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Sorry Rick Mercer, I’d love to agree but I think you’re wrong

Posted on November 26, 2014 by

Last week, Rick Mercer went on a rant about science – about how impressive it is that scientists managed to land on a comet half a billion kilometres away, about how the current Canadian government fails to support “pure science,” and how the Canadian public is “as passionate and curious as anyone else.” While I would agree that the comet landing is neat and that there have been governments that were more supportive, I’m not so convinced by the (lovely!) idea that the Canadian public loves science.

I believe Rick Mercer thinks that science is cool, and I even believe that he would be pleased to see his tax dollars (and maybe even his charitable dollars) go to support blue-sky research. But I do not believe Mr. Mercer’s idea that Canadians as a whole are interested although I, like him, would wish it to be the case. I think Mr. Mercer’s claims about Canadians’ passions are anecdotal at best, and lack any evidence – indeed it is possible that Canadians don’t give a hoot about science for science’s sake.

I’ve spent the better part of the last 15 years doing scientific research and outreach in Canada and the United Kingdom. To me it appears that, despite science influencing just about every aspect of their lives, the average Canadian adult does not particularly care about how or why something works. Canadians care about cures for their loved ones, faster mobile phone technologies, higher-resolution televisions, and fuel-efficient cars and homes.

In the U.K., things are not perfect but they are much much better when it comes to the public support of science. I’ve long wondered why this is the case (perhaps it’s Canada’s resource-based economy or its shorter history) but whatever the reason, these feelings are well-supported by comparing the volume of media and public policy related to science. In the U.K., there are incredible books and radio/television programs produced (many exported, e.g., Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth) that present science and nature as interesting components of our daily lives (I’ve previously compiled these thoughts on the Signals blog). By comparison, very very few people in the U.K. have heard of the Canadian science juggernaut David Suzuki. Despite his great stuff, it underscores just how parochial Canadian culture can be.

I am not trying to insult my country – I am a very proud Canadian – but I do worry that we get complacent when things are rolling along without crisis. I worry that we get lazy when it comes to supporting science in schools and do not demand better programming from our media. People watch Planet Earth because it’s really well made and doesn’t feel like you’re learning. Where is that calibre of programming in Canada?

Perhaps, Mr Mercer, the current government is simply reflecting the average Canadian adult’s priorities … could it be?

I would love to be proven wrong and I hope that this article might inspire some more efforts to create a better public understanding of, and support for, basic scientific research. There are amazing groups working in Canada to change these attitudes – Let’s Talk Science, the Canadian Science Writers Association, Actua – but really we need strong political leadership at universities, schools, Parliament and in the business community. Inspire Canadians to care about comets, wildlife, and geology … and maybe, just maybe, Canadians will change their country (and the world!) in all sorts of cool ways.

Practice what you preach – Lip service to public outreach frustrates me…

Posted on November 12, 2014 by

As many of my colleagues know, I have spent the last number of months applying for pots of money for my research. Just as in Canada, these monies are typically supplied though government agencies or charitable organisations. Over the last two decades there has been a steady increase in the excitement for and provision of science outreach and granting agencies have openly supported these knowledge translation efforts. Much has been made of the need to create a 21st century scientist who performs excellent research and communicates this research effectively. Bold claims have been made at the granting agency level:

The CIHR says a lot about knowledge translation - it “is a fundamental part of CIHR’s mandate”.

The MRC in the UK calls it public engagement, but it clearly gives knowledge translation the same priority – “Engaging the public in dialogue about medical research is part of our mission”.

With such high prioritisation, the question becomes whether or not this strong encouragement for the well-rounded researcher actually transfers into the decision-making processes that determine who gets funding and/or jobs?  I have my doubts and, based on my recent experiences, I am beginning to worry that such activity negatively affects a young researcher’s chances of academic career progression.

One of the granting agencies that I am applying to encourages applicants to discuss their application prior to submission with the program manager. As part of this process, I submitted my CV and abbreviated research proposal for a first look. The feedback I received was extremely surprising in the context of the statements above. While my research proposal was positively received, it was advised that I restructure my CV since it “took a while” to get to the important parts which were used to evaluate a young researcher’s potential. I was told that my CV was so full of non-reserarch activities that it looked like I didn’t have any time to do research. I took this to mean that my publications and research activity (conferences, peer review, awards, etc) were not front and centre and the teaching/training and public outreach style activities (including this blog!) could be hidden away. So, I redesigned and resubmitted to the same office.

The response this time:  “Looks great, you’ve really improved the CV in particular”.

The (perhaps generous) reality is that peer reviewing systems are so overloaded that reviewers do not have the time to filter through a young scientist’s track record in public engagement and the result is that a CV detailing such activities are a distraction from the “important stuff” – the publications, the previous awards, the invited seminars.

After this experience, I asked several colleagues for their opinion on whether public outreach efforts were seen as a positive or negative – many spouted the “distraction” refrain, others insisted that it would not negatively affect your applications, but it probably did not positively affect your application. Nobody said that it was an essential (or even desired) quality looked for on evaluation panels.

Next I thought about my own experiences – I look at my fellow bloggers on the scientific Signals blog – most are no longer pursuing academic research careers anymore (despite being amongst the most experienced in communicating science to the public). I look at my former colleagues that coordinated university Let’s Talk Science programs – again the vast majority are pursing non-academic careers.

The annoying thing is that there is enormous lip service paid to attracting and encouraging young scientists with the ability to communicate their research (and science in general) to the public, but this is matched with rather underwhelming career support. In fact, my experience leads me to believe that, if anything, it is seen as a detrimental distraction to an otherwise productive scientific research career.

Just be straight with applicants – your research (read “publications”) is all that counts – don’t focus on anything else. However, my fingers are crossed that this recent tale is an isolated incident and I would LOVE to hear from our readers who may have sat on grant or fellowship panels where someone’s non-research activities tipped the balance in their favour. Otherwise, it is really unfair to encourage emerging young researcher’s to undertake science outreach in any form, but rather they should focus on one more experiment, one more paper, or one more paper review for their boss.

Four hours from submission to acceptance… come on, really?

Posted on October 22, 2014 by

Earlier this month, I was gobsmacked when a colleague told me of their paper’s afternoon journey from submission to acceptance in a peer-reviewed journal. Not only was this a lightning fast acceptance, but it was the paper’s first submission, i.e., it had never been through peer review. It was received by the editor, read by the editor and accepted by the editor all within a four-hour time frame – and now it’s online as a Letter to the Editor.

Just a letter to the editor

People make the argument that this report is merely a letter to the editor and therefore is simply a commentary or “useful tidbit” for the scientific community. However, this particular paper has two data figures, one of which has extensive cellular characterization that certainly represents data which could (in theory at least) be unfavourably received or criticized by peer review. So, in effect, data now sits in black and white on the website of an important “peer-reviewed” journal not having been peer-reviewed by anyone else other than the editor.

Still counts for the impact factor

The really alarming thing about this practice is that it will contribute to the artificial inflation of this journal’s impact factor. Letters to the Editor do not contribute to the denominator of the impact factor, but citations they receive can contribute to the numerator – it’s basically like giving away free impact factor points. One wonders if the speedy acceptance had anything to do with a world expert in a field at the University of Cambridge reporting a useful tool for others in the field – d’ya think? To me, this represents complete and utter professional misconduct – the editor should be ashamed to put his/her name to the journal’s editorial board.

So, what can be done?

Aside from the massive overhaul of the peer review and academic publishing system that Jonathan and I regularly bang on about, some simple steps can be taken: 1) Thomson could reform its impact factor calculation such that nothing that appears as a “citable” item can be excluded from the denominator; 2) professional editors in academic publishing could establish a professional ethics standard that discourages anything in a peer-reviewed journal from escaping proper peer review.

Perhaps this is a one-off exception and this is the only journal that permits such practices. Perhaps, but considering I’m still at a relatively  junior career stage and I’ve heard about this, I’m willing to bet our readers can share a story or two about similar practices in their own field.

At the end of the day, scientists need to step up and demand better from academic journals. If the industry is going to be run by professionals, then the least we can do is demand better standards.

Really scraping the bottom… can’t we at least get parental leave during a postdoc?

Posted on May 12, 2014 by

Editor’s Note: Today the Black Hole continues its series of posts dedicated to postdoctoral fellows with kids. Two current postdoctoral fellows (Jenn and Erika) who have recently had children whilst pursing science at the very highest levels have kindly agreed to share their experiences. We are really excited to be able to provide them a forum that will hopefully stimulate some changes in how we can do a better job of supporting the offspring of our best and brightest. Today’s post urges granting agencies and universities to guarantee paid parental leave for its fellows.

Paid parental leave is absolutely essential if we want to retain the best and brightest minds in academia.

Paid parental leave is the bare minimum of what should be provided for highly trained researchers with PhDs and it has instead become one of the hot button issues for early career researchers. One of the most stressful aspects of being a postdoctoral fellow is the lack of security and the financial instability. This can be absolutely crippling once you introduce babies into the mix. Postdocs tend to survive on short term contracts, fellowships or grants and are often frantically trying to figure out where next year’s paycheck will come from.

A repeated refrain here at the Black Hole is that postdoctoral status in Canada is notoriously uncertain. Are we students? Trainees? Employees? This lack of defined status has immediate downstream effects on our ability to secure paid parental leave and the consequences are that bright young researchers throw in the towel on an academic career.

So how does parental leave currently work for postdoctoral fellows? In Canada, postdocs tend to be supported either by fellowships or paid directly from a supervisor’s grant. Your ability to receive paid parental leave will depend on 1) how you are paid and 2) where you work.

1) Type of pay:

a) Fellowship (e.g. NSERC, CIHR, SSHRC): If you are supported by a government fellowship, then you are entitled to interrupt your award and take unpaid parental leave for up to three years. Note that you cannot work or pursue studies during your leave and you must be devoted full time to child-rearing. You can apply for paid leave for a maximum of four months if funded by NSERC or SSHRC, or six months at CIHR, but this is subject to the availability of funds. But what about employment insurance (EI)? Most Canadians who are employed full-time are eligible for a full year of paid parental leave through EI. Note that most NSERC postdocs receive a T4A which means that they do not pay into the Canada Pension Plan or EI (though they do pay income tax). Since they are unable to pay into EI, postdocs on a fellowship cannot receive parental benefits through EI.

b) Fellowship (external agency): It depends on the individual fellowship. Many externally funded fellowships do not provide a paid parental leave. In this case, these fellowship postdocs do not qualify for EI (they receive a T4A) and will get ZERO paid leave unless the educational institutions provide an additional mechanism for support; see below. Refer to Jenn’s story about this last week.

c) Supervisor grant: If you are paid from a supervisor’s grant, then hopefully you are issued a T4 which allows you to pay into EI. This would permit you, as long as you meet the requirements, to take a full year of paid leave (at 55 percent of your salary). If you are not paid on a T4, you might want to start asking “why not” (though readers should be aware of the consequences of reclassification!)

2) Location:

a) Parent-friendly Canadian universities: Some Canadian universities have passed rules that require a paid parental leave be available for all postdocs. For example, all postdocs employed by UBC, regardless of how they are paid, receive six months of parental leave topped up to 95 percent of their salary. Postdocs who pay into EI can then collect 55 percent of their salary for the remaining six months of the year (fellowship postdocs cannot since they don’t pay into EI – see above). Note that postdoc salaries that are administered through non-university affiliations (e.g. the provincial health authority) are often not covered by these university policies. So be sure you know how and where you get paid!

b) Parent-UNfriendly Canadian universities: Other Canadian universities research institutes do not have set policies, in which case postdocs are on their own to figure it out.

(Editor’s note: we will not name and shame individual universities here, but would ask readers to explore their university’s policies and practices – feel free to comment below though!)

c) Non-Canadian universities: What about postdocs affiliated with universities overseas? Good luck. Do your research, figure out your options. A key thing to remember is that if you officially leave Canada (i.e. file with the government, cancel your provincial health coverage) it takes three months after you return to Canada to re-instate your coverage to become eligible to receive full standard healthcare again. So make sure you plan accordingly!

Wish list

Want to keep women in science? Want to allow men to be equal partners in parenting? Guarantee a full year of paid parental leave!

  • Treat all postdocs like employees, let us pay into EI and CPP.  Many countries do this.
  • Government fellowships need to provide a full year of paid leave instead of four to six months.
  • ALL fellowships should come with benefits. It’s a disgrace for postdocs to earn a prestigious fellowship only to discover that they will not be entitled to a paid parental leave. Many women planning to have a family will not be able to apply for “prestigious” fellowships as they won’t be able to take a paid leave, putting them at a disadvantage.
  • Increase postdoc salaries from the Canadian average (over two thirds of Canadian postdocs earn less than $45,000) to a level that will allow a family to survive.

Share your story

Erika and Jenn have shared their stories about the challenges associated with obtaining paid maternity leave as a postdoc. We are looking for feedback and more stories – did you experience something similar? Have you found yourself in an altogether different scenario? Let us know in the comments below. We will touch on these and other issues in future posts.

Quarterly Summary: Record-setting number of guest posts

Posted on April 8, 2014 by

It’s taken nearly five years to build the Black Hole blog up to the point where we are having regular input from more than me + 1 (first Beth Snow and now Jonathan Thon) so this quarter it was especially nice to see numerous guest posts including a returning guest blogger. The goal of the blog has always been to have early career researchers writing about and researching topics that are near and dear to their hearts in order to get their issue a wider exposure (our blog’s readership includes funding agencies (national and international), university administrators, academics and policy makers in addition to hundreds of early career researchers).

I hope this month’s contributions will inspire others to step forward with their take on the education and training of early career researchers in the coming months. In the meantime, please browse through this quarter’s posts:

Guest Authors:  

Sonja B.

Kelly Holloway

Mark Lawson

Regular Authors:

Jonathan

Dave

Top 5 posts this quarter were:

As always, if you have any advice or comments regarding the site – please get in touch at contact@scienceadvocacy.org as Jonathan and I are always looking for creative ways to explore new (and old!) topics. We hope that 2014 has started well for everyone.

What should you do with your science PhD? Learn from others

Posted on March 10, 2014 by

Last week, I attended a lecture by Jorge Cham, creator of PhD Comics who preached about the “power of procrastination.” For those who have seen this lecture before, you may have left wondering whether his statements about what you do while procrastinating are true. He maintains that such oft-demonized activities are the process of discovering what you really want to do with your life, but not everyone has the same career potential associated with their procrastinating. However, I was also reminded what CIHR founding director Alan Bernstein once quipped about clever people – if their dream job doesn’t exist, they will create it. Such stories are difficult to find any precedent for, but a good step in that direction came last month with the release of a simple and fun website.

Eva Amsen of “The Node” fame (now at F1000) and Lou Woodley, creator of Cambridge’s BlueSci magazine, launched a new website called “My Sci Career” with the intention of gathering stories from scientists across the world about what careers they’ve pursued with a science degree. Several efforts have been previously made by individuals, graduate school committees, or universities to collate such stories, but none have really succeeded in building a one-stop shop for those wondering what they could do with an advanced degree in the sciences. The unique thing about this site is that it doesn’t have a defined stop point but rather it holds the potential to grow into a highly interactive and career-inspiring space for science trainees across the world.

Typically a series of articles are sponsored by an organization (such as the Node or even our age-old So you want to be a … series) or are confined to a careers booklet about the types of “non-academic” careers one could pursue. These resources are often hard to find and often get pursued only when someone sits down and says “I really need to find a new career.” The personal anecdotes that Eva and Lou are collating have the benefit of telling stories that may simply be a pleasant coffee break read rather than a mission to discover something.

The organization of the site is simple and seems effective in its current form. The stories are sorted by level of training and career type and even offers readers a stream of quotations to randomly click upon in a bid to find out what inspired individuals to make their bold career moves. Time will tell whether increased posts will burden the navigation, but hopefully Eva and Lou have big plans for how to keep stories easy to find and relevant for their readers. A couple of quick suggestions I would have are to build a more magazine feel (e.g., get some pictures, create a style, think New Yorker) and to regularly publicize popular posts so they do not get lost in the Internet ether. Great start so far though – I’m looking forward to seeing more!

Finally, if you’re a science graduate of any ilk and feel that you’ve undertaken a career path that might be interesting for others to hear about, why not consider writing up a post for Eva and Lou? Personal stories are pretty easy to write about, do not require extensive research and sometimes, they are all it takes to help guide a lonely soul into a fruitful and rewarding career.

An impactful scientific career

Posted on March 3, 2014 by

I was recently invited to give a keynote address at the Human Disease Mapping conference at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland  that was coordinated by a small group of the college’s PhD students and postdoctoral fellows. I was asked to share my experiences and story of my academic career in a period where global financial and humanitarian crisis is affecting young scientists’ hopes of doing what they love most science.

This was an incredible honor for me (certainly one of the major highlights of my career), and while I may not have given the talk that was expected, I did give the talk that I felt needed to be heard. The address itself was very well received, and because of several requests to make it publicly available, I thought I would share it with you here.

Given its length, I have divided the original talk into multiple posts that I will be uploading bi-weekly. I hope you find them useful.

 

It’s past time to speak candidly about the realities of academic training, and share – genuinely – where it falls short regarding career advancement. I hope to provide an altogether different perspective from what you are used to hearing on the real value and promise of your education by sharing some of my own experiences. A lot of what I will say needs to be said, but this will not make it any easier to hear. I don’t want to pretend to tell you how you feel, or what to do – so I will tell you how I feel, and what I have done, in the hope that some of what I say will strike a chord and resonate.

For starters, you need to know that 86% of you will not hold tenure-track academic faculty positions. Figure 1 represents what your career pipeline actually looks like – with most of you entering a period of postdoctoral training before pursuing other research-focused career paths, or leaving basic research outright. What is shown here is a career trajectory plot, and it is extremely important that we remove all value judgments from these figures right now. Leaving academic science is not “failure.” In fact, quite the opposite is true, and the stronger case suggests that remaining on the academic trajectory is the mistake.

Figure 1

Figure 1: Click on image to enlarge.

 

Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that career prospects in academia will not improve any time soon. Figure 2 highlights the reason so few of you will become tenure-track academic faculty despite it being the only career in which most of us will ever receive formal training.

Figure 2

Figure 2: Click on image to enlarge.

 

And still: statistically, 72% of you expect to be principal investigators in academia and 92% of you expect to pursue a research-focused career path (Figure 3).

Figure 3

Figure 3: Click on image to enlarge.

 

I want to be crystal clear here. There is nothing wrong with choosing a career in academia – but choice necessitates options and I don’t believe options truly exist here. From day 1, academic scientists are taught to be academic professors by mentors who have only ever known this one track. Academic departments do not acknowledge that there are insufficient faculty slots to absorb their own trainees, and ironically provide little training support for the major career trajectories pursued by the vast majority of students passing through their halls, despite their primary educational mission. It’s not surprising that 72% of you want to be university professors, but what ensues is the illusion of free and informed choice, with a predictably crushing awakening. Without an offer in-hand from another employer, you are not so much choosing a career in science, as only ever being presented that one option – and your decision to pursue it blindly, however noble, is ill informed, and will end up doing you more harm than good.

It’s not a question of if you go on to do more with your degree and skill set, it’s when – and to be perfectly frank, there are better jobs out there.

Some of you need to be professors, but the rest of you can be so much more.

The trouble with the entrepreneurial mindset

Posted on February 24, 2014 by

Editors Note: The Black Hole team is delighted to have guest blogger Dr. Kelly Holloway share her thoughts on the recent Canadian Science Policy Conference and the dangers of pushing researchers toward an entrepreneurial mindset. Her research group focuses on this issue and others and their website is listed below.

The November 2013 meeting of the Canadian Science Policy Conference (CSPC) brought together hundreds of members of the private sector, government and academia to discuss new directions for a Canadian “innovation-based” economy. One mission of the conference, in its fifth iteration, is to mentor future science and innovation policy thinkers. Many of the panelists featured in a series of sessions aimed at early career scientists argued that emerging scientists need to be entrepreneurs; most PhDs will not get academic jobs, so they need to get better at courting the private sector.

As a conference participant I was not surprised by that message. It has been the prevailing theme at career-development sessions, in government reports and in the mainstream media. I am a postdoctoral researcher studying the commercialization of academic science, so I was particularly interested in the string of CSPC conference sessions aimed at the newbies in the crowd, with titles like “Is a PhD Really a Waste of Time?”; “From Pipeline to Network: Rethinking Graduate Training to Embrace Diversity and Promote Innovation” and “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle.” I found myself in rooms full of youngish-looking scientists anxiously awaiting answers, hoping for a “no,” that their PhD was not a waste of time. It turns out it isn’t. Not completely.

There were prevailing themes to these sessions, which their titles portend.

Theme 1: Few of you will get academic jobs, so suck it up and move on.
Okay no one actually said, “suck it up,” but one panelist, Ron Freedman of Impact Group did say that the number of people who will get a job as an academic is diminishingly small, “so just live with that.”

This argument is bolstered by reports with grim predictions for PhDs and postdoctoral researchers. According to figures from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, the number of tenure track positions held by individuals under the age of 35 decreased from 35% in 1980 to 12% in 2005. At the same time, in the past 10 years the country has doubled the number of PhDs enrolled.

I enter panic mode when I hear these numbers, as my many years of graduate school suddenly appear entirely futile. But I can’t help turn to that very training I have acquired as a social scientist to question how these figures are put to us – as entrepreneurial peer pressure. The dearth of plum faculty positions is repeated consistently, a fixed and unavoidable fact – one which has come from nowhere and cannot be changed. In fact, it is the direct result of a transformation in higher education taking place over the past 30 plus years involving federal and provincial strategies that place more emphasis on private funding for research, provide fewer resources to support tenure-stream jobs, and offload enormous teaching responsibilities to contract faculty that have no job security, few benefits and, in most cases, ridiculously low pay.

This shift has been referred to as “corporatization” or “commercialization,” and subjected to ample criticism (Chan and Fisher 2009, Newson and Polster 2010, Slaughter and Rhoades 2004, Turk 2000, 2008). But those historical transformations of the university did not enter into the CSPC discussions of the dilemma, put to emerging researchers as something they just have to live with.

Theme 2: Be an entrepreneur. Learn soft business skills.
Panelists consistently lamented the lack of what they called “soft skills” amongst graduate students and postdocs in the sciences: Leadership, communication, administration, creativity and interpersonal ability. For example, Nana Lee, coordinator for graduate professional development at the University of Toronto, claimed she can help PhDs communicate, manage their time, learn entrepreneurial skills, understand and apply ethical practices, and work effectively in teams and as leaders. The message is a little patronizing. Do graduate students not have experience working in teams (i.e., the laboratory?), planning and managing their time (i.e., researching, teaching, publishing, participating in departmental governance, conferencing, etc.), understanding and applying ethical practices (i.e., doing research and filling out grant applications)?

They may be lacking “entrepreneurial skills,” but PhDs aren’t training to be entrepreneurs. They are training to do high quality scientific research.

Theme 3: Don’t feel constrained by the expectations of academia.
A session called “Student Entrepreneurs as a Knowledge Vehicle” explored how to break down the divide between academia and the private sector by introducing the “entrepreneurial mindset.” Panelists argued universities must transform the “culture” of academia to be friendlier to the private sector and create better infrastructure in the academy to train emerging scientists in business skills. These speakers ignored differences in values, norms and ethics in the academic world and the business world. In the academic world, some scientists place a high value things like open access, peer review, academic freedom, science for the public good and ethics. In the business/industrial world, profit is the bottom line.

There are certainly excellent and well-meaning scientists working for this sector, but this does not mitigate the profit motive. When research is aimed at producing profit for a company’s shareholders, the quality of the research is by definition not the top priority. There are enough examples of research “mishaps” from the pharmaceutical industry to warrant concern. In this context, it is noteworthy that CSPC panelist Thomas Corr, CEO of Canada’s flagship model for university-industry research partnerships, the Ontario Centres of Excellence (OCE), stressed that the OCE’s involvement is guided more by economic considerations than the quality of the research.

There is a dangerous trajectory at play here – a science policy direction that undermines the importance of science in the public interest, or even science for the sake of knowledge – that values economic considerations over quality. Campaigns like Get Science Right have started to document the kinds of research that are not going to fare well in this economy, painting a bleak picture for the future if things do not change.

Kelly Holloway recently received her PhD in sociology from York University. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at Dalhousie University, studying emerging health research and the commercialization of academic science – for more information about the project see: recommercialize.ca. @kellyjholloway.

Quarterly summary: Great reader feedback and Happy New Year!

Posted on January 6, 2014 by

Happy New Year to all of our readers. It was an extremely busy autumn and there has been a lot of reader commentary on the Black Hole site – many thanks from both Jon and me. Of particular note, we ran a session at the Canadian Science Policy Conference and asked readers for feedback on three major questions:

  1. Should there be multiple career streams for publicly funded researchers?
  2. Should the time to complete a PhD be reduced? (And if so, how can this be achieved?)
  3. Should PhD researchers be treated like medical residents and junior accountants despite unclear career outcomes?

The feedback we received was great, and we’ll be using the material in future posts to help outline some proposals for alleviating the human resources crunch in early-career researcher streams. In particular, we had good cases made for shorter PhD programs (i.e., hard caps of 5 years) and different styles of graduate training programs to accommodate non-academic career paths.

Finally, I am once again making an annual call for guest posts on topics near and dear to the hearts of our readers. We have a two-part series on the practicalities of immigrating to Canada for studies/research coming in January and we’re always on the lookout for future posts.

Our posts from this past quarter can be found below in case your autumn was as busy as ours!

Jonathan

Dave

Dave also continued to write for the Signals blog on stem cells and regenerative medicine with three posts from the 2013 Till and McCulloch Meeting in Banff

All the best for 2014 – we look forward to another great year!

Dave and Jonathan

Tough love and a plan for the future – CSPC panel recap

Posted on December 4, 2013 by

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:

  1. Should there be multiple career streams for publicly funded researchers?
  2. Should the time to complete a PhD be reduced? (And if so, how can this be achieved?)
  3. 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.