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.
We’ve all been told about the value of networks with adages like “It’s not what you know, but who you know”, but I’d never stopped to think about this outside of meeting individual people. While I’m certainly not denying the value of knowing the right person in the right place at the right time, I want to stress the importance of Canada’s secret weapon in the sciences – broad networking.
Last week, I attended the inaugural Till and McCulloch meeting in Montreal (it’s the offspring of the Canadian Stem Cell Network’s annual general meeting) and was part of a full day workshop specifically designed for early career researchers on academic grant writing. I have been a member of the SCN for nearly a decade now and have attended six of their previous meetings, but only now do I realise how critical this Networks of Centres of Excellence (NCE) program is to developing Canada’s next generation of stem cell scientists.
Of course, the NCE’s produce high quality research, but so they should for the amount of money invested in them. What I’m really impressed with through my experiences with the SCN is the power of infrastructure. The SCN unites people from a range of disciplines under a common theme – stem cells. It has brought engineers together with biologists, made major contributions to Canada’s position on embryonic stem cell research, and started many technologies down the long and windy road of therapeutic utility or commercialization.
As important in my mind, however, is the commitment that the SCN has to nurturing its trainees – Canada’s next generation of ideas. Over the years, they have hosted many workshops and events, but none of them hit such a strong chord with me as the grants writing workshop at this year’s meeting.
The grant writing workshop consisted of 25-30 postdocs and PhD students who were given actual grants from SCN scientists and asked to perform as if they were on a CIHR grant panel. It was run by the SCN trainee advisory committee and featured introductory comments by Guy Sauvageau. The “inside scoop” provided was impressive – Guy did a great job of distilling the essence of a fundable grant saying that in the end, it comes down to two things:
- is the research sound and original? and
- can they do it?
If you have an original idea and preliminary results, go for it, if not – don’t apply.
Kelly McNagny and Jon Draper then took over and ran a mock session that really removed a lot of the mystique about the grant review process – you really come to an appreciation of how tight the timelines are, how important a clearly written proposal is, and how much agreement there is on application ratings. Each member of the workshop was given the chance to offer their analysis and arguments about the work inevitably surfaced and were satisfactorily resolved.
Importantly, this workshop does not simply favour Type A, “go get ‘em” personalities who are willing and able to break the ice with the big name scientists. Instead, everyone in the room hears the same information and gets a chance to show their grant assessment abilities to the group. Secondly, the preparation component of the workshop puts those who plan and think ahead on level footing with those who think well on the spot. Finally, the pre-meeting setting of the workshop gives additional help by linking a small cohort of trainees, thereby alleviating the high stress sometimes felt by being alone at a conference (cue articles like this one on “Impostor Syndrome” in academia).
This means that instead of the loudest and proudest scientists getting the only chance at a job – as is all too common – all trainees get the chance to cultivate relationships with senior network scientists over the years through having their talks and posters judged through these workshops. This level of interaction is simply not available through larger conferences and is difficult to instigate with big players in the field at smaller conferences. The regular interaction and the collaborative grants and projects that inevitably spring from them give Canadian scientists an edge.
In a world where getting a job in biomedical research seems about as tough as becoming a professional hockey player, I am happy to report my reconnection at this year’s meeting with eight trainees from my SCN-past who now have junior faculty appointments at Canadian universities – respect the power of the broad network.