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.