Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

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.

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5 Responses to Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost

  1. I think what postdocs sometimes perceive in their supervisors as “disdain for jobs outside the academy’ may just be that the supervisor has no great awareness of the world beyond. I think this partly reflects the ‘vocation’ aspects of science, see this old post of mine. If people have never wanted to be, or thought of being, anything other than the research scientist they’ve been for twenty years, it might not be that surprising if they’re not all that aware of other career options.

    Apart from career services, agree it’s important that Departments and supervisors maintain awareness of the world beyond, perhaps by unofficial internal cooperation so that PhD students and postdocs looking outside are ‘pointed’ towards people who might know something about different external sectors. We have certainly done this quite a bit over the years – if someone is interested in NHS Biochemistry, for instance, we put them in touch with our ex-PhD student who went into the same, or if they are looking at industry with our friends there, and so on. To give another example. I used to do a decent trade in talking to people about careers broadly in science communication and science/medical writing. So there are all sorts of ways. But it certainly is key that one doesn’t give the sense of exiting research as being a failure.

  2. Kate Jeffery says:

    My problem with the current scientific career structure is that there is no clear path for people who absolutely love doing curiosity-driven experimental science but who discover they haven’t got all the ingredients (writing ability, independence of ideas, mangement skills etc) to make a PI – that is, they are great team players but not great team leaders. Yes there may be alternative careers for them in science communication or in industry, but then they are lost to blue-sky research, which is a shame.

  3. Laurence Cox says:

    Perhaps academia can learn from the approach to providing information about science careers in schools, where the STEM ambassador programme is well established as a means of bringing practising scientists into the classroom.

    There is one big philosophical difference between academia and industry which doesn’t get the recognition it should and that is the attitude towards publication. In industry there may be good commercial reasons for not publishing innovative ideas. So, for examples from my own career, I was paid for not publishing a techical paper on the Queens-Award winning Stress Pattern Analysis by Thermal Emission equipment; I was presented with an International Research Collaboration Award by MinDP, but it wasn’t the best work I did at Dstl – that is hidden away in a classified patent application; just last month I received an award from my present company for an innovation, but the company has decided to keep it as a trade secret rather than patent it.

    Anyone moving out of academia needs to know that it is (almost always) a one-way street and the attitude to publication in industry is only publish if it benefits the company more than keeping it secret. As long as scientists understand this, they should have no difficulty in making the transition.

  4. rs says:

    Maybe all PhD students and post-docs should be required to do a 2 months stint in a year outside academia such as an internship with a company or teaching high school/colleges or anything else for which they should be paid accordingly. It should be department’s responsibility to arrange such opportunities. This will open avenues for these people who never know that it exist or they like it. It will also provide networking opportunities for them if they wish to move in that direction. Right now, they can be rejected easily for not having any industry experience from industries or teaching experiences from school or collages when they apply for such jobs.

  5. Postdoc says:

    The message from the permanent academics to postdocs nearing the end of their contract comes across closer to the following:

    “Thanks for trying, but we’ve deemed you to be a disgusting worthless disposable piece of shit. You’re a failure to be denigrated and disposed of; You were a worthless piece of exploitable shit for ever accepting the position we offered in the first place; we only ever intended to humiliate and then discard you. You’re working on a project ghostwritten by a previous postdoc whom we since kicked out; as professors we no longer necessarily retain the intellectual wherewithal to actually understand the work we propose; we don’t even check if the work we proposed was practical or whether we had the necessary resources in place to allow the project that was ghostwritten for us to succeed; we’re immune from scrutiny and oversight and we no longer care. We’re more interested in the overheads we can claim with staff as a means to make up research council funding shortfalls.

    As for you, dear postdoc, you’ve failed in life. You’re an embarrassment to your family; you have no purpose, you have no utility, you’re just worthless discarded shit. You have no prospects. You have no future. You’ll spend the rest of your life as a humiliated reject. You will never be acceptable. Kindly shut the door on the way out.”