Last week I spotted these words from Tolkien emblazoned on a poster (indeed several copies) on the walls of the tunnel which joins Imperial College and South Kensington Station. They seemed curiously apposite given what I had just been doing, contributing to a discussion of careers as part of the Life Sciences Post-Doc Symposium at Imperial. I would like to think the attendees at the meeting came away feeling the truth of the words. You can see more about the whole day from the blog of the organiser, Paula Salgado.
The plight of postdocs has featured often previously on my blog (e.g. here and here), elsewhere on Occam’s Typewriter (e.g from Jenny Rohn here and elsewhere) and many other places besides. The most recent article I saw was in last week’s Times Higher Education, written by an anonymous humanities postdoc who asked
not to be identified in case this further affects his career prospects.
The problem is that there is an oversupply of postdocs chasing the few permanent faculty positions available – and this holds, as far as I can tell, across all disciplines. This is not a problem restricted to the UK either. The numbers economist Paula Stephan quotes for the US in her recent book How Economics Shapes Science are just as unpleasant reading, with a total population of around 36,500 postdocs currently in post, of whom about 60% are in the life sciences. According to her, more than 70% of the postdocs in one study were found to be ‘very interested’ in a job (presumably permanent) at a research university and consequently a very large number were going to end up being disappointed.
There are many aspects to this problem, but one of the key ones is identified by the anonymous writer in Times Higher Education, namely that pursuing any career other than as an academic is too often equated with ‘failure’, implicitly writ large in red letters on one’s forehead. This is something we who have ‘made it’ in academia are clearly guilty, even if inadvertently, of imposing on our students and postdocs. Not everyone is cut out to be an academic, however much they may think it looks a desirable career choice, and we should do our utmost to make it plain that the skills learned during years in the lab can be taken fruitfully elsewhere. The point of the panel discussion I was involved with at Imperial was to point out both that other career options can be totally satisfying, and that not everyone goes in a straight line from A to B, and the end destination B may be far removed from any original lifeplan anyhow. There was a lot of combined wandering on show from the panel members, none of whom I think would have described their career paths as necessarily well-thought out or optimised, but all had arrived at a position that satisfied them in the end.
You may think that my own academic path must have been clear-cut, but you’d be wrong, as I’ve written about in passing before (here and here), but I have actually never strayed outside the academic fold. My fellow panellists had had more varied careers. One who had wandered in and out of academia was Jesus Rogel-Salazar, now a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Hertfordshire, but after 3 postdocs in different departments at Imperial he had actually wandered as far as the City, where he worked for a number of years before being lured back by the attractions of academia. He didn’t sound lost to me. Then there was Georgina Ferry, respected author and journalist, who had changed fields between A levels and university, and had swapped jobs repeatedly thereafter before ending up as a very successful freelance writer. Both Mike Whelan and Tim Atkins, respectively from Biotech company iQur and the Government Laboratory DSTL had probably weaved around a bit less, but certainly neither had known as they worked on their PhD’s how their life was going to shape up. Finally Julia Heathcote talked about the different jobs she’d had, and mainly hated, before she’d fallen by accident into teaching at a FE college and found she loved it. All these individuals seemed to rate their job satisfaction high and none of them showed any signs of feeling the stigma of failure for having not pursued an academic career (though to be fair Georgina Ferry had never taken a PhD or been through the postdoc mill).
One problem for me as an academic Is that I am not well-informed about alternative careers, but I and my colleagues should at least be able to point researchers in the direction of those who do know and avoid implying that I see such a move away from academic research as letting the side down. Some of one’s students and postdocs one knows from day 1 are the superstars of the future, and it is a delight to watch them mature and flourish and establish their own independent careers. But the percentage of students in that category is, unsurprisingly, not that high. Some postdocs are equally obviously not really motivated and probably have drifted into staying on in academia because they haven’t a clear idea of what else to do. These are the ones who should be pointed immediately in the direction of the Careers’ Service because it does neither the individual nor the PI any favours to keep them on. The difficult ones to advise are the majority in the middle, who may have been unlucky so far, or may still be maturing as scientists, but it is hard to know whether to encourage them to stay the course, keep trying for fellowships and independence or to recognize that they may be better off exploring other options.
However for all of them the road ahead may be tortuous, possibly bumpy and exciting, possibly smooth, easy or even maybe boring, but not going in a straight line may actually be exactly the right thing for them to do while they home in on what ultimately turns out to be their niche. It would be nice if, as discussed at the Willetts Roundtable last autumn at the Royal Society, and also in the Wilson Report (which was more concerned with studentships, as I discussed here), postdocs were able to spend some time away from academia exploring other avenues in some appropriate placement. I still hope that BIS will have been thinking about this since we gathered round that Roundtable last autumn with the Minister, and that some follow-up or tangible outcome may yet be forthcoming, but if so no whisper of it has reached me yet. But the important thing for postdocs is not to believe it’s academia or bust, and for us, the supervisors, it is equally important our actions clearly convey that message.