sciences/genomics explosion of the last decade traveling down the same path and will early career researchers who have not thought broadly about their research find themselves on the outside? Currently, Canada is investing quite a lot into regenerative medicine and genomics research and the country is well-respected in both areas, but the industrial biotechnology sector appears to be unable to attract substantial capital. If this continues, will the industrial sector be able bear the huge number of trainees we are producing?
Of course, we cannot predict the future, but it behooves young researchers to keep their heads out of the sand and think about the future – not only of their own careers, but of their field and the other fields around them.
My last post generated a fair amount of commentary both here on this site and on Reddit. It seems that many people have experienced exactly what NIH Director Francis Collins described: they’ve been made to feel like failures for leaving academia. If the vast majority of PhDs and postdoctoral fellows will not become tenure-track academics, then we should be embracing non-academic careers as the default pathway for most trainees. This requires a huge cultural shift away from seeing trainees as generators of science and toward viewing trainees themselves as the product. Making supervisors and institutes accountable for the trainees they produce, keeping lab sizes down to a size where meaningful mentorship can be maintained, and recognizing the value of non-academic careers are all key to making this shift successfully.
Tracking former students and postdocs in a meaningful way
A recent phenomenon at granting agencies has been to track the outcomes of students and postdocs, both in terms of how long they are in the lab as well as what they are currently doing for a job. A big question that spawns from this is whether particular professions or outcomes are more or less valued? If so, who decides if it’s more valuable to create a PhD-level patent lawyer vs. a sessional instructor vs. a professor? I am not sure how this information is used and I worry that it is simply to ask the question “How good is this professor at creating new professors?”
As I mentioned in my last post, the product of a university should, above all else, be its people. We consistently fail this goal by nearly exclusively valuing the production of papers and patents irrespective of what happens to the trainees involved in producing them. Instead we should be measuring a successful research PI by evaluating – in a meaningful fashion – their training and teaching abilities.
Bigger is not always better
One of the most frustrating things about measuring the “productivity” or “success” of a lab is that it is almost always done as a cumulative exercise. Rarely do you ask the question, “What is this professor’s productivity per lab member?” Not too long ago, there was an eye-opening study that showed research productivity plateaued at $750,000 of research funding and got noticeably worse as funding went up (as measured by number of publications and their average impact factor). Even this, though, did not break down the production per person, though it can be reasonably assumed that better funded labs have more people.
Big labs produce more papers, that’s very true – but how many careers are buried in the wake of such “productivity”? It would do grant evaluators well to ask how many trainees and employees does each lab have and how is the lab’s publication record distributed over those people. Anecdotally, I can cite several examples of small labs with excellent productivity that get crushed in grant evaluations for having a thin publication record – a “publication per lab researcher” metric would do such labs a great service and push the heads of larger labs to ensure that everyone in their group is being taken care of properly.
Seeing the forest for the trees and the Selfish Gene
On the note of taking care of one’s trainees, I fail to understand why professors don’t see “non-academic” career options as valuable to them. Yes, professors can have tunnel vision when it comes to doing things that benefit their lab moving forward, but surely minting new academics is not the only way to have a positive working relationship with your former trainees.
If you produce a journal editor, might thaey not end up working at a journal in your field? Would you rather have them respect the lab for the way it is run and the science that emerges from it or that they be bitter about their final few months/years and be spreading bad vibes throughout their new circles?
If you produce an industry researcher, might they not end up working for a company in your field? Good relationships with companies have often sprouted collaborations that benefits both the academic and industrial partners both through shared reagents, shared expertise, and good product development opportunities. Even the most selfish professors should be able to see this logic and be keen to have students of all career motivations leave their labs as happy as possible.
Changing the perception
I have long wondered whether people are better motivated by negative or positive reinforcement. Should we reward those professors that invest in training students and postdocs with diverse career goals or should we penalize those that neglect their university duties? As it currently stands, there does not appear to be much reward for those who invest in training and teaching and there appears to be a sizable cohort of professors who are not well-liked by their trainees.
I suggest measuring output based on all the trainees that pass through a lab by noting where they go and how well they were supported and I would also incorporate productivity per researcher into evaluation metrics. Such measures would stimulate professors to consider carefully those that they take on board and I believe would bring down overall lab size of large labs and increase the productivity per research dollar.
Over the years, our site has had many articles on two major themes: the education and training of scientists, and the effective transfer of knowledge between academic science and other sectors (e.g., industry, policy, science outreach).
Last week, Nature published a short interview with NIH Director Francis Collins concerning the policies being adopted to improve the training situation in biomedical sciences. Briefly, postdoc stipends will be increased along with the number of grants that encourage early career independence, and funding will be made available for training programs that prepare students for a broader set of career options. These are all welcome changes, of course, but I fear the problem of communication between sectors will remain unsolved unless trainees and educators fundamentally shift the way they view “non-academic” careers.
After admitting to not exposing his own trainees to multiple career options, Collins highlights the problem that I will spend the remainder of the article speaking to:
I worry that a number of them (postdocs) are receiving the message that if they don’t get a tenure-track position, they have failed. The good news is that nearly all postdocs are likely to be employed in interesting positions, but many will not travel a narrow academic path.
This is where the human element comes into play. Postdoctoral fellows are generally clever and successful people; they’ve finished at or near the top of their classes in high school and university and clearly like asking questions about things that have yet to be answered. The difficult disconnect comes when, for the first time in many of these people’s lives, they are being told, “No, sorry, you’re not good enough to go down that path, just go figure something else out.”
Many people will counter with arguments about huge swathes of postdocs who actually do not want to have a tenure track position. While data are being collected on this, the relationship that these postdocs have with academic science remains problematic. Observing and competing with the ambitious few who make it, it is reinforced over and over that these young scholars are not good enough to be at the top. This is completely and utterly appalling – it is a damaging cycle and it is sapping the motivation of our best and brightest.
The real problem comes when the majority (Collins quotes greater than 75%) of these people obtain non-tenure track jobs. Just like all the nasty emotions that flare up when you are rejected in a relationship, science leaves the bitter taste of failure and the defensive walls get built up. Is it possible that such walls are still intact when it comes to dealing with academics in future positions? I have visions of disgruntled former academic postdocs (getting more disgruntled as the human resource crisis escalates) being in science policy and industry positions and making the gap between governments, industry and academia grow even larger. We need to find ways to support the choices of trainees earlier and resist the demonization of non-academic career choices.
Research labs at universities should be places of training, not small businesses. Having a skilled worker move on to something else is potentially bad for business, but should be seen as an excellent end product for a university.
I am certainly not advocating for the pampering of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, but there are several approaches that I will propose in my next post to take better advantage of the huge investment that we make in the training of these young scholars. Career training programs like those the NIH will support are a good step, but until postdoctoral fellows stop flying under the radar of their supervisor when they partake in such programs, we’ll still be constructing walls that will need to be torn down later.
Happy 2013 to our readers!
We’ll start this year with a summary of our autumnal posts capturing the third quarter of activity at our new University Affairs home. Both Jonathan and I have enjoyed the transition and are looking forward to a year packed with good discussion and constructive solutions. We have several guest posts lined up that will be interspersed throughout the year, but also encourage others who feel passionately about particular issues related to education and training of scientists to get in touch at firstname.lastname@example.org.
October-December blog posts:
Guest Post – Banting Award winner
- Funding the academic career: My journey
- The perils to research of the U.S. ‘fiscal cliff’
- The good, the bad and the ugly of gender bias in academic science
- Free journal access for postdocs in between positions
- Inaugural meeting of Canadian Postdoctoral Administrators: will fanfare = results?
- CIHR announces its third set of Science Policy Fellowships
The two most popular posts by far this past autumn were Jonathan’s on gender bias and our guest post on the Banting awards. Much discussion ensued on both. On the former, Lorne challenged Jonathan on whether or not we’d make the same choices if no constraints existed; and on the latter about the Banting awards, the discussion got quite lively, with ideas aplenty and the challenging question of whether or not Canada should have pre-PI awards.
We hope that everyone is feeling refreshed after a good Christmas break and shares our enthusiasm for 2013. We always look forward to hearing from our readers in the comments below and in guest posts.
Dave and Jonathan