It is Crunch Time for Early Career Scientists.

In mid-2016, I read this Nature News about the payment of overtime for USA post-doctoral scientists and the possibility that this would lead to fewer positions available. This article inspired a post I published on LinkedIn, that I would like to repropose in a radically updated form. In the original post, the premise was overtime payments for post-docs in USA.

IDENTITY AND RESPECT | I am not very sensitive to titles and I am a very pragmatic person, therefore, I was never sensitive about being called a post-doc, but should you? Let me tell you a personal story.

A few years ago, I had the honour to work with Dr Virgilio Lew [1] at the University of Cambridge. Virgilio is a great scientist and a wonderful person who gave me the opportunity to taste how we should work in science, the love for the scientific question, the stories around small and big scientific discoveries, the humanity around individual researchers, the excitement of the scientific debate – even antagonistic at times –  but the preservation of the joy of science despite all the politics and over-competition of modern Academia.

I do have one regret, that I could not fully enjoy that period of my life. Back then, I was an anxious and moaning chap, distressed by the instability of our jobs, the constant mobility and the difficulties to synchronize careers with a partner, the self-inflicted hard days/nights/weekends work paid, at the time, below average UK income. In other terms, I was a post-doc, experiencing a rather normal life crisis, thrust by a very successful PhD into the space of wild competition for a PI position that I actually never cared to seek before.

When Virgilio would introduce me to colleagues, he would always say something along the line: “this is Alessandro, a [replace with a positive adjective of your choice] biophysicist who joined me and Teresa to work on the homeostasis of red blood cells infected with Plasmodia”. Or, “this is my colleague Alessandro…”  I never heard Virgilio calling me a post-doc. I think that elegance and class are in the spontaneous attention to detail. Did it matter? Well, the fact I took notice of it probably means it did at least at an unconscious level. I assume it inspired a sense of community, a sense of belonging to the academic world, irrespective of seniority. Many friends left science for many reasons, but one recurrent theme is not feeling to belong to a community.

EMPLOYEE LOYALTY AND EFFICIENCY | Of course, eventually, the word post-doc is not the issue [2]. It is very important to ensure our colleagues feel they belong to the organization they work with and the wider scientific community. As far as I understand, in Industry this simple concept is called employee loyalty and it is considered to be an important factor in boosting efficiency. Most members of staff working at Universities, at least within my limited experience, have open-ended contracts that allow them to identify with their own institution; similarly, academic staff can be loyal to their University and look after their good homes. Most junior researchers, however, are that ocean of colleagues between their PhD and a PI position – or a career change – that experience short-term contracts, high mobility, compounded with the uncertainties inherent in the scientific research. Often, this overlaps with a period of their lives when people start to build a family as well. Can we ask employee loyalty from junior scientists? Can we reach the level of efficiency that employee loyalty can offer? What about the experience we lose every time a junior scientist leave and the time we have to reinvest in training? And which are the mental health implications of the current system, asking our brightest and youngest minds to work under this level of pressure and insecurity?

I would like to work with deserving colleagues for ten or twenty years, if they do not care about changing their jobs, but we rarely can because the job of a post-doc is unsecured. Therefore, I agree with those proposing to establish more permanent posts for researchers and to establish also in Academia the role of professional scientists, a rare position. Currently, we seek efficiency through fierce competition, with post-doc ‘killing machines that will select the best’, at the same time distracting them from their primary work (doing science), giving incentives to cut corners and behave very individualistically. However, we can achieve efficiency by building employee loyalty, building teams of scientists that can dedicate themselves to the big picture, and not ‘just’ to how to solve a career problem.

One of the issues we have in Academia is that there is too much emphasis on leadership and too little on team-working and community effort. We are rewarded only if we are the first author on a paper, the principal investigator on a grant, the group leader in the lab, and this eventually leads far too many people to aspire to a leadership position and neglect the importance of working together. This is combined with the fact that to remain in Academia, we have to become leaders, otherwise, we are out. How many PIs were good scientists, but were not selected on the basis of their capabilities to manage people to then… manage people?

A NEW CAREER STRUCTURE | There will be always plenty of people that will aspire to become a leader or to climb the ladders of management, either in Academia or Industry. There are also plenty of people that are more than happy to do science at the bench and, as I have already mentioned, creating good and stable employment opportunities as professional scientists might improve efficiency and life of early and mid-career researchers. However, even if you agreed with me, there are significant barriers to establishing such a system.

First of all, while progressing in their careers, scientists become financially unsustainable certainly in comparison to a PhD student but also compared to more junior colleagues. Then, it does not matter if you wished to retain a co-worker because of their experience and expertise, you have to move on to who you can afford to employ. If we shifted our scientist base to more senior people, on average, there will be unavoidable cost implications that can be addressed only with higher budgets or fewer appointments.

Second, there are only limited positions available as post-doctoral scientists; if you are lucky and love this job, you can get a 5 years continuous appointment. To have this job for life, we could probably appoint 90% fewer post-docs, while waiting for one retiring.

Therefore, increasing the number of professional scientists in Academia will require a drastic reorganization of the sector and probably higher budgets to maintain a similar level of researchers. This will require an enlightened and competent central government working together with a united academic governance both agreeing that change is needed. I am pessimistic for this to happen, but if we cared about productivity in science (not measured by impact factors, but by discoveries that will impact society) and the mental health of our scientists, perhaps we should consider change.

FEWER AND BETTER PhDs | Another change that may be required is how we train PhD students. At least in the UK, we are under pressure to get students finishing their PhDs in 3 years and consider this just as part of a broader training. Personally, I wish a PhD student in scientific topics to be an inexperienced but bright scientist, an expert in their field by the end of their PhD. Training students to do experiments should be the duty of undergrad courses, but here I am very biased by my background in physics. In physics, at least at the University of Genova, we got trained in physics of course, but also on how to build equipment, to develop software, to interface the two, to execute experiments, to analyse data, all of this with practical courses after passing examinations in the lab, written and oral. I guess I am an old-fashion one by now, but I wished that with the completion of pre-doctoral studies all students should be capable to do experiments, including coding and hardware interfacing. Also, I wish that students were also ready for industry. The PhD, in my opinion, should be Academic-oriented (wait a a sentence or so…), taking between 4 to 5 years giving them enough time to lead to substantial discoveries. On the way, some students (or their supervisors) will notice that Academia is not what they want to pursue and they could opt-out of their doctoral studies for a lower degree, if deserving. Both students completing their PhDs or lower degrees should be offered business-oriented experiences, in order to offer a wide range of choices and facilitating the transitioning to Industry or to non-academic posts within Universities. Far too often, the transition to non-academic jobs is lived or considered a failure, where this should be embraced as one of the likely, actually the most likely, outcome after studying at University instead. Therefore, we should have srudents ready for Industry irrespective of docoral studies and there should be planned paths from doctoral studies to Industry. There is too little awareness, during doctoral studies, about the need to plan a career outside Academia and about the odds to stay in Academia. If we could train better our students at undergrad and graduate levels, avoiding to rush them on the job market, but getting them on the right track as soon as they know what is best for them, Industry will benefit from more qualified junior scientists and Academia from a more moderate pressure of intake of junior scientists towards unsecured jobs.

CAREER TALKS AND MANAGING EXPECTATIONS | In any management course, you will be taught that one of your duties is to manage expectation of those working with you. Then, often, we operate giving the illusion to junior scientists that they will become known professors, you just need to do that big discovery published in Nature, creating lots of press releases. In career talks, people provide examples of success stories – and rightly so – but rarely depicts, in my opinion, the reality that a junior scientist faces, with plenty of exceptions of course.

Once I attended a meeting where the work of mathematicians employed at post-doctoral level was instrumental in advanced magnetic resonance imaging with important implications for basic science and translational medicine. At the end of the meeting, a simple question was shot: “you discussed all these great advancements, but what career opportunities those mathematicians have?”. The Academic in charge, honestly, candidly and with clear expressions of sympathy and compassion (my interpretation) replied: “None. Unfortunately, we do not have the right career structures to support them.” A colleague, trying to rescue the situation added: “but all these people have successful careers within Industry”. Let’s be clear, sometimes you will have no prospect in Academia, not because you are not excellent, not because you are not appreciated, but simply because there is not an adequate career structure for you, in the specific case, the possibility to promote mathematicians adequately within a medical department. If this is the case, plan your career path away from Academia soon enough. But how much waste of talent from Academia which, hopefully, is compensated by big gains in Industry. But this exchange of talent might result in a net loss of efficiency in Academic research.

Another time, during a leadership course, a colleague asked: “my husband is a PI here in Cambridge, but I got a good offer in another University. We have a young child and a difficult choice to do because perspectives for post-docs in Cambridge are rather bleak”. Answer: “I understand is tough, but sometimes we need to decide which are our priorities, family or career”.

Then here it comes a career talk speaking about how difficult but rewarding it was to become a Principal Investigator at the University. Question: “if someone does not want to become a PI, but loves to do science at the bench in the academic environment, which options have?”. Answer: “I advice my people to embrace research assistant positions”

Not all of us will agree, by a system ran by smart people, often of very liberal background, often committed to social advancement, Academia, should not systematically put people in condition to decide between family and work (often penalizing women in STEM), not have the right career structures, or operate on a competition model without adequate incentives for employee loyalty.

CONCLUDING | I am not an expert in this area, but I wished to provide my view on how we should change career structures in Academia.

  1. Work upstream and invest more on under-grad and grad students at the same time awarding fewer PhDs. Fewer and better junior scientists in Academia will reduce pressure on mid-career scientists. Better undergrad students with more practical experience will help Industry as well.
  2. Value training and career options. A PhD is not a piece of paper to stay a while in Academia and then get higher pays in Industry. Other careers are great alternatives, they are respectable choices of great value for individuals and society, including being a scientist without being a leader.
  3. Work downstream, increasing investments in stable posts that do not depend on grants for senior scientists adding this as a valuable career option currently reserved to a very few. Not everyone wants to or should be a PI or a Professor. Loyal and less stressed employees will work more efficiently.
  4. Identify the appropriate career structures suitable for the age we live in, including flexible working for who has family commitments and for scientists moving across disciplines.

Failing to do this, we can simply advise our students and junior colleagues to identify not only the best possible path to a possible leadership position in Academia, if this is what they want, but also the best possible path to the best job they could aspire outside Academia. The transition to Industry should not be considered a lesser alternative choice – after some ‘postdoc-ing’ [2] – but an equally valuable choice. And, we shall always be clear about the chances anyone will have, even if good, to obtain one of those precious posts at University.

Notes

[1] Let me acknowledge the great work we have done as a team, Dr Virgilio Lew, Dr Teresa Tiffert, Prof. Clemens Kaminski and Dr Jakob Mauritz. Here, I speak only about Virgilio as I report only a personal account of our conversations.

[2] There are plenty of terms I dislike. For instance, the term ‘permadoc‘ to define lifetime postdoctoral appointments made me shiver. True, do not let terminology to bother you too much, but also do not let other to push you down by (inadvertently I am sure) defining you with inadequate terminology. If you are a post-doc, you are a junior scientist or junior researcher, you are not ‘post-doc-ing’ (for the goodness sake!) and you do not aspire to become a permadoc. You are a scientist, growing experience and maturity, looking for a stable work in academia or, of course, for a career change.

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Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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