Expectations

Nature this week published its annual (and international) survey on salaries. As the article points out, many respondents use the survey as a means of venting, so the survey also provides a snapshot of (self-selecting and therefore not necessarily representative) attitudes towards jobs and careers from around the world. Many people are happy. A considerable number are not, for well-rehearsed reasons. Nevertheless I do think it is dangerous to look back through rose-tinted glasses to some mythical time when all was easy for those attempting to join the academic ladder. I don’t believe there was ever a time when it was ‘easy’ in the UK, except possibly during the rapid university expansion of the 1960’s; it was just different. Furthermore, academia is not a monolithic structure and the challenges vary from subject to subject, let alone from region to region around the world.

When I was contemplating doing a PhD, I recall my then Director of Studies Christine Mckie (or Kelsey as she was known in the department to distinguish her from her husband Duncan McKie) telling me how well nigh impossible it had been for her generation to get permanent jobs. As a woman in 1950’s Cambridge it was particularly difficult. Nevertheless, somehow she managed. The demands on her time would probably have been very different back then, with less emphasis on research than teaching I believe, although that may just be my student brain not appreciating what she really did at the time. Certainly, she was co-author – with her husband – of a definitive 1st year text book on crystallography.

Around the time that I was entering the academic profession, the situation had got so dire in permanent positions, that even the Government recognized this. Back in 1982 (I hope I’ve got the year right, Google isn’t immediately helping me), running for about 5 years, there was a scheme for creating lectureships called the ‘New Blood’ scheme. It was recognized that the universities created in the 1960’s were clogged up with staff who had been taken on at their opening but wouldn’t retire for a long time, and elsewhere there was also little movement. However, universities don’t thrive on an increasingly ageing cohort of lecturers and hence the Government put several million pounds on the table to create these New Blood posts, with funding for 5 years after which the University was required to pick up the tab. Interestingly, googling that phrase throws up many individual bios which proudly lay claim to having had such a way into the profession. It was also around that time, as a result of the scarcity of posts, that the Royal Society created the University Research Fellows scheme in 1983, of which I was one of the first beneficiaries. That scheme kept me in the UK and stopped me brain-draining to the US, where I had a faculty position waiting for me.

I am not trying to suggest that things aren’t difficult for those seeking permanent positions now, but the challenge is not that no such posts exist but that there are far more people chasing them than positions available. That is a slightly different problem. A small group of people chasing close-to-zero posts probably feels very different from a huge number chasing a relatively small number of openings, even if the odds per person may not be very different (and I’m not going to speculate about how the numbers directly compare as I don’t have any relevant statistics). And it does depend so much on discipline. In engineering, the profession itself pays well and is seen as attractive by many so – certainly in some branches such as chemical engineering – there have been periods when competition has not been particularly stiff. In the biomedical sciences currently, as various reports in the UK and the US have consistently spelled out, there is a vast oversupply of well qualified postgraduates wanting to make research their career. The Crick, recently opened in all its glory, highlights the desirability of such group leader posts but there simply aren’t enough such openings to satisfy demand.

In the sciences we are beginning to see creeping in the sort of fixed term, teaching-only posts that have long been the fate of the arts and humanities. When feeling optimistic, I can look at these and think they are a good staging post on to permanency. When feeling negative, I think people taking these positions may be on a hiding to nothing because of the challenge of completing research when occupied so heavily with teaching, yet simultaneously being required to demonstrate research outputs and experience when looking for the next step on the ladder.

Fundamentally we have a mismatch between supply and demand in the academic sector. Creating permanent post-doc appointments, although attractive to those who get such posts, is not a solution as it just moves the point at which the logjam occurs a few years earlier in the career trajectory. If all postdoc posts are filled for life then what happens to fresh PhD students looking for the next position? So, as an academic, I should take responsibility for making sure those ECRs who cross my path know both about the challenges of finding a job, but also of all the opportunities beyond academia for which their skills are well-suited. And perhaps equally importantly, for which their skills are so eagerly sought. Scientists should consider everything from politics – and we surely need more scientifically well-informed MPs than ever – to the media; from the obvious situations in industry to the civil service. Working as I now do with the Department of Culture, Media and Sports, I am astonished to discover how few civil servants there have scientific training, although there are many economists. Yet DCMS has responsibility for many technical areas, most notably digital.

As a professor, it is my responsibility to make sure I never convey the message, even subliminally, that I think a PhD student who wishes to move outside academia has ‘failed’. (More general expectations on all parties are laid out in this 2014 Royal Society document I helped to write.) I should on the contrary view the diversification of the general workforce, one PhD at a time, as something to be welcomed. Perhaps if the BBC had more scientists who reported on day to day affairs we would have fewer errors and hype promulgated, a situation to be desired. If our MPs understood the tides better maybe they would make fewer daft remarks (or maybe not). Everyone needs to make sure that the message is given loud and clear that academia is just one of many possible, exciting and important paths that could be taken. Academics need individually to recognize that the skills imparted during undergraduate and postgraduate work are transferable and spell out explicitly what that means to their teams. Communication skills (written and oral), analytical and critical reading of texts, quantitative appreciation of information – all these are relevant in just about every sphere and are part of the scientist’s bread and butter training. Many of the EPSRC Doctoral Training Centres have such a widening of expectations explicitly included in their training programmes, as do the PhD programmes of some of the other Research Councils. Yet still many ECRs do not seem to appreciate the hurdles until they hit them smack in the face as they start applying for independent researcher positions, perhaps because they have always assumed they are the exception to the rule (and of course they may be).

Early career researchers may legitimately believe they are being led up the garden path with nowhere to go, or feel they are being treated as little more than unappreciated slave labour.  Again I have a responsibility for being honest about job prospects and never failing to treat each person working with me as an individual with their own hopes and fears. Academics cannot solve the funding issues by themselves, nor resolve or alter the structure of the funding landscape without input from many others, but they can and should be be honest with all ECRs they come into contact with and do their bit to help them on their way, whatever way that may be.

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One Response to Expectations

  1. xykademiqz says:

    It’s not enough to not frown upon getting nonacademic careers. We have to allow our students the time and resources to develop the skills that they will need in those nonacademic jobs. We can’t train them as if we want them to work as professors at research universities, and then be all shocked when they are not competitive outside academia and rightfully angry.

    In the US, PhD duration is not restricted and students also take courses. Most of my colleagues want the students to be done with coursework as quickly as possible and then devote 100% of their time to research. In contrast, I encourage my graduate students to take a course or even two in whatever interests them throughout their PhD, even well after they are done with the PhD course requirements. Nearly 100% of my students have received a second MS (in another field) while pursuing a PhD in my group; usually the MS focuses on computer science or statistics, which both greatly improve the breadth of potential jobs. I do not think that makes the students less productive in their PhDs, on the contrary. Having structure to their day, some classes and HW, enables them to get out of the office, see people, do a different kind of work, and prevents burnout and fatigue. (TA-ing does the same thing, as interacting with chirpy undergrads lifts one’s spirits.)

    Also, many students who came into my group wanting to be faculty don’t want to be faculty by the time they leave because I am transparent about what the job entails. The stress over constant grant writing (and rejections) and generally being very busy all the time are not appealing to many. One of my brightest students (he’s genius-level brilliant but also the kind of person who is laid back and enjoys socializing) says that he doesn’t want to be faculty as the job is too hard. Showing the students what the job actually is may be enough to let students decide that it isn’t for them.

    Thus I don’t understand how the people whose every student thinks they will get a faculty position operate. Obviously the professors know which ones among their intellectual offspring have even a remote chance of success and which ones don’t. Don’t they every talk to their students about what the job requires; what the student will need for a successful faculty application and whether continuing on a postdoc versus looking for a job may in fact just be wasting time?