Last week, fellow OT blogger Jenny Rohn and I were among the attendees at the roundtable discussion headed up by Paul Nurse (President of the Royal Society) and David Willetts (Minister of State for Universities and Science), held at the Royal Society. The basis for the discussion was the postdoctoral career path. Questions posed up front included:
• Is the career ‘pyramid’ the right shape and are there genuinely satisfactory mid-career options?
• Do postdocs get the right advice and is enough done to prepare them for a life outside academia?
• What can be done about job insecurity, and more specifically the impact this has on women?
• How should PhD’s and postdoctoral research be funded and what is the correct duration of each in a career trajectory?
I think it would be fair to say none of these was answered, unsurprisingly, but the very fact that the discussion happened at all is encouraging, and I was certainly left with the impression there will be a follow-up of some sort. Some comments from four of the participants are being posted on the Royal Society website here, myself and Jenny Rohn included, and Jenny is posting her own more extensive thoughts on her own blog. Here is my personal take on things, which builds on the various previous discussions on my blog and others, links to the main ones of which I have collated at the bottom for ease of reference.
The attendees at this meeting extended beyond academia and beyond the sciences; problems are clearly not confined to those postdocs working in science. The discussion itself also encompassed training aspects for PhDs, where some issues overlap, although clearly not all. It’s impossible to capture the whole conversation, but there were some striking turns of phrase which may give an indication of the sense of some of it.
• Engine room of science is youth;
• Cultural and ecosystem issues;
• Need to empower postdocs to ask the right questions;
• Serial uncertainty versus narrowness of research field;
• Unsustainable system;
• Management of human capital;
• Discipline-to-discipline variations.
Although much of the previous discussion on Occam’s Typewriter on the topic has concerned what happens to senior postdocs, this wasn’t where the meat of the roundtable’s debate lay. From the very beginning it was pointed out that the phrase ‘the leaky pipeline’ is used in a derogatory way and that this is inappropriate as a way to describe people who leave academic science. I agree that people who leave for good reason – such as they find either that they are not sufficiently good at it to want to continue, or that something else appeals to them more – should not see this as a negative. To me the leaky pipeline, particularly in the context of women, describes the situation where people leave for bad reasons – they don’t feel integrated or like the culture, they can’t see a way of combining their career progression with having a family or they are actively discouraged despite their excellence – so it remains a negative. Nevertheless, as I‘ve argued before, the act of leaving academia after one or two postdocs should not necessarily be seen as ‘waste’. It should on the contrary be seen as taking the skills a science education and training have provided and using them in the big bad world outside academia (and, I presume, this is equally true for other disciplines of which I have no experience). The trouble is, academics in general, the line managers of these postdocs, are the least well-placed people to provide advice about this world, having in all likelihood not stirred far beyond the walls of academe. So, what can be done to ensure postdocs are well informed? How can academia collectively best make sure that each successive generation knows what sort of jobs their skills are well-suited to and where to go to for disinterested advice?
I will return to that second point in a moment, but let me start by focussing on the first: making sure the early career researcher knows something about the world beyond the university lab-bench (which should be taken also to include the computer or desk for theoreticians). A number of people were in favour of internships of some sort or other, largely focussing on industrial experience. It was pointed out that large companies are much better placed than small to give a thorough grounding, simply because there are so many more people available, more opportunities for exposure to different skills and questions, and more logistics in place to ensure a high quality experience. But, whether the company be large or small, there is still the danger that an actual piece of research, particularly if it turns out to be useful, may fall foul of IP issues preventing publication or inclusion in a thesis. Little was said in detail about other sorts of placement, although both policy and teaching got mentioned in passing. This is a shame because both (not to mention many other fields) offer all kinds of exciting opportunities and, let us not forget, the UK needs more specialist science teachers – of physics in particular. Any such sort of placement away from their home base formally and explicitly introduced into a postdoc’s terms of employment would represent a real departure from current practice and could only happen if appropriate funding mechanisms were introduced.
As for whom to turn to for advice, this can turn into a potential conflict of interest on the part of the PI supervising a postdoc. If the postdoc has high-level skills, they may be seen as a key person in the lab, useful for training incoming students and generally keeping an eye on things while the PI gads around the world or sits on too many committees. The PI may not wish to encourage the PI to consider alternative options. Instead they may wish to keep such people on to increase the flow of top notch papers and facilitate the overall team management, and at first glance it may look like a win-win situation. However, it is far from clear to me that this is so. Is it actually good for career development? Maybe yes, particularly for a short time, and it may look like good job security for the postdoc and so attractive. But what about the longer term? It was additionally said that such a position – what might be deemed a staff scientist position and something that both Jenny Rohn and Tom Hartley have argued in favour of in their earlier posts – can lead to stagnation and staleness. Furthermore, at some point where is the progression anymore? So, on balance there was little support to make such posts widely available, attractive though they might initially seem, a position with which I concur, at least with structures and funding as they are now.
The PI, rather than wishing to keep good people around him or her, doing useful stuff to further their own career, needs to step back and be more altruistic. This is where the ‘management of human capital’ phrase I cited above comes in. Maybe, for a while, provision of a safe berth while a particular individual expands their skills and gets the opportunity to produce some key papers simultaneously with training the next generation, is beneficial to the postdoc. But at all times the PI should be thinking, do I need to push this person out so they can make their own mark as individuals, not under my wing or guidance? How can they demonstrate independence and innovation? And, if the person is less than stellar – but still undoubtedly a real boon to have around – then they need to be encouraged to explore a wider range of options and not just sit tight until the money finally dries up.
At the end there were various suggestions that might be worthy of further thought:
- Production of a’ key information set’ for postdocs, of questions they should ask, places they should go to for information and of alternative career options and routes they might explore;
- A rule of ‘7 years and you’re out’;
- A mechanism to shift the average age at which people find they have to leave the pipeline earlier (see the current situation in Fig 1.6 of The Scientific Century Report);
- Modification of employment contracts to spell out explicit mechanisms or actions to ensure a broader range of transferable skills are acquired. In turn this requires funders to work out how this would be paid for (eg who would cover the costs of 3 month placements);
- Reconsideration of the Researchers’ Concordat to see if it is working and if not why not.
In order to move things forward there will clearly have to be significant cultural changes, with changes to the mindsets and expectations of PI’s and postdocs alike. There is also likely to have to be rather significant changes to the funding landscape. These are big asks. Cultural changes will not happen overnight and postdocs should not expect instant transformation in their working life or security. Unfortunately.
http://www.doc.ic.ac.uk/~mvalstar/page1/page2/page2.html A personal view of the original RI debate from an attendeed
http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/05/26/science-careers-has-the-science-establishment-let-down-young-researchers/ podcast of the RI debate
http://www.nature.com/news/2011/110302/full/471007a.html Jenny in Nature: Give postdocs a career, not empty promises
Useful statistics can also be found in various reports from Vitae: