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Defining post-PhD training with the end in mind

By JIRO INOUE | SEP 21 2015

Editor’s note:  This week, we are very pleased to have a guest post from Jiro Inoue, a postdoctoral fellow at the Robarts Research Institute, Western University. He is the current vice-president, external, of the postdoctoral association at Western, and the vice-chair, operations, of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars. Dr. Inoue has shared his thoughts on the state of postdoctoral training at a very appropriate time – “Postdoc Appreciation Week.”  We hope you enjoy this guest post and as always, encourage our readers to bring their thoughts through in the same way – this blog is meant to create discussion and not simply deliver our opinions.

This week has been anointed “Postdoc Appreciation Week,” and many universities will show appreciation for their postdoctoral research scholars with the standard variety of free lunches amid celebrations of research excellence. With appreciation like this for performing cutting-edge research, who wouldn’t want to be a postdoctoral scholar forever? It’s a great job – aside from a lack of career advancement opportunities and the complete absence of job security.

Common to most definitions of “postdoctoral scholar” are the notions of temporariness and of training. It’s not a job in and of itself, but rather a stepping stone on the path to something else. Decades ago, the path needed no further explanation: research, faculty job, tenure. Any further definition – vague notions of mentored training and research independence – were superfluous. But times have changed and the implicit goal of the postdoctoral period is no longer appropriate. These days, the postdoc-to-faculty conversion rate is far too low for this model to be treated as the norm.

In his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey says, “Begin with the end in mind.” It seems like an obvious principle in retrospect, but it is one that is easily lost in the day-to-day urgency of the research enterprise. In the current Canadian postdoctoral landscape, where the nature of the next job is no longer clear-cut, it is imperative that we take this principle to heart.

So what is the goal, the so-called “end” to have in mind? This should be some sort of decent career and, realistically, one that is unlikely to be as a member of a university faculty. With the outdated PhD training model, postdocs are left wondering how to achieve this elusive non-professorial career when all they know is laboratory bench work, publications and a narrow specialization in some esoteric field. Change needs to come from the top (the funders and universities) to redirect the overall course of postdoctoral training by considering the training needs of other career paths.

In the 1999 NSERC Statement of Principles, the university’s role in the postdoctoral career path is relegated to a brief mention on the final line of the appendix. By 2007, the Tricouncil/AUCC Statement of Principles: Postdoctoral Fellows makes no mention at all of such a role for the university. No wonder most universities maintain the same old spiel, describing the postdoc in terms of “research” and “scholarship.” A postdoc is still seen as preparation for an academic research career.

There is light at the end of the tunnel though. The 2013 survey by the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars identifies career training options as both necessary and lacking, while a 2013 report to NSERC recommends an increase in the amount of professional development opportunities directed at postdocs. We have identified this need, and we have some solutions, but how do we drive the message home?

Perhaps we could take a cue from the United States research funders (NIH and NSF), which adopted the following definition for “postdoctoral scholars” in 2007:

“An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is engaged in a temporary and defined period of mentored advanced training to enhance the professional skills and research independence needed to pursue his or her chosen career path.” 

In this definition, there is an explicit acknowledgement of other careers, and that these careers are of the postdoc’s own choosing. While it’s not a perfect definition – I would argue that “research independence” is not a necessary skill for most jobs – it is a decent starting point. And, to use another of Covey’s aphorisms, let’s put first things first. First and foremost, if a postdoc is a training position, it should be training for something: the chosen career. The nature of that training and the training environment are therefore secondary, in support of achieving that goal.

I’d prefer to see an alternative definition for postdoctoral scholars:

“An individual who has received a doctoral degree (or equivalent) and is pursuing his or her chosen career path by obtaining the necessary professional skills and qualifications through a temporary and defined period of mentored, advanced training.”

This is a definition of a postdoc that is firmly grounded in the reality of the job market, and with the end in mind. It acknowledges the diversity of available careers and encourages postdocs themselves to consider their own path and make the choices that make sense for them. It reminds the institutions and the mentors that the primary outcome of a postdoc is not in the publications, but in the very transition of the postdoc onto his or her chosen career path.

A free lunch is always nice, but it’s not really what postdocs are here for. A fine way to appreciate the efforts of Canada’s postdocs would be to help change the conversation about postdocs, starting with the basic definition. Let’s put the focus of postdoctoral training where it belongs, on the career at the end of the postdoc.

Jiro Inoue is a postdoctoral fellow at the Robarts Research Institute, Western University. He is the current vice-president, external, of the postdoctoral association at Western, and the vice-chair, operations, of the Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars.
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  1. Jo VanEvery / September 22, 2015 at 10:47

    Of course most academics have no idea how to train a post-doctoral researcher for anything other than the career they themselves have. That said, I formulated some thoughts several years ago that seem relevant to this position and might help us see how post-doc positions in university research groups might provide opportunities to develop skills and networks necessary to move into other careers and provide value to the research group in terms of wider impact and so on.

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