Career progression for postdocs is a key issue that affects the health of our science base. It formed the basis for a discussion with Science Minister David Willetts at the Royal Institution this week, an event hosted by Evan Harris as ‘guest lecturer’ at the RI, and tied in with the Scienceisvital campaign, created and spearheaded by fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn. Jenny and I joined the panel (making it pleasantly balanced by gender). One outcome of the debate is that there will be an opportunity for comments raised both on the evening and through the feedback site to be pulled together by the Scienceisvital team and sent to Willetts’ office for further discussion, a step he positively welcomed in his closing remarks. I am not going to discuss the details of the debate, since this can be found in the podcast (plus a personal account from one attendee here) but want to discuss some wider issues in the context of funding that the debate raised in my own mind, and tie the discussion in with a talk I heard the next evening from Ottoline Leyser, who heads up the BBSRC’s training panel.
Postdocs see themselves, understandably, as at the bottom of the food chain. Jenny has written previously about the wastage she sees – not to mention the frustrations she and her peers feel – about the current system in which the pyramid of employment is steeply sloped. The anxieties that these early career researchers feel arise from job insecurity, low pay and being exploited in some cases, by PI’s who might be only interested in large-scale paper-producing factories and not the well-being of any individual postdoc. Ottoline described this very well: instead of individuals at the postdoc stage being able to enjoy and share the discoveries of science she felt the machinery in which they were operating resembled a hamster wheel, with the consequences being a generation of disgruntled postdocs who not only felt the system had let them down, but also that any career choice other than academia represented ‘failure’. Thus, postdocs who join a big team can see themselves as simply expendable data-producers, sometimes not even paper-writers, whose opportunity to gain first-author papers may be limited. The knock-on effect when it comes to subsequent job applications are all too obvious. So, to use Jenny’s analogy of an ecosystem, those at the top appear to survive at the expense of gobbling up those at the bottom.
Ottoline’s suggestion to improve the situation? It may surprise readers to know the tool she sees as a way forward is the Pathways to Impact statement. By causing PI’s to think hard about the training element – and of course then deliver against it – she thought the current vicious circle which produces disgruntled PDRA’s who no longer necessarily even still enjoy the excitement of their science could be transformed. By disseminating the joys of their science to a whole range of users including the public and schoolchildren, the PDRA’s might be able to gain a wider perspective about the world beyond academia and acquire useful skills which any future employer might welcome. Furthermore, this might encourage these same postdocs to recognize that jobs outside academia do not necessarily equate to failure, a view which I fear is one that PI’s may not only inwardly share (perhaps we need to validate the route we ourselves have chosen), but also convey explicitly or implicitly to those they employ. This is a disaster. For instance, the evidence that we need more inspirational teachers is STEM subjects is manifest, but if postdocs enter the teaching profession believing they have failed rather than that teaching is a challenge to be relished, we are dooming both the individual and the children they teach to an unsatisfactory fate. I have written before about some of the other challenges: the PI’s must be open and honest about opportunities for progression, something not all senior academics are terribly good at; the postdocs themselves also need to take responsibility right from the outset.
Jenny’s solution to the pyramid is to create more permanent post-doc positions, something which was more common in the days when the phrase ‘the well-found laboratory’ meant something in terms of actual cash – in other words a model which has been lost in recent years. However, some careful thought would have to be done about the numbers’ game to ensure this delivered what is intended in ways that are affordable, which doesn’t accidentally lead to shifting problems elsewhere or block off talent at a different part of the career ladder. Nevertheless, it is clear such positions would be attractive to postdocs and PI’s alike.
However, to return to the Willetts debate, I would like to introduce another dimension. Margaret Harris from Physics World, an ex-atomic physicist, highlighted a different problem. She pointed out that atomic physics – an area undergoing something of a resurgence in research terms and accompanying grant funding – has consequently many graduate students and postdocs but, at the moment at least, few permanent positions to which they can aspire. There are many areas where grant funding may be currently flowing because of the scientific buzz about them but permanent positions are not necessarily being created in sync with this. As Willetts was able to point out (conveniently for him), the Haldane principle means the government ‘does not’ step in to influence what research councils are funding. The research councils of course do not have any substantive influence over where lectureship posts are created in universities, though they may at the margins, or what distribution between sub-disciplines there is or should be . So, no one has responsibility to look at any developing mismatches between supply and demand by (sub-)field. There is no joined up thinking which could ease the problem identified. We can all think of many fields where these problems arise (let alone ones which were once seen as sexy, but no longer are. This means they may be unable to attract funding in the current different climate from when the posts were first created so faculty are left high and dry without funding, or indeed postdocs, although there are lots of staff). So, leaving aside the pyramid, we have in essence an inbuilt randomness about supply and demand. I have no solution to this to propose, I merely note the inherent instability in our employment sector and the disconnections between different parts of the employment landscape.