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.
This Thursday, I’ll be attending the Canadian Science Policy Conference in Toronto to run a session on the training the next generation of scientists. The session promises to be discussion-based and I hope that some practical ideas and solutions will be proposed by audience members and panelists to help address what I consider to be one of the greatest wastes of human capital in our country.
The results of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars (CAPS) survey will launch the panel highlighting the real need for new policy solutions to address the ever-increasing numbers of science-based trainees being spun out of Canadian universities and research institutes. This human resource crisis stimulated the formation of CAPS and numerous other international groups of early career researchers (e.g., the NPA in the United States, and ICoRSA for international research staff). The panel brings together stakeholders in industry, government and academia to discuss the needs of each sector and strategies for Canada to adopt in order to come out ahead in its training and utilization of young scientists.
I’ve compiled a list of relevant posts by Jonathan and I that try to tackle some of these issues and propose solutions and I hope this will act as fodder for conference-goers to get the discussion rolling. Post-conference I’ll relay to readers who could not attend the key ideas that emerged with the intention of building consensus on the best ideas that granting agencies, universities and employers could adopt:
- Sick of studenthood, early career researchers want employee status
- Half of Canada’s early career researchers are not Canadian
- Attracting and retaining talented researchers
- Reversing the brain drain
- Too much Talent? SSHRC’s “solution” to the postdoc boom
- The PhD Placement Project
- Incredible promotion tool: student and postdoc outcomes
- Tri-Councils should learn from EMBO fellowships
- Postdoctoral mentors and a regular reality check
- Shorter PhDs and more active thesis committees
- Fewer postdocs with higher salaries? Hold your horses!
- Planning Ahead: How many of you are there and who will pay you?
- A paradigm shift in academic advancement
- Creating scientists, not science, is the key to productive universities
Science training will not magically fix itself – it’s up to young scientists to identify the challenges and help to address them. The most important product of a university is people and these people will go out into every sector of society to help improve our collective future.
- I’ll also partake in a panel on the value of science blogging in Canada on Friday. Hopefully this session will highlight the utility and meaningfulness of scientists picking up the proverbial pen and paper to get their thoughts and opinions out into the world.
Over the coming weeks, I’ll be breaking down the fantastic information found in the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars 2013 Survey of Canadian Postdocs. To start this, I thought I would focus on the most surprising finding in my mind: 53.1% of the 1,830 respondents were either landed immigrants or holding a work permit. This is an incredibly high fraction that represents a huge opportunity for Canada, but only if policies and programs are designed to maximize the influx of such talent.
Plenty of non-American talent
Many of Canada’s postdoctoral fellows travel abroad and many find themselves in the United States, but the converse is not as frequent as many people think. Indeed, just 8% of international postdocs are from the U.S. whereas both France (13%) and China (12%) supply higher numbers of international researchers to the Canadian workforce.
When asked why they moved to Canada for research, facilities and resources were chief amongst reasons, showing that Canada has clearly created an excellent research environment. However, without the correct numbers and types of jobs available following this temporary period of research, it is not surprising that many leave the country. Funnily enough, the major challenge cited by international postdocs is not something remarkably academic or specialized, but rather “transitioning to life in a new country” and “visa/permit issues”- surely Canada can do a better job of making its talented young people feel more welcome.
You may ask why Canada should invest in these young researchers when they will all run away back to their home country? Again, the CAPS survey sheds light on this issue, showing that only 25% of researchers on work permits and just 3% of immigrant researchers have definite plans to leave Canada. There is a huge opportunity to capture this bright class of motivated young people to drive economic benefit for Canada, but we again do very little to support this permanent relocation.
Where does this leave Canadian researchers?
Jonathan just posted last week about attracting and retaining talented researchers, pointing out both the importance of international experience and the need, in Canada especially, to create jobs for researchers. Those jobs do not have to be academic jobs, but they do have to make the case for staying in – or coming back to – Canada for long-term employment.
As a Canadian-funded postdoctoral fellow working outside the country, I have lamented the lack of connectivity between Canadian funding bodies and institutions. My PhD and postdoctoral training cost CIHR $210,000 in salary alone and they have done virtually nothing to encourage my return. Indeed, funding agencies, institutions and companies do very little to attract its early career scientists back to Canada (both Jonathan and I can attest to this) both for academic and non-academic jobs. I think that two main problems exist: 1) lack of networks 2) poor programming for its fellows.
When one is looking for a non-academic post (industry, science writing, consulting, law, etc.), you are much more likely to do this locally. In my own case, a move to industry in one of the Cambridge biotech science parks would be much easier than trying to figure out the lay of the land in Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver. This is mostly because I regularly meet and interact with scientists who are employed with these companies and are collaborating with academics at our university.
EMBO, and countries like the UK and Australia, have come up with ideas on how to do this. EMBO created a “Fellows Network” that meets regularly and interacts with academics and non-academics; the U.K. encourages international applicants to its independent funding programs (Career development awards) and Australia ties the latter portion of grant funding to a fellow’s “return to Australia.” As far as I can see, Canada lags in this area and desperately needs to rethink its policies if attracting Canadians to return to work in Canada is a goal.
Overall, Canada needs to support both cohorts of talented researchers in order to capture the best and brightest minds to drive critical and inventive thinking that forms the baseline for discovery and innovation. Creating programs to bring back internationally trained researchers and encouraging Canadian trained international researchers to put down roots are not trivial tasks especially when the people making these decisions are (as described in the CAPS survey) adults “in the middle of their lives, but at the beginning of their careers.”
For the past year, I have been sitting on the publications committee for a society-run journal and in the journal’s quest to improve its impact factor (IF), it became clear to me that one of the system’s dark secrets is the “window of IF eligibility.” It single-handedly disadvantages journals whose science stands the test of time and favours journals that have speedy public relations’ campaigns.
For those not aware of it, a journal’s IF is based on two numbers for year X:
- The number of times articles published in the two years prior to year X are cited during year X
- The number of citable articles published in the two years prior to year X
The IF is simply the first number divided by the second.
This means that all articles published more than two years before the year being evaluated do not count for anything in the IF world. The IF metric significantly impacts the careers and fundability of scientists, but the practice of only counting two years post-publication is damaging for several reasons.
No benefit to standing the test of time
Not many people regularly scroll through the table of contents in journals with an IF of 3, so when very good papers are published in low-ranking journals, it sometimes takes a little time for them to get on people’s radar. Most scientists would agree that a paper needs to stand the test of time, and indeed many papers in low IF journals do exactly that, but they do not end up helping the IF of that journal.
A case in point, there was a 2003 paper in my field published in Experimental Hematology (IF < 3) that was cited 6.5 times per year in the eligibility window and an average of 10 times per year since. By contrast, a paper on the same topic in the same year in Nature Immunology (IF > 20) was cited 17 times per year in the eligibility window and an average of 11 times per year subsequently. The papers end up in the same place (i.e., cited about 10 times/yr) but they differ dramatically in their contribution to the journal’s IF (17 vs. 6.5).
Bias against poorly promoted journals
Big journals have big public relations teams – they do big press releases, and they carry an already big name. Obviously, getting quick publicity for articles will lead to citations earlier than papers that aren’t read immediately.
Artificial bias toward being trendy
Surely, in the age of reddit, Twitter and things “going viral,” we can appreciate that trendiness does not equate importance. However, our metrics for evaluating scientists almost fully rely on how trendy their research is (or at least on how trendy the journal they’ve published in is), and not how important or good quality it is. This translates into a culture that rewards buzz words and style over substance.
So, what can we do to improve the situation? Scientists could start picking up tables of contents from low IF journals (unlikely) or we could actually read beyond the abstract to see if the paper we’re citing actually proves a point and hasn’t been published somewhere else (also unlikely). I think the easiest way is to measure articles (and journals) by average citations per year since publication. I’d love to see what proportion of “high impact” papers crash and burn after the first few years post publication. It would not surprise me if the number was very large.
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 email@example.com 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.
People often ask me what I would do if I were in charge of fellowships for Canadian trainees. In response, I will often slip into my usual refrain of making investment in people the basic tenet of any fellowship program. As it currently stands, the career track for academics artificially selects for those that can handle small amounts of stability and an incredible amount of career uncertainty. Many believe that a fellowship program that fights against this is dreaming a dream too big, but there is one organization working its tail off to combat the tide and Canadian funding agencies should be taking notes.
The European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) is at the forefront in fellowship program design. Its long-term fellowship program for postdoctoral fellows has the following components:
- useful eligibility rules
- child care allowance
- dependent allowance
- travel allowance
- parental leave
- part-time work policy (such that fellows can do 3 or 4 day weeks and remain funded)
- private pension plan
- Fellow’s Network
And EMBO is not a boutique funding organization (the 2013 Spring competition awarded 100 fellowships) so they’ve clearly figured out a way to invest in a broad set of useful programs for the diverse life situations that young scientists find themselves in. For this post, I want to highlight three of these components as things which every major trainee funding organization should consider implementing straight away:
Useful eligibility rules:
EMBO is realistic about who it wants to fund and makes no bones about telling those that do not fit the criteria that their application will be thrown into the bin straight away. Statements like: “Applicants must have at least one first author publication accepted in press or published in an international peer reviewed journal at the time of application” make it very obvious that if you don’t have a paper, you will not be getting a fellowship. This cuts down on wasted application time and reduces peer review burden.
Private Pension Plan:
One of the most drilled home messages of financial advisers is to start pension savings early. This is not only advisable for the Canada Pension Plan (where each year helps you earn more later), but also private pension plans where compound interest relies on early starts. Early career researchers, often located in foreign countries, will often not get enrolled into any sort of pension plan until their mid-late 30s due to the transience of academic training. EMBO therefore created its own, internationally transferable, pension plan for its fellows – genius.
One of the greatest travesties of the Canadian trainee funding system is the lack of connectivity that the funding organizations have with the recipients of their money. While former trainees will remain on mailing lists sometimes, that’s about as good as it gets. After funding expires, fellows often drop off the face of the earth. EMBO, it seems, has figured this one out too – their FellowsNet is highly interactive and also appears to be for life (can someone confirm this?). It is not simply about record keeping, but rather is about creating a community of like-minded individuals who build lifelong friendships and collaborations.
From my own experience, my hat needs to be tipped in the direction of CIHR for their progressive research allowance policy. This funding allowed me to have decision making power over which conferences I attended and avoided many awkward discussions about where funding would come from. I can see the movement in the right direction at CIHR, and thankfully there are groups like EMBO doing the trail-blazing – all we need to do is follow along.
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.
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.