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The Black Hole

Quarterly Summary – Trying to make sense of it all

So, in the wake of a very busy December, I realize that we only registered two blog entries this month - a noticeable drop from November’s eleven. But this is the realistic way forward if we want to tackle these issues with the time and energy they deserve, as these “issues affecting trainees” underpin many of the important decisions that are made in an academic career and give decision makers a sense of what trainees are thinking. It’s a lot of information though and in recognition of everyone else being busy as well, I thought a quarterly summary of highlights would be a good idea.

BY DAVID KENT | DEC 30 2009

So, in the wake of a very busy December, I realize that we only registered two blog entries this month – a noticeable drop from November’s eleven. But this is the realistic way forward if we want to tackle these issues with the time and energy they deserve, as these “issues affecting trainees” underpin many of the important decisions that are made in an academic career and give decision makers a sense of what trainees are thinking. It’s a lot of information though and in recognition of everyone else being busy as well, I thought a quarterly summary of highlights would be a good idea.

The latter parts of 2009 had four very exciting developments in the Canadian science community namely the launching of the Canadian Science Media Centre, the release of the first CAPS report detailing the plight of the Canadian post doctoral fellow, the creation of and 3000+ signatures on the Stem Cell Charter, and the first formal conference on science policy in Canada. Hopefully this kind of momentum continues into 2010…

In the interim, Beth has started by exploring “what to do with a PhD if I don’t want to be a professor” with blog entries on why PhDs leave the academy, what types of jobs are out there, and how your PhD helps prepare you and the communication of science information to the public with where people get their scientific information and what public science outreach groups are present in Canada.

I’ve been a little less focused, tackling scholarships ( tax information and tying to economic outcomes), trainee demographics, peer review, post-doctoral fellow training (saying NO to the 2nd post doc and the creation of more permanent “scientist” jobs), graduate training (cookie cutter PhDs and making the choice between degree types), and getting scientific information to government officials.

I’ve linked to all of the individual blog entries above if you want a more focused reading on a particular issue, below are what I think constitute the major trends, discussions, and highlights of our first 2.5 months:

Demographics
The trainee community is aging and, while not necessarily a bad thing, it requires us to think about its structure and function. This is critical if Canada wishes to attract and/or retain the best and brightest academics. Additionally, Nature magazine recently damned Canada as a location to do a PDF with this uninspiring blurb.

Comments from that blog entry stimulated some additional homework on top of the US stats reported initially and the numbers are not as bad in Canada as in the US with respect to degree length. The CAPS report released in November 2009 however, clearly shows that the PDF length, remuneration, and even its definition are major concerns moving forward.

Say NO to the Second PDF – good or bad?

Admittedly, I chose this title and wrote this article with the intention of stirring the pot. And stirred it was, both from personal emails that I received and from comments on the site. To be clear, I was definitely not saying that there are no good reasons for doing a second post doc (re-tooling, changing fields, wedded to a city, boss is awful, etc), but if you lack such a reason, I do strongly advocate querying whether or not another post doc will be good for you.

Most importantly though, is for senior decision makers to understand that this is a growing pool of people with a growing series of frustrations – check out the comments section from that post. Another key point in there that was made more explicitly in my first entry and flushed out in that comments section is that the answer to a shortage of jobs cannot be longer post docs, this just puts even more pressure on the system.

The numbers are not lying… the significant majority of PDFs will NOT become professors – you might not like the reality, but you have to ask if academics are not for you and start planning sooner rather than later.

Jobs you can do if you pull the plug

Beth has shared her own story about finding a job after exiting the long dark tunnel and has also compiled a list of jobs that you might consider after you complete the ol’ PhD… please do feel free to add to the list as well or comment with your story or advice to others looking for the first time.

Skills you have acquired while plugged in

Beth also did a great job identifying the skills acquired during a PhD and good ways of thinking about them when writing up your CV and doing interviews for non-academic jobs.

Cookie Cutter PhDs
I tried to encapsulate/define the sinking feeling I get when I compare medical science to a factory where the goal is to generate the data/papers instead of training the individual to be able to run a group that can generate data/papers. Much discussion was generated and there tended to be reasonable agreement that more effort needs to go into developing critical thinking skills and nurturing the curiosity that probably brought people there in the first place.

In sum, the first quarter has definitely encouraged Beth and I to continue sharing the research, ideas and thoughts of our small group of colleagues on this site and we’ll look forward to commenting on new developments as they arise. Thanks for all of the great discussion so far and the encouragement on the blog’s content. I hope 2010 brings you many good things – including an Olympic Gold for the men’s and women’s hockey teams.

ABOUT DAVID KENT
David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. SubC / January 4, 2010 at 22:21

    Thanks for bringing up a lot of issues in your post. I must point out (surprisingly no one else did) that the Nature comments were full of misinformation and outright lies. The average postdoc salary in Canada is not C$ 28K but something around 40K. Most Canadian postdocs make somewhere between 35-45K, which while not great, is definitely comparable to a new technician’s salary. Even more ridiculous was their assertion that the average grad student salary in Canada was 45K (I wish I was paid that much in my PhD !!) and postdocs were actually taking a pay cut ! I do not know how this drivel got published in such a respectable journal, I suppose the Editors were really gullible and taken for a ride by a disgruntled postdoc.
    Hope to see alot more interesting topics discussed here and have a great year ahead 🙂

  2. Dave K / January 4, 2010 at 23:53

    Hey SubC,
    You’re absolutely right about Nature missing the boat on the actual stats, I believe The CAPS folks have already sent in an official request to fix the numbers… We’ll see what comes of it. I think the point they were trying to make is that graduate students can, and are now more often, bringing in 35-45 thousand tax free per year. It’s certainly not an average as they incorrectly state, but it’s an interesting trend.
    The sad part is that this probably reflects quite poorly on Canada as a PDF destination… we do need to address PDF issues at a national scale if this sort of image is to be reversed.
    Thanks for reading and commenting over the last few months, it’s this type of discussion that makes writing these entries a lot more enjoyable!

  3. Veronique / January 6, 2010 at 23:38

    Great review Dave! I wish we could start the new year with great news.
    The Conference Board of Canada has just released its new rating on Education and Skills. Canada generally tends to do well in this category but its performance drops quickly when it comes to PhD Graduates. Since 1998, we have consistently earned a “D” (yes, on a scale of A to D). In 2007, with 209 PhD graduates per 100,000 people aged 25 to 29, we are way behind European countries (on the same relative scale, Sweden has 3.5 more PhD graduates than Canada).
    With the current trend, the picture does not look good to improve our ratings for the future. In the past 10 years, the relative number of PhD graduates has increased by about 10%. Japan has doubled its number of PhD graduates. You can have fun playing with the pull-down menu to compare Canada to other countries.
    It may not change the rating but I think it would be time for the Conference Board of Canada to review their 25-29(!) years old range for PhD graduates. Let’s do the math here. Say you graduate from high school at 18 years old. Add 4 years of B.Sc., 3 years of Masters, 6 years for a PhD… This brings you to 31 years old if you haven’t taken any break between your degrees. Some Europeans countries like Germany have much shorter degrees.
    The real issue, however, is that our country needs to value science, technology and higher education. Hopefully more positive science awareness initiatives will be seen in 2010. Keep up the good work with this blog!