As our readers know, we ran a panel discussion last month in Toronto at the 5th Annual Canadian Science Policy Conference. It was a packed room and the panel featured heated exchanges at some points (even between panellists!). Many diverse opinions were shared, pointing to a clear need for academic-training reform.
Chris Corkery began by representing the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars and their recent survey findings from ~20% of Canadian postdoctoral scholars. This launched the panel discussion by showing that early career researchers in the postdoctoral stage were a growing cohort of young bright minds in their mid-30s who aspired to becoming career researchers, but found themselves in a temporary holding zone when it came to career options.
A major policy issue for Canadian universities, governments and industry is how to avoid wasting such talented individuals that represent a major national investment. We set up three perspectives to engage this issue: Rob Annan from Mitacs delivered a talk on Mitacs’ suite of programs to facilitate the transition of trainees into industrial placements, Mawana Pongo spoke of the need for governments to invest in young trainees and the creation of 2,000 fellow positions and 1,000 professor positions, and Ben Neel spoke about the view from research-focused academic institutes and “tough love” for trainees
Dr. Neel’s was perhaps the most provocative presentation, arguing that graduate students and postdoctoral fellows needed to be given a “tough love” message more often than they appeared to be receiving currently. He argued that trainees needed to become masters of their own destiny and that things “aren’t that different” to when he trained (despite admitting that the numbers of scientists being trained has far outstripped new faculty positions). Dr. Neel made some solid arguments – PhD students and postdoctoral fellows have never been particularly well compensated for their educational standing and academic jobs have never been what the majority of people end up doing, and that the real disaster is the reduction in science funding.
Where does this leave us in the policy world? Three main questions need answers:
- Should there be multiple career streams for publicly funded researchers?
- Should the time to complete a PhD be reduced? (And if so, how can this be achieved?)
- Should PhD researchers be treated like medical residents and junior accountants despite unclear career outcomes?
After our panel, CSPC President Mehrdad Hariri asked if we would consider continuing the conversation through CSPC. If this takes place, we’ll certainly let readers know. In the interim, start the conversation below and we’ll collate the responses in our next quarterly summary. As I’ve said many times before, there is little obvious incentive for anyone else to fix academic training, so it’s up to researchers to fix their own system.
Last month, I found the best “come to my lab” sales pitch. After my jaw was set back into place at the numbers, I soon realized the broader implications of such a web page and its power as a general tool for academics. It takes virtually no effort to create and is something that every academic could (and should!) do. In fact, it is one of few things in this world that costs no money, takes no time, and could single-handedly alter the lives of a vast number of current and future trainees:
Academics should publicly disclose the career progression of their former trainees on their webpage.
The example that inspired this post is Tony Kouzarides’ lab at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge. It lists a breakdown of the individual fates of 39 PhDs and postdocs that have been in his research group. The part that grabbed my attention: 21 of his trainees (54%) have gone on to start their own academic research group and are based in nine different countries (and he even provides links to their websites!).
As someone who would like to run an academic group, I think these numbers speak volumes to the training environment and resources available in the Kouzarides group. If I were interested in a career in the biotechnology industry, I would also strongly consider this lab since five of 39 trainees (13%) went directly into careers in industry and this includes one person who started their own company. The page also goes on to list the fact that the lab has a five-year reunion and an annual retreat – an incredible network of academics to be plugged into.
Of course, this is an incredibly productive group and few academics could boast such statistics; however, providing such numbers will always help potential trainees make decisions about where they would get the best training for what they want to do (and it doesn’t have to be academia). Imagine wanting to do science writing or science policy as a career and worrying that a science supervisor would not train you properly if you were not dedicated to becoming an academic. If a supervisor has a track record of producing trainees who enter these careers, perhaps they would get your nod as future supervisor. People are the products of universities (not data!) and those people go off into a wide array of important careers – we need to get serious about how we evaluate an academic’s training record.
There will be complaints from academics if such a system were mandated, but the pros far outweigh the cons in my opinion. Academics will likely complain that it is difficult to track down what some people are doing, and while I agree this might have been the case 20 years ago, the Internet makes just about everybody findable with a few clicks and tools like LinkedIn are making this job even easier (not to mention that even the biggest research groups would only have to track down five to six trainees per year).
Another complaint will be that young academics will not have a track record and risk getting defined by their first few students/postdocs. While I share this concern, I think it would also prod these academics to invest in the careers of their students and postdocs and maybe even get a little more creative with their trainee statistics pages (e.g., four of five of my trainees have been awarded fellowships since arriving in my group, etc.).
The best part of all of this is that it would give funding organizations access to the information so they can evaluate academics on their training record. Some funding agencies already try to collect this, but most of what I have observed so far relates to a supervisor’s ability to train academics and this data is almost always kept in a database and not made public.
We cannot afford to be complacent about the the quality of training at our institutions and need to make such changes sooner rather than later – and granting councils should not be afraid to put some teeth into their policies when it comes to training record, no academic is better than the sum of their trainees.
Our readers might be interested to know that the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars initiated and completed its 2013 survey of Canadian postdocs and had an incredible 1,800 responses. The survey data is currently being analyzed and compiled and we’ll be very excited to read and write about the results when they become available. From the Black Hole newsroom, we are still preparing our resource site (apologies to those who have been waiting!) and hope to have it ready this autumn and we are always looking to have guest posts on topics that our readers are passionate about. Just email us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are keen to contribute.
For now, here’s a recap of this quarter’s posts:
- National Research Council funding priorities miss the point
- What happens when you insufficiently fund basic research
- Federal research institutes should host crowdfunding initiatives
- Re-inventing crowdfunding for academic research
- Democratizing academic research through crowd funding
- To close the gender gap, make other jobs sexy
- Tri-Councils should learn from EMBO fellowships
- Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check
- Calling for a unified paper submission style
Dave continued to write for the Signals blog with three entries:
- Dear student: Read the supplementary material
- Political furor drives government funding for clinical trial – who should fund stem cell therapy trials?
- The importance of unequal division in stem cells
Many of our readers supported the idea of a unified journal submission style and we’ll explore the idea of pushing this concept at some higher levels. SB made some excellent points regarding the article on closing the gender gap by encouraging men to leave science – suggesting rather that we build a culture that supports women. Jonathan’s entries on crowdfunding science generated some buzz with concerns about the peer-review process of grant funding.
We hope that everyone is enjoying their summer and look forward to excellent continued discussion in the autumn.
When I was in the early stages of my undergraduate degree, I thought long and hard about doing an MBA in combination with science. It seemed to me that the sector was underdeveloped in Canada and good science training was going to be essential to a successful career. I was motivated to go out and create products that were useful for people and make money while doing so.
That was circa 2001 and, upon reflection, I believe that my science mentors from 3rd year undergraduate onwards steered me away from the biotech industry repeatedly and uncompromisingly – demonizing such careers as “selling out” or “not real science.” To be fair, I am quite happy with where I ended up and the scientific mentoring I have received along the way has been incredible, but some part of me wonders how much of a demographic shift in science training could be achieved if the impressions left on young minds were different.
Just the other day, I started thinking about this issue through the gender lens and arrived at a theory that made me curious (apologies to any social scientist out there who has already done this – please forward/link to relevant articles!). Basically, I wonder if the glorification of careers in industry (or other non-academic careers like patent law) could shift the gender balance in academic circles.
If you google “traits of successful entrepreneurs” and click through a few lists, you’ll note the convergence on key characteristics like “driven,” “risk taker,” “forward looking” and “confident.” This immediately brought me back to an article I wrote years ago on gender bias in reference letters, where these character traits were associated more often with men than women in letters from academic employers. This in turn made me wonder if we’ve been approaching gender imbalance in the wrong way – instead of programs designed to keep women in academia, why not create reasons for men to leave?
Men think they are great, sometimes they aren’t
There is no need for direct incentive – simply have mentors pitch it as an attractive, well-respected position and men will apply for it. I cringe a little every time I go to a career day and hear, “Only 20% of you will become professors, so everyone in this room should be thinking about non-academic careers.” While the spirit of the statement is something I agree with (everyone should consider non-academic careers), the tone of such statements is often one of fear and failure. Practical people say, “screw that, it’s not worth the risk, the instability, or the pressure” and arrogant/confident people say, “That’s really bad news for those 80%, glad I’m not one of them.” Sadly I think this type of career day drives more women out of academic research.
Medical school talent shows
Something I’ve noticed over my years near medical students is that there is an incredible pool of general talent – just go investigate a med school talent show or concert series. I’ve always wondered what brought some of them into medicine when they could clearly be at the cutting edge of the performing arts. I’m sure there are also many mathematics geniuses, athletes, etc., but again, why medicine? I think that a sizable fraction enter medical school because they can, not because they should, and see it as “reaching the top.”
On the other hand, I’ve also noticed people who would be incredibly good doctors (smart, dedicated, personable, etc.) that haven’t built their CV in the same way to make themselves look amazing and they are often on the outside looking in at doctors who are really clever, but don’t even want to be doctors. I fear that exactly the same happens in academic circles and insist that not everyone who can be a professor should be one.
Make other jobs sexy – introduce new food
The current system has one successful metric: get a professor job. If you put that carrot in front of a bunch of clever, motivated people and tell the losers that they cannot eat, it’s easy to predict what will happen. However, if you put several additional food options in front of people, choices are made for better reasons (taste, nutrition, etc.) rather than be focused on a prize you may not wish to win.
Overall, I think that the life sciences, especially in Canada, would do well to develop an enthusiasm for supporting the careers of young scientist/entrepreneur types. I’m not suggesting cutting corners on academic training – obtaining a PhD should always be a rigorous process – but rather I am suggesting that we see non-academic careers as viable options for academic trainees and encourage people to pursue them.
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!
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.
The Canadian Institutes of Health Research have announced their October 2012 call for applicants to the Science Policy Fellowship Program. As in years prior to this one, it seems that the fellowships are available only in partnership with Health Canada:
- Exploring ways of integrating academic clinical trials into Health Canada review process of therapeutic products
- Health and health system returns on investments in interprofessional collaboration
- Blood safety and emerging pathogens
- Intervention evidence to inform public health actions on childhood obesity
The topics look broad and this will likely attract an equally broad set of applicants – remember that you need to obtain a letter of support from the agency prior to the Dec. 5 application deadline. Clock’s ticking!
Now that two rounds of fellows have been appointed and presumably completed (or are close to completion), it would be great to hear from either employers or fellows about how well the program works and what the fellows are now doing … any of our readers out there who know someone who has been involved and think they might be ok to speak on the issue, please get in touch with me at email@example.com.