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 week Dave wrote a post on how universities can begin keeping track of graduate student and postdoctoral fellow outcomes. With blogs such as “100 reasons not to go to graduate school” popping up online, as well as many articles increasingly critical of the state of higher education, it warrants that prospective students think long and hard about pursuing a career in academia. It is therefore imperative that accurate and unbiased information be available for each stage of academic career advancement for every field. One solution with which I wholly agree is that academics publicly disclose the career progression of their former trainees online, and pursuant to this theme I wanted to make our readers aware of a fact-finding survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education titled the Ph.D. Placement Project.
The justification for this initiative is ample. Students entering PhD programs are woefully unaware of the average times to completion (nearly a decade on average in the humanities); number/length of postdoctoral fellowships pursuant; inadequate salary, protection and benefits provided during this additional training period; the toll job insecurity plays on career progression; and limited job prospects thereafter. As stable, modestly-paying teaching positions at universities and colleges become harder to get, academic appointments have begun shifting toward exploitative systems of adjunct labour.
While policy reform at both the institutional and federal levels should be advocated for (please follow this link for instructions on how to contact your Member of Parliament, Senator, or Congressperson), it behooves us to support those trainees coming up through the system now. Allowing prospective students to make more informed decisions on career progression is an important first step.
“Advisers and prospective students need something more than a scattered helping of infrequently updated best-case scenarios. We need externally verified, reasonably comprehensive data about individual programs and maybe even individual advisers”
- James Yang, in the Chronicle.
The PhD Placement Project aims to gather reliable data about job placements for PhDs and answer the questions: Who’s getting jobs? Where are they? Which doctoral programs are doing well at placing their PhDs in tenure track positions? Which are doing poorly? Are many universities and colleges making an effort to help their PhDs land non-academic jobs? etc. The answers should be illuminating, and will likely have a significant impact on changing career advice for young investigators. I encourage everyone to get involved.
Here is how you can make a difference:
Share: The Ph.D. Placement Project has stopped collecting survey responses but those of you that didn’t get a chance to share your thoughts are asked to contribute to their comments section, or send them a note to the following address: email@example.com
After Jonathan’s last post on introducing career streams into academia, I was reminded of a question that a colleague of mine once asked: “If so many non-academic fields need highly trained PhDs, why don’t we ever see them pay for their training?” I replied with several examples of how biotechnology companies are starting to invest in internship programs, professorial chairs, etc; but he was not after this category of “alternative” careers. He was concerned with the not-so-obvious ones that end up attracting many PhD trained scientists.
On this site and numerous others, we wax lyrical about the vast multitude of careers available to people with a science-based PhD. The idea is that the PhD equips students with critical thinking and research skills required for careers outside of academia (science writing, science policy, consulting, etc) and we often cite this to counter concerns that we are training too many PhD scientists.
Not just the next step
I worry that we will begin to consider graduate school as the natural extension of undergraduate training. While I think most people have embraced secondary school and undergraduate/college training as staples in education, I am not convinced that the same is true of graduate school, nor should it be. Graduate school needs to be viewed in and of itself as a useful endeavor (the research produced) and those taking part in it should be thinking early about where their critical thinking and analysis skills can be applied should they not wish to continue academic research. The training of a PhD therefore cannot simply be viewed as the production of highly qualified personnel. In biomedical science, this is the cohort of people working well outside of normal working hours, performing overnight experiments and the like – they are the energy and enthusiasm that drive science and they do it all for a pittance.
Last autumn, founding CIHR president Alan Bernstein made some comments at our CSPC panel that rang true. As long as there are issues in this world that require clever solutions (climate change, regenerative medicine, over-population, etc), we need to keep producing university students with an arsenal of critical thinking and problem solving skills. The corollary to this, unless university faculty positions quadruple, is that most of them will need to find their eventual jobs in non-academic sectors. In theory, this provides great benefit to those companies and organizations, but they have virtually no role in helping to train them.
Engage before early onset apathy
From a medical standpoint, we often extol the virtues of identifying disease early to facilitate more successful treatments. I propose that the same strategy would work in graduate school – instead of waiting for graduate students to feel forced out of academia due to low availability of jobs, pique their interest prior to graduation. I would love to see leadership from sectors like finance, consulting, think tanks, libraries and NGOs to engage motivated PhD students. If your organization has ever hired a PhD scientist and see the benefits of hiring more, I encourage you consider creative ways of accomplishing this.
My next post will deal with the methods that some biotechnology companies and other organizations use – stay tuned.