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.
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.
In my last post, I urged non-traditional sectors to engage motivated PhD students early in their careers as direction into non-academic careers is sorely lacking. Until coming to the U.K., I had never met a third-year PhD scientist who already had his sights set on working in the financial consulting sector. At the time, this struck me as odd — what does transcriptional regulation have to do with finance? — but then I noticed many more of my doctoral and postdoctoral colleagues branching out into careers like science policy, medical device consulting and finance.
Perhaps this is a U.K. thing (with very developed finance and science policy sectors). But even so, it challenged me to reflect on why university programs or professorships were rarely supported by these sectors that clearly benefit from their extensive training. This post aims to help such non-science sectors understand what is currently being done to engage early by other organizations while also highlighting possible opportunities for early-career researchers.
Industry, from biotechnology to engineering, certainly captures huge hosts of PhD graduates for the long haul. Increasingly, however, it seems companies are making their move earlier in the career of scientists due to the rapid shift in human resources which is leading to older (and grumpier) postdoctoral fellows. A bounty of opportunities have cropped up to give PhD students industry experience, ranging from the very broad (e.g., NSERC industrial postdoctoral fellowships) to very specific (OBI programs centred on neuroscience). I have listed several programs and short descriptions:
- NSERC Industrial R&D Fellowships: NSERC has run this program successfully for many years and postdoctoral fellows get to be placed directly into industrial settings.
- See the Potential Postdoctoral Fellowship program: Run through the Canadian Stem Cell Network, these are postdoctoral awards of $50,000 a year which are meant to focus on an area of mutual interest between trainee and the sponsor company. The current projects either have to be related to a disease area of interest (ophthalmology, cardiovascular or neuroscience) and use one of the following modalities: tissue replacement, cell therapy or iPS cells.
- MITACS: two programs are available through MITACS. The first is the Accelerate internship program which places graduate students or postdoctoral fellows with industry partners for four months. The second is the Elevate fellowship program which is for one to two years involving an approximately 25:75 time split between company and university.
- Experiential Education Initiative: the Ontario Brain Institute has launched a series of programs aimed to encourage early-career researchers to pursue start-up companies, management training fellowships and internships. All programs are focused on a neuroscience theme.
- Connect Canada: this program seeks full-time graduate students or postdoctoral fellows to undertake a four- to six-month internship during the middle of their training. They need to be based at a university, but can be training in any field so long as “their skills are sought by the participating firm to support its innovation process”
Outside of industry, there are limited opportunities from what I can gather, but one of particular note is the Students for Development Program, which is an AUCC-sponsored program which selects students (anywhere from undergraduate through to PhD) to have three-plus months working in a developing country. Some bios of previous and current interns are available here.
There has also been some leadership by CIHR to diversify the output of its fellows. Specifically, CIHR has launched a Science 2 Business Fellowship and a Science Policy Fellowship (at Health Canada only). These programs are in the early days, but it is good to see such experiments supported at the national level.
From the science policy perspective, I think that Canada could take some lessons from the Cambridge Centre for Science and Policy which launched in 2009. The centre focuses on engagement throughout graduate and postdoctoral training by physically being based in Cambridge, hosting numerous lectures and networking events, and farming people out into policy roles through their workshops and fellowships. Canadian universities would benefit from such organizations that give access to both those curious about science policy and those preconditioned to careers in policy.
Overall, the message I want to leave graduate students with is to think early and often about what else you might do besides academia. You may well decide to stay on the academic path, but you owe it to yourself to explore. I hope that other companies and organizations interested in hiring talented university graduates will also see the value in getting the attention of students early. Slowly but surely, we are removing the demonization of non-academic careers, but this takes time and needs support from lab heads and university administrators.
Finally, if you’re still stuck as a graduate in the life sciences about possible careers, please do read our old posts from the Black Hole website.