In which I dream of revolution

Yesterday morning I woke up and realized that the entire logistical edifice underpinning the scientific profession is flawed. What’s more, I didn’t just see the problem; I had a glimpse of its solution.

What sparked all this off? Well, my career fears have been very close to the surface in recent months. It isn’t only mounting urgency inspired by the erosion of my last-chance fellowship – the consequences of economic recession promise increasingly poorer prospects in a game that was always going to be dicey. Our Faculty of Life Sciences just announced redundancies aimed at ten percent of research staff and, as funding bodies tighten their belts further, this may be only the beginning. If institutions can’t even hold on to the lab heads that have already established themselves, what hope is there for the likes of me?

They always say that the scientific profession is like an apprenticeship, but with a blast of unexpected clarity, I suddenly don’t buy this argument any more. If I were training in a normal craft or guild, I’d have a reasonable chance of joining its ranks at the end. Teach me to be a plumber, and in five years’ time, I’m pretty confident that I’d be out there fixing sinks and installing dishwashers for decent money.

Why don’t we have the same assurances in science?

Then I started thinking about the population biology of your typical lab – and the numbers just don’t add up. Trainee scientists – PhD students and postdocs – are not, as we all assume, bona fide trainee scientists – i.e., being trained to become lab heads. That couldn’t be right, because there are only a limited number of positions. If you merely wanted to train enough people to eventually replace you, your average lab head would only want to end up with one replacement – or maybe three or four, just in case of attrition. But this is not what happens. No, an average successful lab head will train up dozens of potential replacements. If a successful lab head runs a lab for 30 years, with say 4 PhD students at any one time, and assuming an average stint duration of 5 years worldwide, you’d expect about 6 “generations”, multiplied by those 4 positions = 24 potential replacements. (I leave postdocs out of the equation, as they train in multiple labs and can all be considered as former PhD students for the purposes of the math.) Even if half of these students don’t make the cut – die, drop out to have kids, get bored and do something else – the lab-head is still replacing herself more than 12-fold. Therefore, the argument that science is an “apprenticeship” is a gross misnomer, because only one of these 24 progeny will find a lab of their own – or fewer, if positions start being cut due to harsh economic times. That’s not what an apprenticeship should be about at all.

No, instead, what the lab head is doing is exploiting relatively cheap, disposable labor to bolster her personal reputation and that of the institute that houses her. And as unflattering as this may sound, I think it is more about money and disposability than we’d like to admit. Because whenever I ask why permanent research scientist positions for experienced post-docs are incredibly rare, I always hear the same explanation: they cost too much. If someone is good and has a lot of experience, you have to pay them what they’re worth: fancy that.

(As an aside, I know from experience that even if you are happy to take a very large pay cut and compete with newbie PhD students, or even graduates, for a rare research assistant or scientific officer job, you are still unlikely to be hired when you have too much experience for comfort.)

Let’s leave aside for a moment the idea that you get what you pay for: that an experienced post-doc can probably produce significantly more results than an inexperienced one, and a massive amount more than a new PhD student – that they may actually be worth the extra salary. It doesn’t matter: what you lack in quality you have in quantity: those dozen or so ‘apprentices’ under your lab roof at any one time may be horrifically inefficient, but they eventually get the job done. If they didn’t, the system would have ground to a halt ages ago.

No, the lab head and his reputation are fine; his university gets a good score in the national assessment, and scientific progress marches forward smoothly. Instead, our system passes the buck on to where things don’t run so smoothly: the bulk of the disposable apprentices, hitting a brick wall. Of course some can continue on in research, either productively in industry, or securing a rare, semi-permanent research associate position. But many leave science altogether, and some go into science-related jobs where a PhD or postdoctoral experience can get you hired: scientific publishing, science journalism, patent law, venture capital consulting, policy, public engagement, biotech sales, medical charity administration. I am not saying that these alternative careers are not viable or important. But should the meticulous, ridiculously long training of these practitioners be in the hands of the taxpayers and other contributors who think their money is being earmarked for scientific research? Is it fair that the bulk of, say, Medical Research Council-funded studentships and postdocs are being trained ultimately for other professions? What would that little old lady who wants to leave her entire inheritance to Cancer Research UK think if she knew that the majority of the apprentices trained with her money will end up in the City or working for journals or museums?

It just suddenly seems very wrong indeed.

Dear reader: I have a dream. In my dream, Phase I, all lab heads train only 3-5 students over their career lifetime – just enough to replace the current generation of lab heads, with a few extra in case of attrition. These students would be the very best that the universities produce, and competition would be fierce. A few more of the lab positions would be held for post-doctoral training of those few students. But the bulk of research staff in the labs of the world would be made up of permanent, professional scientists. These would be paid a lot more than ‘apprentices’, but you probably need far fewer of them to get the desired results. And perhaps a few more students and postdocs could be trained with money paid into a general institute kitty contributed by the other professions who now skim off science’s leavings. After all, these companies – banks, law firms, publishers, big pharma and the like – are getting the benefit of good staff without contributing to the bulk of their education and training. This way, you’d get a more efficient lab, all talented scientists would have real prospects in research and morale would be a lot higher. Perhaps more meaningfully, those who leave the bench for related jobs would not have to suffer through a superfluous number of postdoctoral years funded by siphoned-off research money that was intended for purer pursuits – you only need a PhD to do many of these jobs, not eight years of postdoctoral servitude during which pension and savings accumulations are concomitantly delayed.

What happens when the pool of permanent research staff is ten or fifteen years away from mass retirement? Here’s where we reach my dream, Phase II. Gradually you start expanding the university science places and PhD positions, letting in perhaps 2 to 3 times more than you’ll need to replace each of the permanent staff as they go offline. Eventually, with adjustments, the system should reach an equilibrium: enough PhD students to stably feed a majority pool of permanently employed, professional research scientists, each lab with a traditional lab head at its helm and a team of true apprentices.

Could this ever happen? I’m not sure, because it would take a cataclysmic culture shift. You’d have to persuade the universities to get rid of the bulk of their science undergraduate cash cows and their cheap research labor; and you’d have to convince labs and grants to find the funds to hire people long-term. You’d also have to disgorge and work through the digestive track the current glut of tens of thousands of starry-eyed students, the majority of whom are headed for broken dreams and jobs elsewhere. Make no mistake, it’s a massive oil tanker sailing at a brisk clip.

At a recent retreat, we had a guest speaker tell us about a massive new biomedical research institute being built at St Pancras in Central London. I raised my hand and asked: will it be business as usual for the temporary nature of postdoctoral staff? The speaker misunderstood me, explaining with pride that they were looking into arranging four or five-year positions for post-docs instead of the normal two to three. But imagine what might happen if a major, conspicuous institution like this decided to implement a plan like mine. Others would watch – and if successful, the model would be copied. Because one institute can make a difference. For example, historians often credit Cambridge’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology for instituting a cultural change in how science is done that spread throughout the entire world. Change is possible – but not if we’re too afraid to complain that change is sorely needed.

So who’s with me?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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201 Responses to In which I dream of revolution

  1. Eva Amsen says:

    Jeff Sharom , who now runs the Toronto NN hub, wrote a related article for Hypothesis a few years ago called “The scientific workforce policy debate: Do we produce too many biomedical trainees? “. Here’s the pdf , or you can get it from his NN profile.
    The problem, I think, is that it’s not just academic positions that require PhDs. Because there are so many, industry and publishing, as well as fast-track professional degrees (eg medical), can also set a doctoral degree as requirement, so you would still need about 10 per lab head (maybe) to cover all those jobs as well, until they change their requirements. And because those 10 PhD students and a few postdocs among them are all in an acedemic environment to be trained, they are all treated like apprentices even though the majority won’t follow their mentor’s footsteps.
    So I think the actual problem is not just the numbers, but the fact that it is seen as apprenticeship, when so many trainees will use their degree for other (still valid) purposes. And I have a blog post brewing about that, because WAY too many people are shocked that I chose not to do a postdoc, and I keep telling them all the same story, so I probably need to write it down again.
    Anyway, Jeff weighed all the pros and cons of the numbers game much better, so go read his article.

  2. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Great, thanks, I will.
    But I still think one could juggle the numbers such that labs could employ permanent staff and still do all the training required. And maybe those other professions could train their own apprentices, instead of skimming off the goodies from science – at science’s expense. Actually, though, one of my main problems is not producing PhDs for other professions, but stringing them along for 5-10 years with promises of non-existent jobs when such postdoctoral experience is NOT required for the alternative professions.

  3. Richard P. Grant says:

    The LMB example is apposite. Smaller labs, with more one-on-one training (in fact, I was lucky enough to get trained in NMR and crystallography by two PIs!); and a refreshingly flexible approach to contracts.
    The whole short term contract thing isn’t just the funders though: the EU puts a 3 year (?) cap on short term contracts with the same employer. And once you start offering permanent positions you have to worry about redundancy payouts etc. Of course, with fewer PhDs there would be more money to go around for exactly that.

  4. Nicolas Fanget says:

    AKA the Profzi scheme, as brilliantly illustrated by Jorge Cham

  5. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Richard, other professions survive admirably offering permanent positions to their staff after a short probationary period: I had two permanent positions in publishing in a four-year period alone. This has nothing to do with the EU; it’s the scientific culture.
    By the way, my thing about the LMB wasn’t what you’re alluding to. It was from med last century (described in a book review I wrote here) when molecular biology was being born. The culture, also seen at the Pasteur and Cold Spring Harbor, was all about providing space and time for scientists to interact informally – for example, a canteen, and the encouragement of tea breaks. We take it for granted now, but it wasn’t always like that.

  6. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Jokes aside, I agree that there is a problem in the way the system runs. And you didn’t even touch on the problems that scientists (or people who want to be scientists!) have when they have a family. When single it’s all very well to be offered a new position hundreds (thousands!) of miles away, but not possible when there are a partner, kids, schools etc to take into account. And the whole rigmarole has to be repeated every 3-5 years! Sure, you get dedicated people in a system like that, but it also alienates and shuts out a lot of talent too.

  7. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Yes, if permanent research jobs were waiting at the end, one wouldn’t have to travel the world to find work. Actually, I was thinking that a lot of scientists are going to the Far East now to get good jobs, but I don’t think it will be long before their own universities are more than capable of meeting their requirements without the help of the soon-to-be-obsolete West.

  8. Eva Amsen says:

    “I don’t think it will be long before their own universities are more than capable of meeting their requirements without the help of the soon-to-be-obsolete West.”
    HHMI Bulletin had a feature about China that alludes to that, but they think it will take a while before they’re self-sufficient.
    (I seem to be recommending a lot of reading. Maybe I should have gone into teaching after all =P )

  9. Alejandro Correa says:

    Jenny said – So who’s with me?
    I love your dream but, I am so far and is so different culture here. I’ve changed the lab for other jobs, because science in this country is emergent.
    Lack fault take many generations to catch up with the other first world countries in Science.

  10. Kate C says:

    Training many less PhD students is probably the right solution, but it makes me a little sad because I’m having the time of my life right now, and I think if the competition was much fiercer I wouldn’t have gotten in.

  11. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Of course that’s a downside, Kate – a generation of wanna-be PhD students would have their dreams shattered earlier rather than ten years later. Which, as I write it, doesn’t seem so bad. But of course it is. Eventually the situation would improve – which isn’t much consolation I freely admit.

  12. Richard P. Grant says:

    No. I had what would have been a permanent position, if it weren’t for EU rules. It was permanent in all but name (but I really don’t want to give too many details away). Yes there is indeed a culture problem in science, but I’m not actually convinced it’s all bad. A couple of short (3-4 yr) postdocs in different labs is a bonus, I think. It’s good to travel and see other places before you land the permanent gig. What you’re saying, I think, is that that needs to be codified so that there’s a clear career structure. With which I agree whole-heartedly.
    I do wonder about the effects on science though. By putting the competition at the student level, aren’t you actually in danger of selecting against good researchers? Isn’t that too early to figure out who’s got it? If there’s the same amount of money and fewer people fighting for the pot won’t that adversely affect the competitive nature of the granting system? You’re on record as saying that competition is a good thing.
    I know you were talking about history, but to my mind the LMB is still pretty progressive. They do a ‘lite’ version of what you propose, and that was my point. Smaller groups, fewer students. Patronage, in fact.

  13. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Richard, all I was stating was that you don’t have itinerant workers in most professions despite the EU. If you get a job in publishing they don’t say, sorry, I can only give you a 4-year contract. They give you a permanent position because they want you to stay.
    In my dream, you can do multiple postdocs, if you’re an apprentice to be a lab head or permanent research staff. That part doesn’t change – there are just fewer of you per job waiting at the end.
    The competition has to start somewhere – maybe they should do as in the States, where people who aren’t good don’t pass the General Exam (PhD Candidacy/Masters Bypass, it has different names) 2-3 years into their 5-year stint. I agree at selection stage might be too soon.

  14. Chris Surridge says:

    This is a great analysis of the problems for the working scientist. The fact is that the system is working supremely well from the point of view of those in charge of the system, the funders. By having at every level more bodies available to perform research than there is research available for them to do the competition mean that the funders get more research done more cheaply.
    Essentially the result is a feudal system with itinerant and essentially anonymous artisans employed on unfavourable terms. Thus were the cathedrals of the middle ages erected and so now are the cathedrals of science (if you will pardon the metaphor). The point of apprenticeships and guilds was to rest some of the power back to the workers by reducing the number of providers of a certain service. Reduce the supply to increase the value.
    But I’m not sure your proposal goes far enough Jenni. Isn’t it time that the downtrodden Post-Grads and Post-Docs ceased control of the means of production research.
    (exeunt humming “Then raise the scarlet standard high, Within its shade etc etc. ….)

  15. Austin Elliott says:

    I hear you, Jenny.
    There are other things that have contributed to the problem: one, at least in the UK, is the vast expansion in undergrad student numbers over the last two decades. This means more Faculty required to teach them, unless you do it with TAs, which is not popular with students paying fees. But… because there are research rankings, the Faculty hired are also all required to have active labs, which means grants, multiple grad students etc. The push for Faculty to teach the vastly increased u/grad nos, who now pay fees and are more demanding than before, also means the PIs will never be in the lab, or even that near it – hence the need for “factories” staffed by lots of assistants. The whole system is under pressure, in other words.
    Another factor related to the research beauty con ooops, research assessment exercises is that, as long as N (Grad students trained) is a counted stat (which in turn means cash for the Univ down the line via rankings), the pressure will be to take, and train, more of them. And besides the indirect money, there is a direct “show us the money” drive. At the moment, the cuts in the UK mean UK research Univs are desperate – and I mean desperate – to recruit more non-EU full fee paying grad students, since they are one of the few “pay full cost” components (apparent profit generators) in the system.
    Anyway, with all the above, the drive is to build lab factories. If you were to have a single grant with a single postdoc on it, you would be told to take a couple of PhD students and write more grants to build an Empire. This is what I was being told back in the early to mid 90s when I was a very green junior PI, and it is several times more true today.
    One thing one should mention is that we do train quite a lot of PhD students who by the end of a PhD have actively decided (rather than being forced into it) that they don’t want to stay in lab science. Certainly where I work that is quite clear, with people choosing medical writing (particularly popular), Pharma clinical research liason roles, medical school, management consultancy etc. I’m not sure I agree that a PhD isn’t necessary for these jobs. For some of them, the “critical skills and analysis” bit of doing a PhD is clearly absolutely necessary, and personally I think academic research gives you these skills in a way the industries would struggle to match. But I do agree with you that the industries are getting the benefit of our work, often without really kicking much back to the system. Though no doubt they would say that they pay taxes and contribute that way.
    Overall, though, I agree wholeheartedly that “shedding” technically highly-skilled people who want to stay in science after they have done two or even three postdocs is a tragic waste. I’m sure I’ve said this before.
    Conflict of Interest: I’ve only ever single supervised two graduate students over my career, though I have helped train quite a few more who were formally supervised by other people.

  16. Benoit Bruneau says:

    “are not, as we all assume, bona fide trainee scientists – i.e., being trained to become lab heads”: not all scientists are lab heads! Plenty of other excellent types of jobs out there for well-trained scientists, so I take great exception to that statement.
    Furthermore, this may not be the case elsewhere, but at our institution the postdocs are paid very well, get full benefits, including pension plans, and have access to many extracurricular courses and activities to further their career and scientific development…whatever that might be. SO, yes, too many trainees, but the expectations that all become lab heads is unrealistic and just not true I’m afraid.

  17. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Just realized that you were talking mostly about students: again, perhaps an exception, but at UCSF there are more faculty than students, and they are chosen very carefully from a large pool of applicants. And when they do join a lab, we mentor them and nurture their scientific development, not treat them as slave labour. If we wanted that, we would hire an army of technicians who can do the work much faster and not ask questions. Students are the future of science, and it is our responsibility, one that I take very seriously, to make sure that they get the best training possible. So yes, it is an apprenticeship, no, it is not slave labour, it certainly is not for the edification of the PI (how could it be? I just don’t get that), and it really is about making sure that these young men and women get the best scientific education possible. As scientist, not lab heads! It is not the same thing: they learn how to do science. (perhaps for another conversation, but I wish I had learned management and finance at the same time as science)

  18. Richard P. Grant says:

    I think selection at a research stage of one’s career is the way forward. I can’t see the UK PhD system becoming more like the US one any time soon, so maybe a (research) Masters degree should be mandatory before PhDs? Anyway, that’s details.
    Benoit, I think you’re wrong. The expectation is that after a couple of postdocs you become a lab head. It’s unrealistic, but it’s how it is. Those of us who have swapped careers know this firsthand. The pay and benefits accrued to postdocs (pretty good in this country—we have excellent labour laws) is irrelevant if there’s too many of them.

  19. Jennifer Rohn says:

    You have misunderstood my point, I’m afraid, and I did mention the other jobs out there and said they were viable, if you read carefully. But I am in the middle of a big experiment so will try to clarify things better later!
    /back to the salt mines

  20. Austin Elliott says:

    Agree on the last point, Benoit. Re the other stuff, I’m not sure there are that many lab research jobs past your late 30s apart from PI. Perhaps that was more Jenny’s meaning, though she will speak for herself.
    Re. how postdocs are treated, glad to hear your place has a good development programme. Of course, one could say that that is in an elite institute, in an elite university, in the richest state of the country with the richest research funding environment in the world, so elsewhere things inevitably may not be quite as good..!
    Based on my own experience somewhere a bit lower down the pile, major Univs do strive hard to do something for postdoc career development, including courses, mentoring etc. But I agree with Jenny’s central point that the imbalance between the number of highly skilled experienced postdocs, and the number of hands-on research jobs, is a reality, and is probably at an all-time high. In the face of that hard reality, persuading people they have not been mucked about is sometimes hard. I see from some of my own friends in their mid 40s who went into industry when the postdoc jobs dried up, and ended up in much more managerial roles, that they miss the direct connection with research. Of course, that might still have happened had they become University Faculty.

  21. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Yes, I agree that most postdocs aspire to be a lab head I thought the post was mostly about students…. but I do know of plenty of very successful students (and postdocs) who chose industry, or patent law, to cite just two examples, and they’re making far more money than I am or ever will be!
    And yes, perhaps our institution is up there (although with the money in CA, it is far from rich these days), but many others are moving towards this model.

  22. Matt Brown says:

    Woo, morphic resonance. Scientific American are thinking along similar lines.

  23. Eva Amsen says:

    “I can’t see the UK PhD system becoming more like the US one any time soon, so maybe a (research) Masters degree should be mandatory before PhDs? Anyway, that’s details.”
    … so…people in the UK are starting their tiny-short 3 year PhDs without having done research before that? [faints] I thought they at least had the same type of pre-PhD training as you get in lots of other countries where you spend a lot of time in your final year(s) doing a lab-based internship, but this suggests it’s more like the North-American system where it’s optional but not mandatory to spend some time in a real lab.
    Don’t they all spend the first year of their PhD just figuring out how to culture cells and pour their own gels? I spent EIGHT YEARS in research labs (2 MSc, 6 PhD) before I even got my PhD, and there are people getting an equivalent degree with about a third of that exposure? Gahhhh! Five years of my life wasted by not being British.

  24. Alejandro Correa says:

    I agree completly, Benoit.
    who chose industry, or patent law, to cite just two examples, and they’re making far more money than I am or ever will be!

  25. Stephen Curry says:

    I can’t see the UK PhD system becoming more like the US one any time soon, so maybe a (research) Masters degree should be mandatory before PhDs? Anyway, that’s details.
    This model, as far as I understand it, is now widely adopted in the UK, as part of an EU-wide move to harmonise graduate training in the sciences. These days it is rare for PhD students not to be registered on a 4 yr program, on the first yr of which they follow a Masters program. The main exceptions are the cash-cows known as non-EU graduate students!
    You are perhaps right to be shocked Eva but the 3 yr PhD certainly used to be the system, though in many cases the training went on for much longer; only more recently have research councils clamped down on Depts with bad finishing records.
    I went through this system (3 yr and 3 weeks, for the record) and always felt a little envious of those who had a US-style training, which is much better. But then I just looked at the postdoc years as part of my continuing education.
    Jenny – Another very interesting thread developing here. Is it because I’m a PI too, because I have some sympathy with Benoit’s views? I don’t at all deny that there is a serious problem, but some aspects of it seem to be overstated in the original post. For example who are these postdocs who assume/expect that a PI job is waiting for them 5-10 years down the line? 15 years ago I made no such assumption and was acutely aware of the precarious nature of the career path that I had embarked upon. Still seems rather precarious.
    Moreover, my impression is that our PhD programs these days are better geared to preparing students for a variety of career choices.

  26. Richard P. Grant says:

    I was fortunate—the Oxford Biochemistry Bachelors degree course has a research component in the fourth year. At the time this was rather unusual (there should be a word, like ‘unique’, that means ‘only two’). It’s telling that I excelled (he says modestly) in that fourth year, dragging my grades up to just shy of a First.
    Although I was offered an MRC studentship for my doctorate on the basis of that research component (my supervisor courted me rather than the other way round because I knew “one end of a Gilson from the other”), you don’t waste your entire first year learning how to do lab work. I reckon you should be pretty competent after three months (which is why summer students are such hit-and-miss affairs), but of course, you never, ever stop learning new tricks.

  27. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Couple of points of clarification: I nurture and train my students not because of my institutions programs or prestige, but because that’s what I do, and that’s what my colleagues do. We care about our students. Period. It’s our job, and some do it well and some don’t, but it’s our job to train the students to be good scientists.
    Also, many students (including some of mine) already know that they don’t want to go into academia. Even for a postdoc. So I think the alternate careers are indeed plentiful and some are preferred. And Jenny, you list a few, but you leave out the really plum ones in biotech or pharma, and the really really plum one in consulting firms. I know tons of former students who chose those careers and are doing very well (and are very happy). I can’t blame them: who even wants to be in this ridiculous rat race?

  28. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes Eva, it is not mandatory to have a research Masters degree, or indeed any formal pre-PhD research training, to become a PhD student in the UK. Final yr undergrad lab projects are the rule, but they are very variable between institutions, and could be as short as “30 days in the lab full-time equivalent”.
    Having said all of which, there is competition for PhD places in the UK, so students who have done a placement year (worked as a paid employee in a lab for a full yr) are at a major competitive advantage. We certainly prefer to take such people. Though it is less to do with pre- acquired technical lab skills than because (i) we have a detailed reference from someone who has actually seen them in a lab over an extended period; and (ii) we are more convinced the student knows what they are signing up for.
    Overall, my experience has been that European PhD grads (who have published several papers to get a PhD and taken 5 or so yrs to do so, as a general rule) are about where a UK trainee is with a (UK) PhD and one-two yrs as a postdoc… which bears out what you said. Of course, the quality varies in both systems (!), so the comparison is not an exact business. The only time I hired a (Dutch) PhD grad as a postdoc we paid him several points up the scale from “25 yr old fresh PhD”, effectively in recognition of his extra yrs experience.

  29. Kate Grant says:

    There was an interesting editorial in the latest issue of NN Neuroscience entitled ‘Wanted: Women in Research’ here which touches on similar issues.
    When we do have good scientists how do we keep them? With the current proposed research staff cutbacks (KCL is similarly afflicted) how do we manage to balance the books?

  30. Richard P. Grant says:

    compare

    It’s our job, and some do it well and some don’t, but it’s our job to train the students to be good scientists.

    with

    Also, many students (including some of mine) already know that they don’t want to go into academia. Even for a postdoc.

    Do you train those students to be good scientists too? If so, why, seeing as you know they’re not interested in it?

  31. Austin Elliott says:

    bq. “Do you train those students to be good scientists too? If so, why, seeing as you know they’re not interested in it?”
    Well, some will go into “science related” things, Richard. And whatever they end up doing, it will be important for them to know how to analyse problems and to do something rigorously, honestly, and accurately. And to understand the limits of what they do, and know, and draw conclusions accordingly.
    From my perspective as an ageing academic and former Postgrad Tutor, I would say it was the firm grounding in all of the above that you get from an academic training that explains why consultancy and other industries want PhD graduates and ex-scientists. One only has to look at the last decade or two of world history to see how important an ability to systematically assess evidence is.
    So: training the not-going-to-be-scientist ones is a contribution to the profession, in the sense of the profession’s “surrounding milieu”, in part. And to the wider world. And also because one cares about one’s students and wants the people one trains to do well whatever. And also because one gets paid to do it. Hardly anyone wants to do a shoddy job.
    I certainly reckon my greatest contribution to science and society is without doubt the people I have taught or trained, at both undergrad and postgrad level and right up to postdocs. I suspect most academic scientists in Universities would agree. The research is more like a hobby that one gets paid to do. Or at least it used to be. But that is another story.

  32. Jennifer Rohn says:

    To address (some of) Benoit’s points. I am not blaming individuals here; I am blaming the system. I know that on a personal level, lab heads care deeply about their charges (I have been a lab head myself, so I know what I’m saying from that end too), and at a personal level it is not about money and it is not about prestige, but finding things out and possibly curing diseases, if that’s your bent. But the money (and prestige needed to bring in money) cannot be divorced from the idealistic concept of the lab unit. If a lab head truly cared about his charges, he would not want to train too many – he would want every person with the talent and inclination to be a permanent researcher to find some sort of stable research positions at the end of his training. He would give them permanent jobs instead of training dozens of extras who have no places waiting at the end, or would support systemic changes that allowed more permanent professional jobs to open up in labs. He would understand that there is currently a massive supply and demand problem in large part because the system is wired for disposability. And yes, he would understand that – perhaps not in his own institute, which might be especially enlightened – but in many other places, clear signals are given that a PhD student is expected to become a lab head one day and any deviation from this route is a bit of a disappointment. I and my fellow graduate students at the University of Washington were certainly given these signals – it wasn’t even covert back then – but even here in my present location, the students know the score. For some reason, students are still entering this place not really knowing that the job prospects are grim – Stephen, you must have had a lot of honest people giving you advice when you started – and yes, they are starry eyed and they do dream of academic positions and it breaks my heart because no one is telling them that their chances of becoming an academic group leader currently are practically nil.

  33. Jennifer Rohn says:

    To address some other points: I stated in my original post and I repeat, non-research related science jobs are very important and people need to be trained to do them. They need a PhD, but I question that they need ten years of post-doctoral training before finally giving up on their dreams and defaulting to another option. Have you seen those graphs that show you what happens to your final pension amount the later you start having one? Most people, at least here, can’t viably start on proper employer-contributing pensions until they have a proper job. I didn’t start my first pension until I went into industry – it wasn’t a viable option as an academic postdoc.
    And why should years of postdoctoral research funding go towards training people in other professions? Why not have the other professions contribute towards this training? It may sound radical but I don’t think it’s unfair.

  34. Richard P. Grant says:

    Well, some will go into “science related” things, Richard
    But some don’t. And as Jenny says, what does Great Aunt Maude think about her charity coppers going into training someone who ends up not ever doing any (‘real’) science?
    I actually don’t buy the argument “I would say it was the firm grounding in all of the above that you get from an academic training that explains why consultancy and other industries want PhD graduates and ex-scientists.” Not completely. I think the market is so saturated with bachelor degrees (in the UK, kids are encouraged by the government to go to University to keep them off the dole) that these people are desperate to find some filtering mechanism. Any filter.

  35. Richard P. Grant says:

    Sorry, my comment crossed with Jenny’s. I think we need to realize that the beef is not necessarily with too many grad students, but the postdoc waste—at which point you might expect that these people want to go into science as a career.

  36. Jennifer Rohn says:

    My posts keep crossing too and I won’t have a chance to read all these comments until later. But I want to stress that my post is really about disposable postdocs – the students are obviously part of the equation as they are the (too plentiful) source, but the heart of my post is the idea that we could strive for a system that has highly trained permanent scientists as a core part of labs, not just as a rare aberration. I have yet to hear an argument that would convince me it would be a bad idea for every lab to have, say, three or four permanent staff scientists, and to cut down on the number of trainees beyond those needed to fulfill all the research roles of the future. The money could be found if people thought such people had true value.

  37. Richard P. Grant says:

    That does seem to make the whole thing less controversial. You’ve already weeded out those who don’t want to do actual science as a career by that stage.
    Jenny, these people do actually exist. They’re called ‘technicians’. (I know, I know, that’s not what you mean. But it can work: I was once offered a technical post but on the understanding I’d be running research projects, not what lab techs are generally considered to do.)

  38. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Richard, I invite you to find more than one or two technician posts being advertised in London in a 12-month period. Then I invite you to apply for one when you have a CV as long as your arm, and let us know how you get on.

  39. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ha ha! I never said it would be easy. And of course, the über-technician I’m talking about are even rarer.

  40. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Richard: “Do you train those students to be good scientists too? If so, why, seeing as you know they’re not interested in it?” As Austin very nicely put it, if a student wants to have a successful career at Pfizer, or at Genentech, or at an patent law or consulting firm, they need to be as good a scientist as anyone who goes into academia. These are prestigious very well-paying jobs that are different from academia but certainly no less challenging and fulfilling.
    Those who go into other things not related to science, well the same could be said of business school graduates and art school grads. I would bet that more science students do something science-related than many other educational paths.
    Jenny, “I question that they need ten years of post-doctoral training before finally giving up on their dreams and defaulting to another option”; as I’ve stated earlier, many students, who do indeed do a postdoc, have a very clear notion that they want to do something else. Indeed many others strive towards an ever-elusive academic position, and I agree that there are too many of those. If that was really the point of your post, I don’t see how less of a disillusion it would be for the postdoc to then settle for one of those permanent positions (which do exist in many labs).
    And “why should years of postdoctoral research funding go towards training people in other professions”; it’s called stimulating the economy. The funding goes to science to create jobs and to generate research that will be used to create therapies or drugs that will help people, but in the meantime these drugs will be made by companies who will employ people and sell them to hospitals and patients, and so on and so on. There is much more than just the academic researcher figuring out how protein X is phosphorylated here, and it’s all interrelated. Even in that case, all the lab stuff you use was developed and is sold by scientists, and that’s a huge industry. So the money is not wasted. Even if you consider other other professions, like patent law, we need those people to be good scientists to develop and protect intellectual property that us scientists develop, so I have absolutely no problem in those funds contributing to our overall scientific ecosystem.

  41. Jennifer Rohn says:

    If that was really the point of your post, I don’t see how less of a disillusion it would be for the postdoc to then settle for one of those permanent positions (which do exist in many labs).
    I am not saying that getting a permanent research job is a disillusion; I am saying exactly the opposite. Many postdocs I’ve spoken to would love to have a permanent job that does not involve running a lab – sorry that I have not made myself clearer. I am saying that here are not enough permanent research posts in labs (call them technicians, call them scientific officers, call them ‘staff’ – whatever) and I am making a case that we need more. We will never get more until labs stop using temporary staff/trainees to do the bulk of the work, a situation which benefits the lab far more than it benefits the majority of the trainees in the current climate – at least from the perspective of someone currently under the glass ceiling.
    At your institute, perhaps you have labs that have 3 or 4 technicians each. Here in the UK, it’s hard to find a lab that has even one – I think there are only 3 in our entire institute. If you look at the job ads, they are very rare, and though age discrimination is now illegal in the UK, they are basically earmarked for graduates or new PhDs. I know two people, of hundreds of science colleagues, who have permanent tech jobs at the more experienced level. I don’t know how it is in other countries but I’d be surprised it there was anywhere where talented permanent research staff are doing the bulk of the work in academic labs. My point is, it would be a wonderful system if we could offer permanent positions to most mature, talented postdocs who can’t get PI jobs but would be perfectly suited to full-time research. Again, no one has yet convinced me this outcome is undesirable.
    Happy to hear the arguments, though – I’ve only been mulling this over recently. What are the drawbacks? There are undoubtedly some. Would it stifle competition? I don’t know – plenty of other creative professions take on permanent staff straightaway and seem to flourish.

  42. Richard P. Grant says:

    bq. The funding goes to science to create jobs and to generate research that will be used to create therapies or drugs that will help people, but in the meantime these drugs will be made by companies who will employ people and sell them to hospitals and patients, and so on and so on.
    I’m sorry, but that’s just so much wishful thinking. You can’t use research to make money. Just ask the Australian government. You don’t fund science to stimulate the economy—it’s the other way round.

  43. Richard Wintle says:

    Something that I don’t think has been mentioned yet, and admittedly impacts only a small minority – many industry science jobs are impossible to get without at least one academic postdoc. So there is a (probably small) minority of people who do the postdoc specifically to enable that kind of career.
    I’m not sure I can think of other careers that would be made easier to attain after doing a postdoc, though.
    In your original post, Jenny, the point that jumped out at me most is the one about “undergraduate cash cows”. Don’t forget the graduate schools. If you limit each supervisor to a grad student or two, that results in a rather dramatically decreased amount of tuition fees (depending on the specific institution’s funding model). Also recall that universities may get government subsidies or other forms of funding based on how many students they’re training. Your revolution could change all this of course.

  44. Benoit Bruneau says:

    Richard, in Canada and the US, politicians certainly justify increased funding for research as a direct means to boost technology development and thus stimulate the economy. In some case it may be wishful thinking, but in many it is a definite reality (and that’s what the industry portion, patent lawyers, and consulting people are there for). In fact, many recent initiatives have been directly geared towards bringing industry/startups in direct contact (i.e. in the same building) with academia, as well as helping develop commercial spinoffs from academic research. This is the new reality of research. I don’t know about Australia, but in North America (and Europe I think) that’s certainly how it works.

  45. Ralph Lasala says:

    The funding scheme in science is partially at fault. When grant proposals are conceived by lab heads (presumably very collaborative in nature), not many will pause and ask about permanence and tenure. Because of the project-based features of the grant giving system, there is almost certainly no place for permanence for the staff who will later on be hired. Contractual is the staple descriptor. As such, temporary staffing will likely remain as a norm, unless … unless (by some sort of law or policy or regulation) there is a requirement to offer at least one permanent position for any single grant proposal (perhaps, for large amounts of grants, exemption for the tiny ones) to be submitted to any funding body … or maybe that’s a skewed thought.

  46. Austin Elliott says:

    Richard W wrote:

    “In your original post, Jenny, the point that jumped out at me most is the one about “undergraduate cash cows”. Don’t forget the graduate schools.”

    Yes, see this earlier comment, Richard

  47. Henry Gee says:

    Gosh, Jenny. Your post and its retinue of comments have sparked so many thoughts in my mind that it would be hard for me to say anything without it coming out like what Eeyore described as ‘a confused noise’. However, just a few thoughts.
    As others have said, undergraduate degrees are now more commonplace than they were, to the extent that they are becoming devalued. Employers of all kinds are, I think, increasingly appreciative of PhDs, which they see as demonstrations of focus, intelligence and self-motivation, quite irrespective of the subject. Ater all, someone who has endured discomfort, penury and 36-hour days to find out about the release of calcium from intracellular stores is clearly deranged someone of extraordinary fortitude fiftitude.
    That being said, research funders are also aware that very few graduate students get to become scientists, and act to gently disabuse them of the notion that their career lies inevitably in academia. If there are any left who remain so starry-eyed that they think that a career in research is inevitable, then they’re the ones who’ll probably deserve it achieve their goals. Many years ago, when the world was young, and I was a graduate student, my funding agency (the Guild of Advanced Camel-Herders and Allied Trades Mutual Provident Association) sent me and my fellows off to a residential course to learn about careers outside academia, such as advertising, marketing and – gasp – journalism.
    By the time I went on that course I had already realized that my career, whatever it was, wasn’t to be in research. Back then, careers in vertebrate paleontology could be counted on the fingers of one thumb (now it’s marginally better – it’s the fingers of both thumbs), and even were I to get some kind of research fellowship I realized I’d be subsisting on carpet fluff and water indefinitely, thus missing out on those things that normal people took for granted such as mortgages, pension provision, family life and so on. So I moved sideways into Nature, and I suspect that most people, excepting those whose papers I’ve rejected, might feel that I have actually made a more significant contribution to science than were I to have stayed as a junior assistant bean bone counter.

  48. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Interesting point, Henry, but I’ve seen no evidence of funding bodies doing that in my field (happy to be corrected by others, though). Possibly it varies by discipline. In fact when getting advice on my interview for my current fellowship with the Very Big Funder That’s So Big That Its Endowment Was Not Even Dented By The Recession, I was specifically told by several professors to downplay my extracurricular interests lest I give the impression that I wasn’t dead set on becoming an academic group leader.
    In the UK, I agree there are too many undergrads full stop. And this is, of course, causing an unpleasant unemployment glut in many professions.
    Ralph, you’re spot on for the UK. Grants don’t tend to have tech/staff posts, and if they did they’d expire with the grant. I think these posts would have to be offered by the institute or university. And I don’t want to see just one per lab, as I’ve mentioned. Let’s think big here.
    Austin, I completely agree that a scientific training sets up up well for many professions. But I’m not convinced a long post-doc stint is necessary for any non-research job – though it many certainly hone critical skills.
    Richard W., for high-ranking journals, post-doctoral training indeed gives you a competitive edge when competing for editorial positions – think again of that glut of desperate disposables trying to find a job. Anything that sets you apart helps.

  49. Ralph Lasala says:

    I am with you on this revolution, Jenny.
    I am also eager to learn more about that Guild of Advanced Camel-herders, Herny. Do they offer apprenticeships at this point in time?

  50. Richard P. Grant says:

    In fact, many recent initiatives have been directly geared towards bringing industry/startups in direct contact (i.e. in the same building) with academia, as well as helping develop commercial spinoffs from academic research. This is the new reality of research.
    sure, but how many of them are successful? I lived through the biotech boom and bust in the UK. Not pretty.
    Anyway, all this talk. Who’s up for burning cars and fighting the police?
    Sorry, we’re in England now. Best write a polite letter to my MP instead.

  51. Nicolau Werneck says:

    You are saying that PhDs are being prepared for determined positions that will not exist in the future, but it would be nice to see that in numbers, and take a better look at what might be happening. For example: you talk about current lab heads training their replacements, but how many new labs are being opened every year, and all around the world?… What is the population growth of the science community, accurately?
    It would be nice to look at a PhD census and really find out how many people are ending up with jobs that are in no ways related to owning the title. I know that this is not unusual, but I would be surprised if the number is too high… And again, I hear a lot of stories (maybe it’s just in Brazil) about how PhDs tend to be rejected by companies because they tend to move away to other stuff. That might be a proof that while it’s difficult for them to find a “PhD-job”, the jobs do exist.
    And finally, maybe being a graduate student is really becoming more and more just a profession that is “reserved” for people with a certain (young) age, while getting a “PhD-job” afterwards is become less and less the destiny of graduate students… Think of the army, for example. Young adults are recruited to do army job when they are young, and then then go on with their lives. Not all of them will become commissioned officers. Maybe graduate school is becoming less like officer school, and more like the army itself.
    Now if that is the case, I think we should be fighting to end with the problems you mentioned: the delay in starting to save for your retirement, for example. Some times society treats graduate students as beneficiaries, because they are bound to a future of extremely good jobs. But as the certainty of this destiny fades we should be transforming the status of graduates students into something more similar to employees, or soldiers in the previous comparison.
    I wrote recently in my blog about how the Brazilian government is mishandling the graduate students stipends, taking too long to compensate their values for inflation. That was one good example of the kind of thing that would be OK if we really were entering good careers, the “apprentice” idea, but is not OK if we are becoming more and more like anybody else, and should start to be treated more like employees.

  52. Åsa Karlström says:

    Jenny> What speaks to me more than anything else when I think about all the post docs who will not end up as lab heads/PI is that the pension plans are really put on hold. It’s something that’s brought up every so often where I come from since the acutal salary after the degree might not (especially not nowadays) match up with “education and stipends for 10 years” compared to “working since early 20ies”.
    I know that my plan for my pension is in the works right now… and somehow I have decided not to worry about it just yet – after all, I’m probably 35 years away from even thinking about retiring. But I would say this is a problem. Especially for the “future growth of scientists”.

  53. Benoit Bruneau says:

    The pension plan is a real issue that does distinguish postdocs from “real” jobs, and is very problematic. Here at the Gladstone Institutes we have put into place a pension plan for postdocs, but this is extremely rare. Hopefully others will take notice.
    Richard, I would join you in the car burning, but only if it’s to protest British libel laws. And I have no idea how many of these initiatives are successful, but they do exist.

  54. Jamieson Christie says:

    An excellent post and comments – these issues have been on my mind recently, as I start my fifth postdoc year.
    A couple of years ago, I read with admiration this article about a scientist, John Bothwell, who simply refused to do more than two postdocs. Instead, after six years as a postdoc, he applied only for independent research fellowships. (This seems to have worked out, he is now a lecturer at Queen’s Belfast.) This does make good sense: what do you expect to happen in your seventh year as a postdoc that didn’t happen in the previous six?
    There is certainly room for a group of scientific staff who are not PIs. I don’t think it would totally cure the problem but it would help. It is daft to cast aside committed postdocs who want to stay in academia – is there another profession which trains people for 7-8 years at univerity, then 6 or more years as an apprentice/postdoc/whatever, and then can’t find room for them somewhere?

  55. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hurrah! I’m glad at least a few people are with me. Thanks, Ralph – what we need now is a battle plan.
    Nicolau, you’ve brought up some excellent points. I should have issued the disclaimer at the beginning that this is a London blog and I am speaking about the situation I am immersed in – in Britain. Although I’m a Yank, it’s been 13 years since I did any lab work in America, so I rely on intelligence from Benoit and others for that arena. I don’t have any firm numbers, but I was recently drafted in as a conference rapporteur for a major conference on this very issue and the conclusion was that the glut is a reality in many countries and disciplines. Numbers would be great, but I am fairly confident that my generalizations about job prospects here are accurate with respect to biomedical research in the UK. But comments from Austin, Stephen and others are valuable for setting us on course on finer details I may have got wrong.
    Truth is, the point was to stimulate debate. I hope I’m achieving this. Because the problem it so glaringly obvious that we don’t even notice it anymore. Imagine showing up for a job interview in any other profession – publishing, say, – and being told, sorry, we only offer contracts for four years – That’s just the way it is.
    You’d be flummoxed if that were the case. So why, once we’re fully trained, do we just let it roll over us in science?
    Who’s got the kerosene?

  56. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks Jamieson – our comments crossed. I don’t know if there are any other professions that cast aside people after 14+ years education/training. Does anyone know if this happens in medicine or law?

  57. Richard P. Grant says:

    When you put it like that, Jenny, it truly is outrageous.

  58. Richard Wintle says:

    Richard W., for high-ranking journals, post-doctoral training indeed gives you a competitive edge when competing for editorial positions – think again of that glut of desperate disposables trying to find a job. Anything that sets you apart helps.
    Ah, I didn’t know that, thanks.
    @Austin – sorry, I confess I didn’t read every comment in detail so I apologize for repeating paraphrasing what you’d already said.
    Disclaimer – I did one postdoc and then jumped to a -start-up- “development stage” biotech company. 100% certain I wouldn’t have gotten the job without the postdoc experience.

  59. Nathaniel Marshall says:

    Law is a pyramid scheme in very much the same way as science is. They also massively over train and then work them to death. It’s probably worse than science but they do pay you better whilst they exploit you. There are also plenty of people running around with law degrees who have never practiced law at all.
    If we go down the medicine route and have very high walls at entry to training (i.e. apprentice model) then none of us would have gotten a crack at science. Science would be full of the people who get into medicine: exam whizzes who may or may not have critical thinking faculties.
    Jenny. Where can we get one of these 4 year contracts? Imagine the relief! Four whole years is the most I could imagine (it’s also only available through the most competitive grant scheme in Australia).

  60. Jennifer Rohn says:

    The building opens in 2012, apparently. They’ll be hiring if you fancy an immigration!
    There are some itinerant positions in other professions, I’ve just remembered. Apparently there are so many pregnancies at our favorite journal called N and its sister journals that one could make a full-time career of being a locum editor, just jumping from one journal to the next as editors go off- and online for maternity leave. I know someone who stretched that out a very long way indeed, but in the end the insecurity was deadly. You’re right that 3-4 year is better than 1-2 when it comes to short-term contracts.

  61. Henry Gee says:

    post-doctoral training indeed gives you a competitive edge when competing for editorial positions
    That certainly seems to be the case at everyone’s favourite journal beginning with N, but it wasn’t when I joined it. Back then, the Editor, the Chief Biology Editor and her deputy didn’t have PhDs, let alone postdoc experience. I didn’t have a PhD when I joined, and consequently I’ve never done a postdoc. But increased competition has raised the bar.

  62. Grant Jacobs says:

    Hear, hear.
    I’ll try reply with something substantiative after I’ve read all those comments. One quick point in the meantime: I think that some (not all) of the very top research-only institutes are closer to what you seek, partly out of self-interest (the scientists are more hands-on researchers than in universities and I suspect prefer not to have too many students to “babysit”, have more focus on the research itself, not institutional targets, and hence naturally seek a balance favouring fewer students and more post-docs), and and partly space (they simply haven’t the room in the building!). I’m biased being a LMB graduate, though ;-)

  63. Jennifer Rohn says:

    One of the two highly experienced postdoc-turned-techs that I know in the UK is in a research institute like that. But there are not too many of those positions in the building and when a rare one becomes available, it’s said they’re almost always filled by internal candidates.
    The other one I know is in academia, and he’s worried that he might not get his contract renewed this year.

  64. Grant Jacobs says:

    You’re right that 3-4 year is better than 1-2 when it comes to short-term contracts.
    Try being an independent researcher working as a consultant (I’m a computational biologist who contracts out). Even shorter contracts happen in that situation!

  65. Austin Elliott says:

    Medicine has some analogies, but also a difference.
    It is certainly true that NOT every doctor in the UK now ends up as a consultant (attending for US readers) or GP (family doctor), which are the “fully trained” job-for-life jobs. There are also a large and increasing group (sometimes black-jokingly called “The Lost Tribe”) who for a variety of reasons didn’t score a slot in the final training stages (final selection for consultant – especially – or GP training). This sift-out used to happen after between 8-15 yrs in training (5 yr degree + 3-10 yrs in junior doctor jobs, possibly even including a yr or two in research), but now occurs earlier, which has been controversial.
    The difference is that these people in medicine end up in what used to be called “Staff Grade” “Trust Grade” “Service Grade” jobs, now referred to by the title “Speciality Doctor” – part trained but probably going no further, if you like. In the UK historically these kind of jobs in medicine were done by women with families or by doctors from outside the EU, largely from the Indian subcontinent. That possibly sounds non-PC, but it was the reality, and still is to an extent (see here for more info). Nowadays, as the UK medical schools crank out far more people (numbers doubled since the mid 90s), increasing nos. of pukka UK medical grads are looking at this “Specialty Doc” scenario, hence a lot of the recent unrest regarding UK medical training.
    Of course, the difference is that in medicine they need these people to keep the system afloat, so there are jobs for them, albeit lower status jobs (“posts for service not training”) with (most people would say) poorer working conditions. But I suppose you could identify these jobs as a partial equivalent of what Jenny identifies science as lacking. At least the doctors don’t have to re-train to do something different.
    PS If you’re wondering why I know so much about this, ‘Er Indoors is a part-time “Speciality doctor” and a card-carrying member of the Lost Tribe.

  66. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Ah, the freelance lifestyle. I’m not sure I could handle that insecurity, but I have a graphic designer friend who does very well, and a (what’s a collective noun for science writers?)…a…pageful of science writers who seem to be doing ok. If it all goes pearshaped, I might be able to pull it off with science writing – we’ll see.

  67. Heather Etchevers says:

    I see that Matt has anticipated the link I wanted to make to the article I had independently just read in Scientific American but since no one has picked up on it in this thread, I’ll put it in again. The subject is restricted to the American system but I’d argue that it is a world-wide problem, at least in first-world countries that can afford the luxury of underwriting basic science and training therein.
    I’m going to cite this conversation in that comment thread, too. There is certainly some head-putting-together that might be done, here.
    What you said about a responsible PI not training too many trainees out of a sense of responsibility for their welfare resonates with me. When I got my meager startup funds and began a group, I had one tech on short-term contract at any given point (none right now, alas), one PhD student, occasionally a master’s student, and a postdoc. Then I’ve heard or imagined reproaches for being too modest and for not getting enough done, or at least not fast enough.
    Who said this was a race necessarily? There are enough things to learn that if I get scooped on an idea, there are plenty of others to explore, and one needs to be flexible. I just don’t want a trainee of mine to pay for it. Hey, that means I had better get those revisions back in… sigh.

  68. Grant Jacobs says:

    I’m not sure I could handle that insecurity
    I’m not sure I can always either! In addition to coping with insecurity, you also need a very self-driven sense of discipline (not a problem for most scientists). Speaking of which, I have to get back to work…
    Before I go—I will be back later today—I will plug a couple of posts, just to add to the confusion…
    Some (most?) students should consider spending a year “out” working before taking on a Ph.D. or an undergrad. degree. While I re-worked this into a undergrad. setting, it’s probably true for those about to start Ph.D.s to some extent too. (see Advice for students heading to university) This doesn’t really address the issue of structure of typical research groups, but it might reduce the sense of misplaced training, etc.
    On the “false promise” of an academic career: Taken for Granted: Shocked, Shocked! to Find Disappointment on Campus

  69. Austin Elliott says:

    Great article link, Grant. I think I must be a pluralist! Or, possibly, a pluralist working in a historically pluralist institution which has definite elitist aspirations…

  70. Jamieson Christie says:

    Does anyone know if this happens in medicine or law?
    As I understand it, the percentage of qualified barristers who actually end up practising is rather low. I think the figure is about 20%, so comparable to the number of postdocs who get permanent jobs. However, it is faster to qualify. In principle, one could be fully qualified and practising five years after leaving school, so a career change can happen earlier.

  71. Brian Derby says:

    I am entering this discussion very late but I have had to spend most of the evening writing tedious module specifications for a course revision I have foolishly ended up pushing along. It has also taken me over an hour to read and digest the thread. My own research area is still one where massive time intensive training in lab skills and methods is not required. However, tgraining in techniques (e.g. electron microscopy) is still necessary. I think a four year windoew is about right for a PhD but I feel that many of my students have usually accessed the required data after about 3 years.
    It is certainly true that we in general train many more PhDs than there are posts but then when I started my PhD it was to do reseqarch and not a first step in a well planned career. A number (most?) of my students do their PhD because they want to do research or at least one research project. A few see it as training for a job in industry and very few see it as a stepping stone to academia. I believe the (self-)training that you get in studying for a PhD is very valuable and can be used (as has been said in earlier comments) for a range of careers. This is of course true for most university undergtrad and postgrad courses – how many trained historiand do we need? I suspect the problem in the biological sciences is the intense level of training for many techniques and the labour and time intensive experiments required. I suspect that automnation will speed things up in this area in the near future.
    I have been fortunate in a number of my PhDs attaining PI status (or full academic jobs). A quick count is 13 out of 31 PhD students have achieved that exulted status with 6 in the UK. It is noticable though, that the time taken to get a position since writing-up has been steadily lengthening. I guess that is a pretty high strike rate (after all theories of dynamic equilibrium require me to train one replacement) but I am not sure what it is that gets someone into a permanent job other than persistance.

  72. Nicolau Werneck says:

    Regarding medicine and law graduates: I really don’t know about medicine, but law school has been for many years the course of choice for people actually looking for careers that do not actually involve becoming a lawyer. Many politicians used to get law degrees, for example. So it’s a spread-spectrum course.
    Engineering is probably the profession we should be looking at. And one interesting phenomenon is that many engineers are moving away from the actual engineering activities as they progress on their careers. Some move to administration, some open up business that don’t have anything to do with their graduation… e.g. I know many engineers who eventually picked up some kind of volunteer demission money and opened up restaurants. There are also many success stories of engineers who turn to work with economy and finances. So actual engineering turns out to be just something they did in the start of their careers.
    But again: even if the extinction of the for-life and for-sure careers is a widespread phenomenon, it is specially damaging for graduate students who “don’t have a real job”. Maybe we should all be moving to a part-time researcher/ part-time employee strategy? How many students in your countries are supported by a job, by the goverments and by their families?

  73. Grant Jacobs says:

    I’m back…
    Quick comments on the other comments:
    Requirements to enter a science Ph.D. program in NZ are either a M.Sc. or a B.Sc.(Hons). You’re still selected on merit, e.g. it helps to have B.Sc.(Hons, 1st Class) if you’re using that as your entry point. B.Sc.(Hons) is effectively a B.Sc. with the final year as sort-of compressing a two-year M.Sc. into a single year.
    Regards the “super technician” position/concept, how does Scientific Officer compare with this? Or is Scientific Officer something more like “staff scientist assigned to a group, but not a PI”? (I’m thinking of the MRC, btw.)
    I have some grumps about how the general trend towards larger groups in some senses represses those that might best work as small groups or even sole researchers. It’d be a bit hard to elaborate in a comment without coming across the wrong way, so maybe I should try a blog post if I can find a way of it not seeming like a whinge to the sake of whinging! (I hate it when readers think I’m just whinging, rather than trying to explore a point…)

  74. Melanie Lebel says:

    One thing that upsets me as a post-doctoral fellow is to witness the significant gap between the work conditions we have on paper and what is actually going on. The Medical Research Council (MRC) offers nice conditions to its “Career Development Fellows” (CDFs), including an optional but rather nice pension plan. However, most post-docs opt out of the pension plan because it is not easily transferable out of the country (but it is still possible) and we are mostly foreigners.
    However, a very significant proportions of the post-docs at our institute are not CDFs and are therefore not elligible for pension or for proper salary. Some post-docs arrive here with fellowship from their country of origin that guarantee them a salary that is a little (and sometimes more than a little) below what they would get if they were a “regular” CDF. It is now policy in our institute to NOT top up the salary of any of these fellowship holders to their CDF equivalent. No pension either. These people, who are usually among the best post-docs, are not considered as MRC employees and are mere “visiting workers” who should feel lucky to be allowed to be around. In some cases it turns out better for them (Tax-free EMBO fellowships aren’t bad I’ve heard). Living standards being higher in London than in many places, it is far from being the norm though. In retrospect, I am VERY VERY glad I didn’t get any Canadian fellowship before moving here (Got a more prestigious UK one instead)!
    I know I am a bit beside the subject, but the point I wish to make is that one has to be careful about ambitious claims regarding work conditions. I would also be careful about any “permanent” job offer. But don’t get me started on this one…!
    [By the way, I am pretty sure the MRC has stopped hiring Scientific Officers. The few ones I know about have been hired a while ago and usually feel like they need to explain their title when they state it.]

  75. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Morning, all, and thanks for the continuing thoughtful commentary. Austin, I didn’t mean to ignore your comment on the Lost Tribe – our posts crossed and then I went to bed. It’s really interesting what you say. Sounds as if in medicine, you either make consultant or GP, or you become the equivalent of a “technician”. I agree it’s parallel and in a sense this is indeed what science is lacking. No one would argue with technicians earning less than PIs – but it’s primarily job security I’d be after.
    Heather, I didn’t mean to ignore the Scientific American article – I’ve just been very time-poor in the last 24 hours so have had to postpone following the pile of interesting leads that people have cited here. I will definitely catch up this weekend. But you’re the first PI (I think) who’s agreed with me on the disposability/respect issue, and I really admire you for putting your money where your mouth is, even if it might affect your productivity. Not sure it’s worth the sacrifice, though – this needs to be a systemic change, and one person acting will be lost in the floods. Still, I admire you.
    Nicolau, not making after only 5 years is acceptable, I think we would all agree. This is the equivalent of getting a PhD and then knowing instantly yes, you should carry on, or no, you should pack it in. Unfortunately it’s not cut and dry and our system allows people to wallow on for up to a decade because they get the message that there’s nothing for them. What if the viva were a yes or no ticket to postdoctoral training? Now that’s truly radical.
    Brian, congrats on placing so many of your charges. That’s really excellent. Out of interest, were the ones who didn’t get places in Britain actually British people who would have preferred to stay in their home country, or were they foreigners going home/elsewhere?

  76. Brian Derby says:

    Jennifer – All of my ex-PhDs who are overseas returned to their home countries. One went back to industry but then got an academic job a couple of years later. Of the 6 in UK positions, 3 are Brits and the others are non-Brits who remained in the UK after PhDs and Post Docs. I could lay claim to another Brit who did a very brief post-doc with me before going to a US government lab and then getting a position in the UK.
    In Materials Science there has not been a recent brain drain to the US, that was more prevelant in the early 1980s. However, the science is different from biology and it is possible to do useful work on relatively little resource if you are in a department with central facilities. Thus we do not see the vast teams that exist in some bio-labs with many people working on a common problem contributing to a grand project pushed forward by the PI. Or at least that is not how I work. Perhaps I have been lucky but often you can see low hanging fruit and pursue them applying new ideas. A lot of my PhDs who moved on successfully (but not all) had these sorts of projects and were perhaps able to get respectable publications at an early stage. Note that in my field respectable journals were not high impact factor but those that were known by our peers to be so.
    This still doesn’t help the problem of the pyramidal structure of science and that of the post-doc in their 30s. EO jobs are few. In my department we have 6 or so and about 60 Faculty. Most of these have achieved their status through becoming indispensible and the post was generated for them through change in job description. I can only think of one that was advertised externally. Those sort of jobs leave little room for your own research as they generally involve facility management, maintenance and training. Indeed, I know of one who was let go because he spent too much time on his own interests and it was felt that the facility was suffering as a consequence.
    In the UK all post-docs in Universities are part of the USS pension scheme. This is not generous but it is still a final salary scheme and can make a small contribution to well being. One of my colleagues from University days (he was a PhD student when I was an undergrad) has just turned 55 and is now taking the pension he accumulated in about 6-8 years of post docing before moving into the riskier IT and high tech business. He doesn’t get much but at least it is a contribution (he would have got more if he had hung on to 65 before drawing it but his actuarial calculation made him take it early.

  77. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Brian – that reminds me to reinforce that these “tech/SO” sorts of jobs do generally involve lab management duties and often involve a loss of independence in research. In my revolution, the permanent staff would be more research-based and would have at least some freedom in realizing the lab’s overarching goals – much as a postdoc does.

  78. Heather Etchevers says:

    Ah well, if I was able to pull down more money, I’d be able to shoot off my mouth more. And recruit more postdocs and see about getting them well-positioned to get jobs. We’re still trying to get the one who’s been with me the last three years into a good place by the end of the year. Having been through the precarity slide myself, I wouldn’t knowingly allow it to happen to someone else. But this means that although on paper I’m a PI, I’m actually perceived as a kind of a staff scientist with a little staff of my own, without the critical mass to sustain a fully independent research team over the long term. Without the need to, either, at this moment in my life.
    There is some analogy to population control. We know that globally, we need to not have so many children. But when people in our respective countries have one or two at the most, if that, then there are more intermediate-local problems. I suspect that the influx/efflux of trainees in science might be like that. Then again, when I was job-searching, I was told that nearly 50% of the current workforce was going to be retiring in the next ten years, which would open up new positions. However, with the four-year turnover of research structures, what actually happens is that new alliances and structures appear all the time, and when a senior researcher retires and does not create a structure to replace the one they left, their job sort of evaporates, too. So postdocs have just as hard a time, if not harder, applying for permanent tenure-style cream-of-the-crop academic research positions in France today as they did quite exactly a decade ago, plus there are presumably even more candidates, though there is of course drop-out at the upper end of the age bracket from sheer discouragement.

  79. GrrlScientist says:

    you talk about alternative paying positions as if every scientist gets one, at least eventually. well, some of us do NOT get an alternative paying position. we end up impoverished, unemployable and (yes) really angry about that.
    for quite some time, i thought i was a horrible person — the only PhD scientist with a postdoc in the world who could not find a paying position that didn’t make me want to commit suicide every morning, could not find a position that actually paid a living wage, and who was financially incapable of returning to school to pursue an “alternative career path”. yes, i thought i was this mutant (and was intensely ashamed about this) until, in a moment of desperation, i complained about it on my blog. i was swamped with emails from others in the same position. six years later, i am still in contact with several of these people and they are STILL struggling to deal with their broken dreams (and broken lives) while staying housed and fed while trying to pursue an occupation that provides some small amount of meaning to their lives.
    academic science as a career path is the most dysfunctional career i’ve ever seen. scientists survive by routinely eating their own offspring.

  80. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Melanie, our posts crossed this morning.
    Thanks for your thoughts on this. I have to agree with you about the lofty claims and the reality. It’s also important that the overall thrust of my argument should not be necessarily undermined by the odd anecdotal report of “no problems here” that we’ve seen in this thread (e.g. Benoit’s place is obviously highly enlightened). It’s going to be highly local, as Heather points out. Again, it would be great to have a study on this, to have numbers – because of course my experiences are anecdotal too. (p.s. all the MRC SOs in our building seem to be old-timers too…interesting factoid.)
    Grrl, thank you for speaking out for the disenfranchised pool. I also know people in that position and it’s tragic – the worst possible outcome of a disposable-worker culture. I have been extremely lucky that those time in my life when I couldn’t get a science job, someone gave me a chance in an alternative career. This was completely down to luck, right place/right time. Often the problem is getting started – once you have even a few months’ experience in a new career, you are suddenly a viable prospect. That’s why, as much as it breaks my heart to see ex-postdocs doing internships (e.g. at Nature) in London for a token wage that no one could possibly live on without another income, at the very least it can open doors. Can – but I’m sure there are no guarantees there either.

  81. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Jenny, interesting that we’ve had vaguely similar career trajectories! I came over here from France, stayed for further studies/PhD, then got stuck in London not finding any job, until I was hired by SGM to be staff editor on JGV. A couple years (and one baby!) later I was offered a subeditor position at the big N. In both cases I was offered a full-time job, with benefits and pension.
    As you mentioned above, there can be quite the rotation of staff in publishing, either due to baby-making or other reasons, but permanent contracts are still offered as default. I have experienced this both at SGM and NPG, i.e. small and quite large publishers. Why is that not possible for research institutes/universities? I think it would be a great advantage to have well qualified people that know the lab and its equipment inside out, it allows for faster settling in of newcomers, faster production of data, and people in this position can even cover/help with classes or tutorials!

  82. Frank Norman says:

    I wonder whether the UK postdocs group Vitae have any useful statistics or comments?

  83. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Didn’t even know it existed, Frank! Thanks for that link.
    Yes, Nicolas, you touch on an important point, which is about continuity in labs. Knowledge is passed down from itinerant to itinerant and if something goes wrong, you can lose vital lab lore. (No offense to PIs, but often their knowledge of the latest lore/techniques is sketchy at best as they spend most of their time in the office). Having permanent research staff is an excellent way to keep the lore fresh and to transmit it to newbies as quickly as possible.

  84. Nicolas Fanget says:

    Jenny, I also think having “old timers” in the lab reduces equipment cost, because they really look after “their” machines! I wasn’t an old timer myself, but I did keep an hawk’s eye on the cycler when the undergrads came in the lab for projects, and I think I might have hidden a microscope somewhere… just in case… I shudder to think what happens to those confocal microscopes when new students come in!

  85. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Only enhances the average old-timer SO’s reputation as a cranky old git, though. “Kids these days.”

  86. Avril Morrison says:

    Jeff Schmidt has written a book about this very subject called Disciplined Minds It made me feel better about leaving bench work, it’s hard to see the bigger picture when you are fighting for your next contract and still trying to get results on your current one.

  87. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. Woo, morphic resonance. Scientific American are thinking along similar lines.
    and I was writing a post last wee about the same thing, but got caught up in other things, and hadn’t finished it. I guess I should now: I had a couple of different solutions to Jenny.

  88. Eva Amsen says:

    “I was writing a post last wee”
    Some people just read on the toilet…

  89. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for the link, Avril, and I’m glad you landed on your feet.
    Would love to hear them. In the meantime, this is a pretty harsh line from the SA article, but one that resonates a little bit with me:
    “Other professors, educated decades ago, “finished their doctorates, in a very tight labor market where they could get a tenure track position or have several offered them right off the bat,” Teitelbaum continues. “So they have only positive views of their experience. And they might think that people today are just complainers or whiners and [so] just get on with it. If you’re good enough you’ll do fine. That would be a fairly typical position.”
    Teitelbaum is from the Sloan and has been one of the biggest activists in the STEM PhD glut thing, BTW.

  90. Austin Elliott says:

    I’m just feeling guilty for blocking up a tenured job…
    I think there are two slightly separate, though connected, issues in play.
    One is whether it is reasonable that past about 35-40 you are “outta here”, lab science-wise, if you do not make it to PI. The wastage of skills is obvious.
    The second is the dogfight for PI positions, and the ratio of those to people wanting them.
    Part of the reason for the second point being so life-or-death is the first point; with some exceptions (e.g. the NIH intramural set-up in the US) it is PI or bust.
    And it is quite clear to me that the competition to get on the tenure track is much tougher now then when I started. As I have said before, I freely admit I would never have made it to the Faculty in the present competition. And it takes longer that it used to, which inevitably inches you nearer and nearer to the “40 or bust” point, with attendant mounting sense of jeopardy.
    However: also re. the current set-up, I would say it is still true, IMHO, that the best people do, mostly, still “make it”, if they are determined enough (and that is very determined these days), astute (get into the right kind of research area) and lucky.
    Unfortunately, increasingly all of these need to be true. That is, you need to be lucky as well as being good, astute and determined.

  91. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Oh dear, I’m over 40. What am I doing here?
    Austin, although that phenotype is alive and well in various quarters at the quote implies, you’re not one of those PIs who think it’s all easy for those who come after – which I for one appreciate.

  92. Austin Elliott says:

    How about we say that career spells out of the lab stop the clock…?!
    Being charitable to the ageing Professoriate Teitelbaum describes, I suspect there is an element in this thinking of:

    “We know it is more postdoc years that of old to do, and more hurdles to jump, but the best people will still reach the Faculty – it’ll just take them longer”.

    Which is perhaps less blind-eyed than the bare “You’ll be fine, I was”.
    My personal view is influenced by the people I have known who were/are at least as good scientists as me (even on my best days) but who couldn’t get to the Faculty, or despaired of the slog and opted out in their 30s. My own three best postdoc sidekicks / drinking partners ended up in Pharma-then-biotech, Pharma-then-radiation protection, and consumer products semi-Pharma, all after a bunch of years of postdoccing/fellowships. Though my two grad students did both make it to the Faculty, albeit one in a teaching-only job.

  93. Richard Wintle says:

    I’m outta here too, Jenny, by the same criterion. But I was only about 33 when I made the “forget the PI route” decision.

  94. Jennifer Rohn says:

    How about we say that career spells out of the lab stop the clock…?!
    We could, but it doesn’t help in my case. ;)
    The best people will still reach the Faculty – if they have luck. That’s not the same thing as the best people will make it, as you so nicely pointed out. Being excellent and determined is no longer enough, and it’s frustrating when people don’t accept this. (And possibly a bit insulting to those excellent, determined people whose luck did not allow them to succeed – perhaps did not make possible that crucial Nature paper because their biology just turned out to be less earth-shattering than the other candidate.)

  95. Michael Nestor says:

    my own contribution to this malestrom of comments is:
    become your own independent investigator and bypass the broken system altogether. that is my plan. “use” the PI’s space and time to get a great project and techniques. then, go out there and start what is essentially a small buisiness except funding comes from grants and private contributions.
    i will let you know how it goes when i get out of here…but i decided last year that the whole system i broken because of exactly what you lay out. in fact i posted something about the beginning of this process last year.

  96. Grant Jacobs says:

    I tried to suggest “re-entry” fellowships here in NZ, but no-one takes much notice of what I say :-/
    I was thinking not just of those coming back from family duty, but also those trying to get an academic post after a period in industry or working independently. The current grant assessments can create a bit of a lock-out situation for some.
    One grant application here does “stop the clock” in a sense but not in the way that I think you’re meaning. They ask that when you put down the number of years of experience, you discount years not doing research. It prevents applicants including “gap years” in the count, but on the positive side if the committee considers the number of papers over the number of years, it might help a little? (Who knows?, I can never make sense of what these grant committees actually do with the material they get.)

  97. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Re-entry fellowships are amazing and I am forever indebted to the Very Big Funder That’s So Big That Its Endowment Was Not Even Dented By The Recession for enticing me back to the sweat shop allowing me to return to the fold.
    Michael, I think what you’re doing is incredibly brave, and I can’t wait to hear how it goes. Will you be hiring permanent research staff? ;-)

  98. Stephen Curry says:

    Finally got around to reading the article that Grant linked to and which was appreciated by Austin. It’s really excellent.
    This thread has stirred a complicated mix of feelings that I’m not sure I can articulate without a pint in my hand…

  99. Brian Derby says:

    Of course the ideal example of the independent researcher must be Peter Mitchell. He had his own research charity and lab – that led to the Nobel Prize.
    However, as he was from the Wimpey (building and construction) family, I expect he may have had a ready supply of pounds sterling to get him going.

  100. Henry Gee says:

    Bob has done a rather splendidly olympian analysis of all this here

  101. Grant Jacobs says:

    Michael,
    I had that idea a few (~10) years ago and still try to work on (I can apply for grants privately and have one application like this in at the moment).
    I’d like to express a little caution, at least as it applies in NZ. If it’s anything like here where you are, I can assure you that it’s not easy trying to get an academic grant outside of the “system”; I believe it’s harder than from “inside” the system. You can, of course, work with a business grant or an industry-academia link grant of some sort, which is more likely to my mind as in the review committees eyes’ you’re outside of academia, whatever your intentions and abilities, etc., are.
    On a related note, my overheads are lower than the universities, so I can offer better “bang for bucks”. If the competition were more open, the tax payer would be better off! It’s not that my overheads are especially low, so much that university overheads are high. That I can offer a senior scientist’s services much cheaper than the same within a university is part of the idea behind my working as an independent consultant. (E.g. if I’m contracted on a grant, I have lower overheads than the equivalent university staff member.) Practical problems make this less straight-forward a “win-win” situation than it might sound.
    Not meaning to discourage you, but check it out very carefully first. Working independently is not easy. You’d probably find it works best as a service, not as a research project.

  102. Grant Jacobs says:

    Brian,
    I can’t help but think that he had a pot of money to help him too! (And perhaps not just to get going.) But I admire people that set up their own thing, even with money it takes motivation and a lot of work.

  103. Austin Elliott says:

    I’m surprised we have logged this many comments on science careers mwithout anyone linking (at least as far as I remember) to Peter Lawrence’s impassioned (not to say angry) broadside here. Also relevant to Bob O’H’s excellent post that Henry linked, and which comes at this issue from a different angle.

  104. Alejandro Correa says:

    With a little decision and courage to innovate can be decisive for what one wants to do, but you have to decide. The man was born to not be dependent.

  105. Kausik Datta says:

    A lot has already been said on this topic upthread. I just wanted to congratulate Ms. Rohn for bringing up a very, very pertinent question up for discussion. Your words in the original post resonated very deeply indeed. However, the last sentence in that post is what holds a special meaning for me:

    Change is possible – but not if we’re too afraid to complain that change is sorely needed.

    I may steal that and use it elsewhere. Later. :)

  106. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Stephen, perhaps I can buy you that pint after Fiction Lab.
    Austin, you are right that I was remiss not mentioning the Lawrence letter. I suspect that this was one of the things rattling around my subconscious that ultimately inspired my post.
    I encourage you all to read Bob’s blog, but for the record, I’m disappointed that he seems to favor a solution that offers permanent scientific positions only to the PI – business as usual with a bit more career advice for trainees. Restricting the number of students who can start is a good idea, but based on my dealings with students (and youth in general), too many will still think they can be lab heads, and will desire this outcome, no matter how hard you try to convince them it’s a slim chance.

  107. Brian Derby says:

    As someone who is currently battling with applications for money to maintain a mediumsized group, I sympathise with those who aspire to permanance. The key problem, in my opinion is at the post-poc level. I do not believe we train too many PhD students, because I believe that the training in a good Ph.D. project should equip someone for life outside academe. As far as I can tell, most students take up a Ph.D. position because thaey are interested in undertaking a research project as a challenge and not because thay have a grand plan for their future. The majority of Ph.D.s leave university (or equivalent) research after the appropriate length of time (4-6 years depending on local custom and culture) and this period of time should be considered as education.
    It is what happens next that is important. The next stage in academic career progression is currently the post-doc. In times past, a number of staff got their initial Asst. Prof. position immediately after their doctorate but now that is normally preceded by post-doctoral research. What has happened is that the Apprenticeship stage has moved on to this level. It is as the valued “senior member” of a research group that you now assist in grant applications, do small amounts of teaching and generally sculpt the CV for an application to a permanent position or PI status. If we are training too many people, it is at this stage, not at the Ph.D. level, where we have the problem of over supply.
    I think the glut of post-docs is also a relatively recent phenomenon and in the UK this can be traced to the change in funding model that occurred in the 1980s, when funding was redirected from the institution to the investigator. In the past, university departments employed a reasdonably large numbers of technicians and experimental officers to provide the “well found laboratory”. This was acknowledged and it was common to see in the acknowledgements at the end of a paper that “the authors wish to thank Prof…… (usually HoD) for providing laboratory facilities”. When the funding model changed, the technicians were either made redundant or moved on/retired. Thus in order to maintain expensive facilities, the individual researchers had to recruit staff to manage equipment and train new arrivals into the group. Unless you run a very large group, it is not possible to guarantee continuous funding for technician support, better to recruit a post-doc and expect them to do the research amnd the technical support in one job – and produce scientific output/publications.
    Thus there is considerable pressure to maintain a group with one post-doc to every two or so students, leading to a small group consisting of 6-8 people supporting each PI. With further pressure to increase group size to avoid lumpy funding patterns of boom and bust. In addition, as funding becomes more focussed on the individual researcher (in the UK with “full economic costing”), there is increasing pressure from HoD, faculty and even fron the central university administration, to increase the size of research groups to boost overhead income.
    There is also personal pressure on the group leader because we are human too and we feel a responsibility to maintain employment for the post-docs who perform valuable roles in our research groups. However, devising a career structure with the way money is allocated, is increasingly difficult. Also, even if you make it to the base of the greasy pole it will become more difficult to leave probation/achieve tenure because the grant giving bodies (in the UK: EPSRC, BBSRC, Wellcome) are all moving towards larger and longer awards or awards targetted to senior investigators. This may make managing existing large research efforts easier, but it will make achieving the status where you can apply for this sort of funding much harder.
    And on that note, I will return to writing my proposal for funding to retain a post-doc.

  108. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Brian. I largely agree with you: my suggestion to cut PhD students was just a means to an end of reducing the post-doc glut – because as you say, and as I’ve noted, you need a PhD to do lots of other things (though I still maintain that too many of them, at least in our place, are under the delusion that that professorship will be waiting for them). You’ve outlined the problem (for the UK) admirably – but any ideas on how to reduce the post-doc glut? Sounds as if funding is to blame, so the oil tanker is the funders, not the universities or the PI pool as a whole.

  109. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. I’m disappointed that he seems to favor a solution that offers permanent scientific positions only to the PI – business as usual with a bit more career advice for trainees.
    That’s largely because the only alternative I can see would mean a large shift in culture: with more technical positions being used to replace PhD positions. That looks like too far a leap. In some ways it is preferable, but I can’t see it being implemented in practice.

  110. Jennifer Rohn says:

    This is all part of the being afraid of big changes thing. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean we shouldn’t contemplate it. I’m thinking a good parallel is the open access movement. When I worked at BioMed Central, long before PLoS was launched, people used to stare at me incomprehensibly when I’d try to commission articles from them. (The author…pays? The readers don’t? There’s no print journal? It’s only online?) I sometimes felt I was an emissary from Mars. And look how far we’ve come now since those days. Sure, that’s not finished either, but it’s a hell of a lot more real than in was in 2003. It took a concentrated effort, and people willing to put their money where their mouth was, and loads of lobbying, but now nearly every journal has an open-access choice, and all-OA journals are no longer taboo to submit to, and the big funding bodies are all for it.

  111. Henry Gee says:

    I’ve been reading through all these comments sensitive to an inchoate unease. I think I know what’s causing it – no pictures of animals. So here, by way of a commercial break, are some pretty yellow fish from the London Aquarium, which I visited last Tuesday.

  112. Lee Turnpenny says:

    If I may offer some dissent (which may or may not overlap with other’s comments, but I haven’t yet read them all):
    I agree that ‘“apprenticeship” is a gross misnomer’, but because Ph.D. students are not rewarded as apprentices when perhaps they should be. Brian says, ‘The majority of Ph.D.s leave … research after the appropriate length of time … and this period of time should be considered as education.’ I don’t agree with this. I would argue that, as Ph.D.s spend much of their (over)time grafting at the bench, often without being ‘taught’, this should be considered as work, and rewarded as such.
    These students would be the very best that the universities produce, and competition would be fierce.
    Well yes. But we don’t need it so fierce that it puts bright young people off doing a science degree in the first place (which is a significant problem as it is). The one who comes out with a first is not necessarily the best research scientist ten years down the line (and I’ll willingly offer myself up as exhibit A). The Ph.D. step does serve as a good sorter, in that it is when many decide it is not what they want to (or can) do. But it wouldn’t be so bad if they didn’t leave feeling as though they’d been mugged. As always, it comes down to funding, and that ain’t about to improve. Students are cheap labour.

  113. Austin Elliott says:

    i Seem to remember we debated postgrad student pay rates when we were talking about Belle du Jour / Brooke Magnanti a few months back.
    PhD students in the UK are really not that badly off financially during the PhD years, unless they are funding themselves, or overrun and have to finish writing on benefits.
    Without being too old-fogey-ish, the postgrad stipends from research councils and research charities, even correcting for inflation, are considerably higher that was the case 25 years ago. On the whole I would say that they compare fairly well with the wages for RA1B research assistants, and certainly with what “old style” lab technicians make. While PhD students are cheaper labour than postdocs, that is unsurprising as they are less skilled and experienced. It is certainly true that three PhD years on a stipend is three years that you are NOT paying National Insurance or pension contributions, but I find it hard to see that as a really big deal; if you finish a PhD at 25-26 you will still have likely 40 yrs of paid employment to do all that stuff.
    All of the above is from the perspective, of course, of someone in the biomedical sciences. It may be different in other research areas if there are a lot of self-funded people, or people taking several extra years to finish PhDs.
    PS We pay postgrads £ 14/hr for demonstrating in practical classes too.

  114. Richard P. Grant says:

    But we don’t need it so fierce that it puts bright young people off doing a science degree in the first place (which is a significant problem as it is).
    Repeated assertion doesn’t make something true. We have too many science graduates.

  115. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Lee, I’d be curious to see your stats about the UK having insufficient science graduates, as opposed to the “too-many” situation that I’m aware of from my work with the Wellcome Trust on this issue. Please do send those links.
    PhDs earn way more than editorial assistants, if you account for their tax-free status. I think it’s pretty good money, personally, much better than when I was a lass.
    Henry, those are gorgeous fish. I am eminently soothed. Might put down my can of kerosene for the weekend.

  116. Brian Derby says:

    I have been assured by people at Rolls Royce and BAE systems (among others in the manufacturing sector) that there is a real shortage of trained engineers at bachelors, masters and doctorate entry levels. My last Ph.D. to finish went into a job in this area and most of our undergraduates get jobs too. It may be different in biology of course.
    About half of our undergraduates do a Biomaterials course. We have an option for students to work on an industrial research project during their undergraduate programme, it extends their course by a year but they spend most of this time in a lab or a production unit and it is very popular (they also get paid, which may explain the popularity). It is noticeable that it is much easier to get placements in the engineering/physical sciences sector than in the bio/pharma sector. This is despite the UK’s much vaunted presence in that sector as a world leader. Maybe the engineering sector just wants its trained staff more than the bio industry?

  117. Richard P. Grant says:

    My last Ph.D. to finish went into a job in this area and most of our undergraduates get jobs too.
    surely that means you’ve got the right number of graduates, then?

  118. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I should have disclaimed that my post was aimed at science overall on average; as I mentioned in more detail in an older post, the situation will vary with discipline and there will be geographical exceptions. In fact, in the conference I allude to in that older post, engineering is specifically mentioned as needing more graduates. (As far as locality, Korea was flagged up as being the sole county that needs more science graduates in every field – at least, that’s how things stood in 2008.) Overall, though, my understanding is that most bean-counters agree there is a glut overall when you average all fields together. I’m sure the biomedical pool skews the numbers.
    Engineering is one of those disciplines that lends itself more so to applied research, not basic, no? Hence there might be a lot more industry jobs waiting at the other end.

  119. Austin Elliott says:

    We do pretty well placing undergrads on sandwich degrees (degrees with work experience placement years), but it is certainly a hard sell as “Big Pharma” is not exactly in a growth phase at the moment. The last couple of years we have been placing students in academic Departments in the US more and more.
    As I said above, most of the students who do this in biomedical subjects tend to end up as PhD students, rather than going straight to graduate scientific employment.
    Anecdotally the majority of our three-year B.Sc. graduates in life/biomedical sciences do seem to go into science-related jobs, if they don’t go to higher degree courses – though relatively few go straight to lab-based work without doing a PhD, or at least an MSc, first. My last undergraduate tutorial group that I saw right through their degrees (half a dozen people) had two that have gone to PhD programmes, one to medical school, two to jobs helping run clinical trials and one to Pharma sales. So there seems to be reasonably good match of supply to demand. We certainly don’t get a lot of feedback about “B.Sc. grads can’t get graduate jobs”.
    It is a broadly similar story with the people I have had doing final yr undergrad research projects in the lab over the last half-dozen years – some to PhDs, some to medical school, a couple to Pharma, a couple to NHS science trainee jobs, and so on.
    The B.Sc. students we turn out who struggle most in getting science-related graduate employment tend to be the ones who got less good degrees – which is not a great surprise, I guess.

  120. Richard P. Grant says:

    Plus… Jenny is talking mainly about postdocs, not grad students. The people who have already got through the first round of winnowing, and are for intents and porpoises, trained professionals.

  121. Austin Elliott says:

    I think the reality is that the point where scientists are “trained” and seen as fully capable of independent work has moved inexorably upwards. A century ago a top first class undergraduate degree pretty much meant you were trained for science and would probably get an academic job somewhere. Then it became with a PhD. Now I would say that it is after a couple of postdoc years, at least for British PhD graduates.
    One thing I sometimes think marks the point that the rest of the biz sees you as “really fully trained” is when people regard you as capable of peer-reviewing papers (and start sending them to you). Of course, by then you will have the PhD and typically significant postdoc experience too.
    Whether we have a glut of science graduates (or not) is difficult to decide on because you can typically graduate in the same subject from such a large range of different Universities in the UK alone. No-one in the UK Universities really believes all UK Universities (and their degrees) are equal – though my experience has been that most people think degree standards are comparable at broadly comparable instititions (e.g. the big civic “old” UK Universities, excluding Oxbridge).
    I don’t think there is a glut of postgrads either, given all the previous comments I and others have made about PhDs preparing you for more than science, and people choosing other paths.
    I completely agree with Jenny that the supply of well-trained postdoctoral scientists in their 30s exceeds the number of the academic posts that said postdocs would like, and that is very hard because they have invested such a big chunk of their life – at least, it feels that way. I see Ian (Brooks) just posted on his experience, which mirrors in many ways that of several of my friends I mentioned here.
    Of course, in the UK I suspect that postdoc numbers are going to drop over the next 2-3 years as a result of the recession. This may (paradoxically) ease the problem a bit here, though only by forcing people out of “academic track research” a bit earlier.

  122. Henry Gee says:

    _We do pretty well placing undergrads on sandwich degrees _
    Do you want fries with that?
    ducks

  123. GrrlScientist says:

    henry: your photo is of a group of captive yellow tangs, Zebrasoma flavescens.
    but then again, who gives a flying shit what i have to say about anything, since i am an overeducated and unemployable female? maybe i should just give up and get married instead of trying to make it on my own merits?

  124. Alejandro Correa says:

    Grrl – is a picture repeated, I hope it will serve.

  125. Grant Jacobs says:

    I haven’t read this reference, but the title and a brief skim suggests it might be of interest:
    Howy Jacobs
    EMBO reports (2010), 11, – 1, doi:10.1038/embor.2009.259
    Postdockin’ in the free world
    Does postdoctoral research experience properly train biological scientists? Howy Jacobs explores the shortcomings of the current system and suggests how we might improve the lot of those currently on the long road to scientific fame and fortune.
    Free download:
    full text as HTML
    PDF

  126. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’ve just realized that we have a nomenclatural problem here. When experts worried about the population biology of the scientific profession talk about ‘gluts’, (and when professional bodies like the CBI who issue gloom-and-doom press releases saying, au contraire, there is a deficit) , what they’re talking about is replacement scientists, not about science graduates going on to do non-science careers. If you produce say 100 science graduates and 1 ends up being a PI, and 10 end up doing research in industry, but 89 end up gainfully employed in other areas, this is what I, and these experts, mean by a ‘glut’ – as far as I can tell from the work I’ve been involved with.
    If in contrast 50 of these were employed, and 50 were unemployed in any capacity, that’s what Austin and others above who don’t see a problem means by a glut. It’s just a difference in terms. When I say there are too many science graduates, I’m talking strictly in terms of trainee scientists, where scientist is defined as someone who eventually engages in professional research one day. We could argue the merits of landscape gardeners or laywers getting a science degree before going into their specializations, as opposed to just getting on with it by getting landscape or law degrees straight away, but that’s not what I’m talking about.
    And again, I’m only mentioning PhDs because my true gripe is with the glut of 30-something science post-docs in a holding pattern who will be unable to fulfil their dreams of professional research.
    Hope that clears things up about where I, personally, am coming from. The peripheral arguments are also very interesting, though.
    Grrl – you do me a disservice. I responded sympathetically to your initial post, and think it’s a very important perspective, so obviously we don’t all “not give a flying shit” about your plight.

  127. Richard P. Grant says:

    Henry, I’m not sure whether your fries comment was totally frivolous or intentionally serious—by any definition, science PhDs who end up flipping burgers (or driving taxis) is what this is all about.

  128. GrrlScientist says:

    sorry, jennifer. i was mostly shouting into the wind. (had a bit to drink last night, ahem).

  129. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hahaha! That’s OK, Grrl. German wine has that effect on me, too. Especially the Schwarzriesling.

  130. Lee Turnpenny says:

    I think you’re right that Ph.D. students are not so badly off – as students. My perspective is also from UK biomedical science, and stipends are certainly more level: I recall only ten years ago there was still wide disparity between students in the same lab, depending on who they were funded by. My argument is that we should consider that they be classed as employed staff – in which case, relative to (some) other job routes they might have gone down, they are not ‘well off’.
    On ‘stats’ for science graduates: I too am talking overall. During the last decade or so since I’ve been in this game, it seems to have been the mantra that the proportion of those opting for science is declining. And if I Google ‘lack/dearth/decline in UK science graduates’ much of what I see cursorily seems to endorse that (take your pick). If I’m mistaken, I’m happy to be enlightened, but ‘too many’ science graduates? As you later acknowledge, that’s certainly not what industry seems to reckon. If your access to Wellcome Trust data and opinion suggests otherwise, then fair enough. But does this align with the Trust’s ‘… view that the future of science in the UK depends on the continual supply of highly trained and competent researchers…’? Even though the number of graduates in biological sciences has increased (depending on what you read), I still hear P.I.s bemoaning how difficult it is to attract good Ph.D. students and post-docs (although I expect that it is not the case everywhere).
    Hey, as another ‘mature’ postdoc, I feel your ‘pain': I was at a Senate meeting last week, which was quite scary, because the imminent cuts and changes underway here could well spell the end of the line for me. But I’m not convinced that a constriction in the Ph.D. student pool is the right way forward (for science): yes, they may be the brightest graduates, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee the best future researchers. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Limiting the numbers in the pot means limiting creativity and skills.

  131. Clare Dudman says:

    Thank you Jenny, this has made me think – and I realise now that all those years ago it didn’t occur to me that I’d ever be able to stay on at university and take a permanent position. I think I viewed my training as a PhD and then a post-doctoral scientist as just a preparation for something more applied (and maybe more practically useful) in what I thought of as the ‘real world’ ie industrial research. The research work I did at university seemed academic but excellent training in that it gave me the chance to develop all sorts of skills in a supportive environment. Now that I think about what happened to my contemporaries I realise that this is what happened – apart from a couple of people who fairly quickly became professors the rest all found permanent research jobs in industry and the civil service.
    I doubt the same would happen now though because there are very few industrial research jobs left, at least in chemistry. Maybe the system hasn’t adapted very well to the times, and could do with the overhaul you suggest.
    You asked if there are any other occupations that have the same wastage rate and publishing springs to mind. There are many assistants but very few older people. I believe the same is true in many aspects of ‘media’. I used to wonder where they all go and never came up with a sensible answer.

  132. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Lee. As I’ve mentioned a few places above, the main thrust of my argument is that there are too many aging postdocs desperate for a research job who will never get one. The idea about restricting science PhDs was one idea to help the problem, but my favored solution would be the creation of a significant pool of permanent scientific research staff – say, half the composition of any lab – at the expense of fewer trainees, be they students or postdocs.
    I’m not an expert on the STEM PhD ‘glut’ but there are certainly many experts out there who have the numbers they think proves the point (and who, by the way, think the alarmist press releases given out by interest groups like the CBI to be propaganda), but as it’s not my expertise I am not going to argue the point further. Teitelbaum’s written some interesting stuff on this, not itself uncontroversial, but certainly food for thought.
    In our place, we have dozens of applicants for single PhD positions – we are turning them away in droves. But that’s just one data point, of course.

  133. Chris Surridge says:

    Not wishing to reboot this serious debate with a flippant comment but Improbable Research yesterday resurrected Sidney Brenner’s solution to some of the problems mentioned here: The Pharaoh configuration.

    This is a scheme which offers a solution to the fundamental problem of all scientific departments, which is how to get rid of the old — both people and science — and create space and resources for the young and the new. Our elegant answer is to treat all scientists as Pharaohs; thus, when a senior scientist retires, he and all of his research associates, post-docs, students and technicians are sacrificed and buried in a specially constructed pyramid, together with all of their equipment to enable them to continue research in the after Life Sciences. At one blow, space would have been created for a new professor and a new group, without any arguments and with none of the rancour that usually accompanies such events.
    It is obvious that this needs to be carried out only once.

    It was originally published in a column of his)00425-8 in 2004 in Current Biology.

  134. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ha ha! What a brilliant notion. I’d not seen that before, thanks.

  135. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks, Chris. That’s brilliant.
    Do they get mummified in Whatman 3mm filter paper?

  136. Henry Gee says:

    Henry, I’m not sure whether your fries comment was totally frivolous or intentionally serious—by any definition, science PhDs who end up flipping burgers (or driving taxis) is what this is all about
    Who cares what I think? I am, after all, a failed scientist. I did a Ph.D. with the very vaguest notion that this might lead to a research career. When it became clear that I needed a research career like fish needs a bicycle, I moved sideways very quickly.
    It might have happened, though, that I got a college fellowship ( = Junior Postdoc) after my PhD and then found somewhat further down the line that I’d taken the wrong turning. I think these are the people Jenny is talking about.
    My question – to be a devil’s advocate – is what is driving people to become postdocs in the first place, if the likelihood of a permanent science career is so small? I saw the writing on the wall in 1987, at the tender age of 26. As far as I am aware, the career structure, such as it is, of junior scientists has been rocky for a generation or more. These people are, by definition, not stupid, so why can’t they read the warning signs? Even though I was regarded as a promising candidate for research since my schooldays, and encouraged to think of myself in those terms throughout my undergraduate career, it’s not as if I wasn’t warned. As I noted above, my own funding agency paid for us graduates to go on courses to think about careers other than research scientists (i.e. postdocs), so clearly they knew there was a problem, and thought that Ph.D.s were to be thought of as very general qualifications rather than professional qualifications specific to science.
    So, to answer my own question – I don’t think Jenny’s revolution will come to pass, or anything like it. What will) happen is that people in higer education will start voting with their feet. Bright sixth-formers will think twice about becoming undergraduatesm, and this will lead to fewer PhD applications (at least from the UK – Universities will therefore do their best to recruit students from elsewhere). But once PhDs wake up and realize that being a postdoc is not an automatic passport to a career, they’ll get out sooner. I’m just amazed that the process of winnowing is taking so long.
    runs away

  137. Richard P. Grant says:

    These people are, by definition, not stupid, so why can’t they read the warning signs?
    Logical flaw, there, Henry.
    Anyway, as far as I’m concerned the problem is that everyone, from my DPhil supervisor up, down and sideways, assumed I’d do postdocs and then be a PI. The warning signs are there, but (a) you’ve got to be able to look and (b) the postdoc->PI route is what everyone seems to be doing.

  138. Henry Gee says:

    Hmmmm. Perhaps it’s a cultural difference. Cell biologists are spoiled by great wealth …
    runs away
    … relatively speaking …
    comes back again
    … which gives at least the illusion of a prospect of a fairly stable career. Ever since, however, it was discovered that ground dinosaur bones don’t cure anything1, palaeontologists have never had serious funding, and so are under no illusions about career prospects. This of course (he smirked archly) suggests that those palaeontologists that manage to make a career out of it are the very best that the limited market can support, whereas more well-funded disciplines might be overstocked with people who really should go looking elsewhere to make a crust.
    runs away again, faster
    1) I wonder if manufacturers of homeopathic or herbal remedies might be prevailed upon to fund fossil hunting? Now there’s a thought. After all, to some people, the discovery that this potion or that doesn’t actually work is neither here nor there.

  139. Richard P. Grant says:

    Ever since, however, it was discovered that ground dinosaur bones don’t cure anything1, palaeontologists have never had serious funding,
    Funny you should say that, given what I’ve just blogged.

  140. Henry Gee says:

    Lead on, Dr Grant.

  141. Åsa Karlström says:

    Henry> is what is driving people to become postdocs in the first place, if the likelihood of a permanent science career is so small? overinflated ego?
    I’m partly joking here, but only partly. I’ve met a bunch of people [grad students as well as post docs in the biological/white biology] the last few years that read everything in the paper and hear things but they don’t see it as “happening to them since they are good at what they do”. (many of them are still in Academia, although so far not too many have landed a TT position but they/we are still sort of young).
    Or it is to do with the “hope is the last that dies” or simply a feeling of “I don’t know what to do otherwise since it’s been told/obvious since I started training that I would go the TT route after PhD and post docing?” I’m not really blaming others here, just pointing out that when I was younger it wasn’t as much talk about the “hard towards impossible” to get a TT position. Sure, it wasn’t a walk in the park to land a position but with some publications and some good ideas/grant proposals you’d be fine. Now, it’s not really that easy/clear.
    [I’m not talking about myself here, since I moved countries and that in itself creates interesting things when applying for grants “back home” etc]
    Jenny> I liked your explanation about the nomenclature that differs – as in too many PhDs and too few going forward. It makes a lot of sense reading it that way, and I can see why people would talk “next to eachother but not about the same thing”.

  142. Ian Brooks says:

    Great post & great comments (I only made it halfway through, sorry).
    I’d love to see change in the system; it ate me up and shit me out fair enough, so too late for me. but not too late to try and save off a lot of disapointment for future generations.
    Henry seems to ask a couple of times, why students get into this situation if they know how bad it is. Well, at least in the US (where I have worked/trained) they don’t know how bad it is. We used to joke that all the postdocs we knew we so depressed and stuff, without questioning whether that would be us. Of course it wouldn’t!
    Naive? Over-confident? maybe, but that’s what we were being set up for and trained for and lied to about.
    The system is badly broken, and nothing is going to fix it, because, as Jenny (I think) points somewhere way up in the top of the comments, the people in charge (senior PIs, Senior Faculty, the people who choose where the money goes, the people who did a 2 year postdoc back in ’74 and walked straight into a TT job) don;t get it, don’t care and have no reason to fix it. When they have gone, finally retired, it’s still too late because the next crop is there. They suffered through 5-6 years of hell + 7 years of TT and tight funding after the NIH budget plateau. As the children of abusers become abusers themselves, the system is inherently corrupt: but only if you’re one of the 80% don’t make the “cut”.

  143. Brian Derby says:

    I don’t think there was some golden age in the 1970s and 1980s. Quite a few of my cohort of PhDs left academe after the post-doc round. Getting out early always seems to be best because that gives you the chance of progression in your new path. I am trying to remeber/rationalise my career choices. I am pretty certain I stayed on to to a PhD because I new a lot of people who were doing PhDs and they seemed to have a great time. Student for 3-4 more years without weekly work crises – it was a no brainer. I quite enjoyed my PhD and thought of the Post Doc as a passport to work abroad, which I did. I returned because i got a chance to work with Mike Ashby – who was (still is even if he is retired) one of the top Materials Scientists in the UK with a real eye for a new approach on things. It was only during post doc two that I started to think I might get a permanent position and then I had two failures before I landed a non-TT (second prize as they found a post for me after appointing the first choice), however, I was then well positioned to get a proper position (with one more intermediate failure). I think I persevered because my non-TT position was on a “permanent contract”, which meant they had promised unofficially to hang on to me and I was able to apply for grants. So all in all I was occupied as a post-doc and in a non-teaching position for 6 or 7 years before getting a tenured academic job.
    I think of the 30 or so who started PhDs in my year, 4 are in academic positions in the UK and 1 in the USA. So that is 1 in 6 who made it. Those who left vanished into the real world, because there were no (or very few) research management or support jobs for people to remain attached to University Science.

  144. Austin Elliott says:

    Sounds like Materials was a distinctly tougher hack in the 70s/80s than bioscience, Brian. Though I wonder if your “non TT non-teaching permanent job” was maybe at Oxbridge? They certainly have (and always have had) a tendency to run an unofficial weeding-out process in which people have to hang on and hang on on soft money, so people there (in bioscience) tend to get to the TT later (e.g. pushing 40 or even beyond) than in other places.
    My reasons for doing a PhD (in the mid 80s) would closely echo Brian’s. Plus I am a second generation scientist, so I suppose I always knew there was such a thing as a PhD. But I definitely never gave a thought to where it would lead. I don’t think 22 yr olds then thought about stuff like that.

  145. Brian Derby says:

    Austin – Yes my non TT post was at Oxford, which was where I got my permanent post. The HoD was able to cook the books to find funds for these positions. I think these days that parking position is now filled by Royal Soc URFs, RCUK Fellows and such like.
    In the 1980s bio was expanding in a big way, with quantitative physical science based methods making big inroads. Most universities started making big expansions in bio and so there were a large number of positions to fill. I wonder if the current glut of post-docs isn’t related to the wave of expansio in bio? Maybe there is boom and bust following a large perturbation to equilibrium?

  146. Henry Gee says:

    Have A Break – Have a Kwik Kat

  147. Jennifer Rohn says:

    It’s very, very important to recognize that we all have different experiences. It’s telling to hear a person from one country and one discipline say, “there was no problem for me so there probably is no problem overall” or “in the precise place and time where I did my PhD, no one was leading me on to believe that there’d be a job at the other end/there weren’t enough science graduates around/we had no problems getting a job/we had huge problems getting a job”, the implication that no one else in the world could have had a different experience.
    I am happy to recognize that there are times and places out there where the things I am describing are not a problem, or were not a problem in the past. But I think it would be naive to assume that therefore everything is rosy for everyone. We’ve heard from enough people here who do recognize that there’s a problem, I think, for us to at least think about how we might try to change things for the countries and scientific disciplines that actually are suffering. Anecdotes to the contrary are interesting, especially as they might inform us about possible mitigating factors, but they shouldn’t detract from the plight of something that is very real for many people.

  148. Henry Gee says:

    Jenny, I don’t think anyone denies that there’s a problem. However, what many of us have sought to do in this very interesting thread is qualify it. This means that if a solution is sought – if indeed any is desired – it can’t be the kind of one-size-fits-all variety, you know, like leisurewear, or those trousers with the elasticated waistbands that very old men wear up just underneath their armpits. Such solutions try to please everyone but in the end please no-one. And they shrink in the wash, too.
    Reading through all these comments, I get the picture that science, like anything else, tends to follow economic cycles, in turn modulated by fashions and trends in science itself, opportunities opened up by new technology and so on. But there’s always a lag. People are employed when times are good, but when times are less good, these same people are hung out to dry, and there’s a great deal of wastage. This is very sad, not to mention uncomfortable, for the people involved, who may have been under the impression that they could make a career out of science.
    What we must throw into the mix is your proposal, as I understand it, for a new profession of mid-level career scientist, rather in the same way that there are accountants, lawyers and so on (forgive me if I have misunderstod your intention). I assume that such scientists would be governed by their own regulatory body, whose members will have some kind of recognized certification, independent of the usual metrics of impact factor, publication and so on. (Some sciences already have such schemes – if you are in the Geological Society, for example, you can apply to become a Chartered Geologist).
    But such schemes to impose stability also create problems. Back in the early 1980s, Mrs Thatcher’s government looked at the university system and saw just such a cadre of mid-level scientists with tenure who didn’t seem to be doing very much (or so Mrs Thatcher thought) to justify their existence. There followed a period in which tenure was made less secure and people had to compete harder to stay in place. One could argue that science benefits from such increased competition – although the costs to individuals will be greater. Clearly, there is a balance to be struck.

  149. Austin Elliott says:

    The trouble is, Jenny, that a solution is not obvious. I agree with you that the problem is real, though (as the anecdotes are perhaps telling us) it is probably field-dependent, and perhaps not quite as acute as may appear from being battered about in the vortex of it.
    I don’t think restricting PhD student numbers is a solution, for all the reasons we have rehearsed. I agree with you that the demise of Experimental Officer positions is a real shame, and (in my view) deeply unhelpful to scientific “continuity” especially, but politically it seems pretty much irreversible. Though if it has happened in institutes as well, I am puzzled why they have imitated one of the worst aspects of the University system.
    One point I don’t think anyone has mentioned is that employment law in England is supposed to give people a certain job security if they have done 4 yrs (thus more than one postdoc?) with the same employer. The idea as I understand it was that you were then viewed as a de facto permanent employee so had to be considered for redeployment, and if that was not available made redundant with full (lengthy) process. Certainly when this law came in a decade ago the UK Univs were very twitchy as they thought it would mean any person who did four postdoc years would become a permanent (i.e. not a fixed term) employee.
    The major difficulty I see with trying not to have fixed term postdoccing is that almost all research funding employing postdocs in UK academia comes, via the project grant system, in 2-4 year chunks. As Brian has said, as a lab boss (or even Department) you can’t turn that into permanent funding for researchers unless you have so much of it that there is always a salary available. And within this context, if my funding runs dry, then even if I have an excellent postdoc sidekick, and even if they are kept on, they will necessarily get “redeployed” to another lab that has a grant. I have heard of people sometimes getting institutional “bridging” funding for a few months (six being the longest I’ve come across) while they wait on the result of the next grant application, but beyond that the usual line is that “there is no money – sorry”.
    I wonder if this might change a bit as people like Wellcome shift to long-term investigator-centred (rather than project grant-type) funding? If the PI’s funding is going to be for 5-7 yrs, with options to renew, then anyone employed off that funding may have a bit more security than now. A small crumb, I know, but maybe something.

  150. Bob O'Hara says:

    bq. The major difficulty I see with trying not to have fixed term postdoccing is that almost all research funding employing postdocs in UK academia comes, via the project grant system, in 2-4 year chunks.
    Yes, I realized this when Obama was talking about putting money into research: it went into the NIH and NSF but the money was allocated on a short-term basis, so had to go to students and post-docs.
    I think the problem is that politicians who want to support science do it by putting money into the research councils, but they only fund a small proportion of permanent researcher (in the UK the BBSRC, NERC, MRC etc. have institutes like the John Innes Centre). The way to support science in the long term is probably to give more money to the Dept. of Education (whatever it’s called now), and tell them it has to go to the universities to hire more lecturers.

  151. Richard P. Grant says:

    recognized certification
    Ha! WHY don’t we scientists have that?!

  152. Henry Gee says:

    Perhaps that’s something Ian can answer – I am sure that a reasonably well-organized association of postdocs might foment a Cunning Plan.

  153. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I thought it was called a PhD.
    and perhaps not quite as acute as may appear from being battered about in the vortex of it. What a beautiful phrase – thank you for that. I take my poetry where I can find it.
    I agree with Henry and Austin, above – the solution is not easy and there is no one-size fits all approach. (heh – just like cancer therapeutics.) It would be great if debates like these could help stimulate local discussions tailored to the situation.
    The EU directive you’re referring to certainly seems to have backfired in the case of science, though. Would getting it reversed for scientists help? If it could be made clear that it’s doing more harm than good for the people it’s supposed to help?

  154. Richard P. Grant says:

    Eh, no, not a PhD. That’s the qualification, not the certification. We don’t don’t have a professional body to which we can belong.

  155. Austin Elliott says:

    Yes… a PhD is more like a Union Card, for those who remember the 70s.

  156. Austin Elliott says:

    As an aside, I think there is something to Henry’s point about cyclic “waves” of growth in different areas. In the biosciences we have had huge growth in molecular cell biology, which in research has to some extent squeezed out “older” bioscience disciplines (except possibly neuroscience). But as a consequence the market is now glutted with highly trained cell/molecular biologists.
    There is also the point that historically industry (where positions were notionally permanent, though in reality not as companies could and would shut down whole programmes and make people redundant) would take a lot of the highly trained postdoc people who couldn’t get academic jobs. As Brian’s posts make clear, it sounds like this has always been so in engineering-related research disciplines. It has also been true for much of the last 20-30 yrs in physiology/pharmacology, and latterly in cell mol biol, at least in places with a lot of Pharma/biotech industry (see Benoit’s remarks about California).
    One problem now is that we have a boom in science funding finishing (at least in the UK), so that Univ funding here is tightening whilst at the same time Pharma/biotech globally is going through a major downturn/restructuring.
    I think Bob O’H’s last point is quite an astute one. In the UK Univs it is absolutely clear that people in the “old” research intensive Univs all teach far more hours than we used to just a few years ago. The only solution the Govt has offered is FEC (full costing), so that those lucky folk who score research council grants can buy themselves out of teaching. A different approach would be to create more Faculty jobs so that teaching loads drop (enabling more personal research rather than research by proxies and sidekicks) and also to mop up some of the “postdoc bulge”. However, a problem with this approach is that there is relatively little demand in Univs for more people who can teach molecular/cell biology. Degrees in these subjects are not really very popular with life science students, and people with this background are not first choice for being able to deliver “service” teaching (teaching of medics/dentists/pharmacists/nurses). The real shortages in Univs in the biosciences are people who can teach stuff like anatomy (especially) /physiology/pharmacology. But folk in these disciplines are likely to generate less grant income than people in cell/mol biol.

  157. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh, this just in from the Science blog:
    A vision for UK research
    Some interesting proposals.

  158. Richard P. Grant says:

    Oh, and from Scientific American, a collaborative article.

  159. Henry Gee says:

    The real shortages in Univs in the biosciences are people who can teach stuff like anatomy
    Are you hearing this, Kristi???
    As an aside: many vertebrate palaeontologists earn a crust by teaching anatomy to medical students, and get to do their fieldwork in the vacations.

  160. Kristi Vogel says:

    We’ve had a vertebrate paleontologist or three, helping us with anatomy teaching to the medical students. And apart from travel costs, their actual research expenses seem to be quite a bargain, compared to most biomedical research. Even the travel costs can be minimal in some circumstances.
    The needs for anatomy, histology, and neuroscience instruction for medical, dental, and allied health students are not going to disappear any time soon. And many of the instructors are close to retirement, or ready to drop dead from exhaustion. Unfortunately, many people consider such teaching to be beneath them intellectually (or are unwilling to admit that they’re crap at it).

  161. Austin Elliott says:

    “We’ve had a vertebrate paleontologist or three, helping us with anatomy teaching to the medical students.”
    Which reminds me of Neil Shubin’s book Your Inner Fish.
    Of course, people’s readiness to adapt to teach something that was not their first/specialist topic, but was in demand, was historically a fact of University faculty life post TT-hire in the UK. It has been somewhat forgotten more recently.
    It was widely understood 20 or even 10 yrs ago that if you were hired, as a cell biologist, into a Department of Anatomy as a lecturer, then you would be teaching gross anatomy of some system to the medical students and you would be learning to do it on the job. Ditto cell physiologists (cells in dishes people) learning to teach “systems physiology”. There was usually a gradual learning curve to do this over the first 3-4 years in-post (what is now the “probationary” period).
    In the current climate, where people on the TT-but-probationary track know it is “show us research grants or you’re out“, they are understandably less obliging about spending time and effort learning to teach something outside their speciality area.

  162. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I just read somewhere, I think in Nature Biotechnology, that the biotech industry in Europe was ravaged by the recession and is still showing only slight signs of recovery. So perhaps there won’t be that many industry jobs for a while for that cell/molecular postdoc glut…something similar happened in 2003 – right when the company I worked for went bankrupt and I was unable to land another industry job. I think in 3 months I saw only 2 job adverts.

  163. Richard Wintle says:

    Jenny – we here in Canada avoid such problems by having essentially no biotech industry. And before some patriotic Canuck complains, I worked in that nonexistant industry for six years, I know.

  164. Cath Ennis says:

    I’ve worked in that industry too, and can confirm that it does not in fact exist.

  165. Austin Elliott says:

    It’s not just biotech, Jenny; Pharma in Europe is definitely limping. I saw somewhere recently that GSK were laying off a lot of research people, esp. in neurosci, and AstraZeneca have been in a fair degree of turmoil for the last couple of years, though they are apparently still hiring in some research areas.

  166. Austin Elliott says:

    PS And on the way home today I heard on the 6 pm news that AstraZeneca are shutting down their R&D site at Charnwood in Leicestershire, which is likely to mean another 1000 or so redundancies.

  167. Jennifer Rohn says:

    So no scientific officer jobs, no biotech jobs, no pharma jobs and no lab head jobs.
    In other words, a generation of postdocs out of research altogether. This is very, very sad.

  168. Richard P. Grant says:

    It’s all right—we can’t afford research anyway.

  169. Austin Elliott says:

    Perhaps you can have my job when they make me redundant, Jenny. Provided it doesn’t become an “efficiency saving”.

  170. Jennifer Rohn says:

    I’ve decided it might be the most sensible to just go off somewhere and quietly panic.

  171. Richard P. Grant says:

    What? No more revolution? Just panic?

  172. Jennifer Rohn says:

    UCL students have taken over the quad* even as we speak to protest budget cuts. I took some photos but can’t persuade my iPhone to befriend my work computer without wiping itself.
    *hyperbole. It’s a relatively small protest and when I remarked on this to a security guard, he said, hopefully, “Well, maybe they’ll storm the building in a bit.”

  173. Richard P. Grant says:

    Email them to yourself, Jenny.
    Sounds like your security gorillas have a sense of humour, at least.

  174. Alejandro Correa says:

    I don’t which a dream of quake.

  175. Duncan Hull says:

    Or to put it another way:
    Achievement: You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To When You Have Vision, Determination, And An Endless Supply of Expendable Labour

    That’s how the pyramids got built too.

  176. Alex Clark says:

    Having read through a lot of eloquent and well informed comments, it occurred to me that there is one possible solution that has not been discussed, which could straighten things out quite effectively…
    … how about simply paying postdocs a good salary?
    I’m sure it sounds naive, but hear me out. A 30 year old with 10+ years of education and specialised skills should be paid industry rates, plus extra to compensate for the insecurity, i.e. opportunity cost of relocation, being able to start a pension plan, putting aside money for a rainy day, supporting a family, etc. Pay postdocs $100K, instead of the miserable

  177. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hi Alex – it’s a nice thought, but you can’t pay someone more if you haven’t employed them in the first place. Personally I think postdocs earn a decent living wage already and I don’t have a problem with that. The problem I have is that there aren’t enough jobs for scientists who want to stay in research but not be lab heads.

  178. Kris Hite says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    After reading your post I was motivated to write an in depth response, too long for a comment. I posted it on the Colorado Forum here
    After some debate over my understanding of your key points I am compelled to comment here for some clarification.
    Please let me know where, specifically, I went astray.
    I’ll paraphrase the “take home” message I got from your post…
    -Too many graduate students and post docs are currently being trained.
    -This renders the whole system unsustainable.
    -To reform this self destructive system fewer scientists should be trained, and those that are lucky enough to have the privilege of being trained should make more money.
    A more subtle deduction I made that originally irked me was that people being trained to ultimately do something other than be a principle investigator were not putting tax dollars to “good use.” How else should I interpret the statement –
    “Is it fair that the bulk of, say, Medical Research Council-funded studentships and postdocs are being trained ultimately for other professions? What would that little old lady who wants to leave her entire inheritance to Cancer Research UK think if she knew that the majority of the apprentices trained with her money will end up in the City or working for journals or museums?”
    Are you questioning the justice, the fairness of tax money and other grant money being spent to train scientists who in her mind aren’t really going to be “doing science”?
    In my opinion the experience of doing real research is invaluable no matter how a person decides to spend the rest of their life. A respect and inside out understanding of the scientific method is gained and can be applied anywhere. I’m saddened that it is not applied elsewhere (i.e. politics) as much as it used to be.

  179. Kris Hite says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    After reading your post I was motivated to write an in depth response, too long for a comment. I posted it on the Colorado Forum here
    After some debate over my understanding of your key points I am compelled to comment here for some clarification.
    Please let me know where, specifically, I went astray.
    I’ll paraphrase the “take home” message I got from your post…
    -Too many graduate students and post docs are currently being trained.
    -This renders the whole system unsustainable.
    -To reform this self destructive system fewer scientists should be trained, and those that are lucky enough to have the privilege of being trained should make more money.
    A more subtle deduction I made that originally irked me was that people being trained to ultimately do something other than be a principle investigator were not putting tax dollars to “good use.” How else should I interpret the statement –
    “Is it fair that the bulk of, say, Medical Research Council-funded studentships and postdocs are being trained ultimately for other professions? What would that little old lady who wants to leave her entire inheritance to Cancer Research UK think if she knew that the majority of the apprentices trained with her money will end up in the City or working for journals or museums?”
    Are you questioning the justice, the fairness of tax money and other grant money being spent to train scientists who in her mind aren’t really going to be “doing science”?
    In my opinion the experience of doing real research is invaluable no matter how a person decides to spend the rest of their life. A respect and inside out understanding of the scientific method is gained and can be applied anywhere. I’m saddened that it is not applied elsewhere (i.e. politics) as much as it used to be.

  180. Kris Hite says:

    Hi Jennifer,
    After reading your post I was motivated to write an in depth response, too long for a comment. I posted it on the Colorado Forum here
    After some debate over my understanding of your key points I am compelled to comment here for some clarification.
    Please let me know where, specifically, I went astray.
    I’ll paraphrase the “take home” message I got from your post…
    -Too many graduate students and post docs are currently being trained.
    -This renders the whole system unsustainable.
    -To reform this self destructive system fewer scientists should be trained, and those that are lucky enough to have the privilege of being trained should make more money.
    A more subtle deduction I made that originally irked me was that people being trained to ultimately do something other than be a principle investigator were not putting tax dollars to “good use.” How else should I interpret the statement –
    “Is it fair that the bulk of, say, Medical Research Council-funded studentships and postdocs are being trained ultimately for other professions? What would that little old lady who wants to leave her entire inheritance to Cancer Research UK think if she knew that the majority of the apprentices trained with her money will end up in the City or working for journals or museums?”
    Are you questioning the justice, the fairness of tax money and other grant money being spent to train scientists who in her mind aren’t really going to be “doing science”?
    In my opinion the experience of doing real research is invaluable no matter how a person decides to spend the rest of their life. A respect and inside out understanding of the scientific method is gained and can be applied anywhere. I’m saddened that it is not applied elsewhere (i.e. politics) as much as it used to be.

  181. Richard P. Grant says:

    Please let me know where, specifically, I went astray.
    Well, let’s see. Your patronizing and rude attitude for a start. ‘Mz Rohn’? For goodness’ sake man, she is a learned scholar and you sound like a prat. Your imputation of motive–I believe that opens you right up to a libel suit, actually.
    Shall we continue?

  182. Ian Brooks says:

    Rohn’s admitted fear of the fate of her own career is bringing out an attitude of elitism that relegates the masses to freshmen level course work and saves real lab research for “the adults.”
    WTF? I can haz arrogant spouting?! Dude, seriously, check your ego at the door and try again.

  183. Kris Hite says:

    OK here is my response with all the personally toned stuff removed. I do apologize for inserting my gut reaction and not sleeping on it first before hitting the post button.
    Last week I read a post “In which I dream of revolution” by Dr. Jennifer Rohn on her Nature Network blog – Mind the Gap. After contemplating the proposed revolution I can say I disagree with her assessment of the scientific establishment. I would like to explain why I think the current system does work for the public interest and add some “revolutionary” suggestions of my own.
    Rohn begins her critique of the establishment by pointing to budget cuts and redundancies as the trigger setting off her disdain for the current set up. Right off I can say that these problems arose because of a myriad other problems not one of them being how the hierarchy of science is not “selective enough.” I propose our inability to see that the research community is being used as a pawn in the game of ever-expanding capitalism and technophilia is more to blame. But, I digress.
    At one point she points out that plumbers have more job security than scientists and asks “Why don’t we have the same assurances?” A scientist’s union would do the trick here but there is something about being an independent researcher, calling your own shots that requires freedom not afforded to a plumber’s craft style. I have heard from Bora Zivkovic that trying to get scientists to work together is like herding cats. Though a scientist’s union might be a worthy pursuit its feasibility might thwart the effort.
    The next step in Rohn’s dissection of the scientific hierarchy is a metaphor in which she outlines the population biology of typical labs. She argues that principal investigators train far too many “apprentices” to make the whole system sustainable. Parroting the Malthusian “population bomb” arguments for world carrying capacity this argument is counter productive. I say counter productive here because I believe a large imperative in science should be the free sharing of information. Hostile competition to become a “bona fide” scientist diminishes the public understanding of science worsening an already pandemic disconnect. Producing fewer rubber stamped scientists simply means scientists themselves become a shrinking percentage of the voting public. This weakens our collective ability to communicate. Something that will become increasingly valuable in the coming age of total connectivity.
    So what is the proposed revolution? Making the whole system MORE selective such that only the top top students get positions as PhD candidates. In my opinion this is not a good idea. Doing this would put in place a selective screen allowing the more submissive candidates passage.
    Allowing many to try inherently means few will succeed. But those that leave science are no less human, no less “pure,” no less a scientist for their choice. Opportunity is what the system is all about, or at least should be in my mind. The opportunity given to PhD students and post docs to free their minds for a brief part of their 20’s or 30’s and use their intrinsic creative forces to solve problems can only contribute to science by broadening opportunity not narrowing it.
    Sincerely,
    Kristopher Hite

  184. Kris Hite says:

    Richard,
    One can be sued for libel for saying they feel someone comes across as arrogant? Really?
    How is my imputation of Dr. Rohn’s motive false when she writes…
    “What sparked all this off? Well, my career fears have been very close to the surface in recent months.”
    I said she was fearful of her job prospects. That is pretty clearly the case here.
    Anyway the guidelines tell me to stick to science talk so. I propose that instead of calling each other names that inherently place us into class and ethnicity all humans have assigned numbers. That would be much more scientific and no one would ever have to worry about offending someone by using the incorrect prefix.
    I don’t know many PhD’s that insist on being addressed as Dr. so and so. Dr. Kent Hovind sure does though.

  185. Kris Hite says:

    Oh excuse me Dr. Grant,
    I say that someone is being arrogant and you call me a prat? I like your logic. You can be as offensive as you want but if some else gets offended they are a prat. Gotcha!

  186. Richard P. Grant says:

    Hite, the imputation of motive (i.e. saying someone is in it for the money) is libellous.
    It’s not so much that Jenny insists on being called ‘Dr’—it’s that you called her ‘Mz’ (and indeed, referred to her as ‘Rohn’ while referring others by their first name), which I find quite sexist and repugnant.
    Are you sexist?
    Elsewhere you accused me of being defensive. Now you’re upset because I’m offensive? Make your mind up. And read what I said. I didn’t call you a prat. I said you sound like one. You’re beginning to act like one too.

  187. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Although I relish engaging with people who disagree with me productively and collegially (see the above comment thread for evidence), I am distressed that the vitriol of the Colorado Forum has somehow leached into my blog where, as you all know, I have zero tolerance for people being nasty to one another. Meanwhile, Kris Hite’s misrepresentations of my words in this original post, and of my character in his Colorado Forums post, are so numerous that I don’t have the time or energy to rebut them all – nor do I have to, as others have kindly stepped in. These infringements are even more distressing in the light of his confession that he did so with the rather distasteful motive of increasing traffic to his forum. I do want to redress two of the grossest misrepresentations for the record, and after that I’m afraid that I won’t engage any further with Kris Hite on this matter.
    1. Anyone who could imply on a public forum that my character is such that I am only interested in money obviously has never met me and is unfamiliar with my ethos, my values and my career experiences. Indeed, anyone with even a passive familiarity with this blog will know that I left a lucrative permanent position in publishing management to return to scientific research because it is the job I love most. This act, given the size of the cut in my pay package and future salary prospects, is hardly the mark of someone who cares only about money. Nowhere in the original post did I claim that postdoctoral salaries were too low; in fact, a few comments above the first one Kris Hite left here, I reiterated my frequently made point that postdoctoral salaries are good enough in my opinion. The point is that there are not enough permanent scientific posts at the current salary level, not that I am a money-grabbing, greedy individual who wants more.
    2. To imply that I am against the training of people in science who want eventually to become science communicators (or other non-research professions) is again completely erroneous. My own sizeable efforts in science communication, via my website LabLit.com, my published writing and broadcasting and my in-person work with children and adults in the UK (largely unremunerated) speaks to the respect I hold for that line of work. I am happy for people who want to be science communicators, or anything else, to get their scientific training over briskly and then move into that new field. What I am against is the sizeable population of aged researchers in a post-doctoral holding pattern – often for more than a decade – who want to be researchers but have no place to go, and who are forced out of research as a result. Since this population is so sizeable, one could easily argue that there are too many trainees in the pipeline – and indeed distinguished economists have done so, far better than I have – but you can read the comment thread for more details.
    As a minor aside, Kris Hite is probably too young to remember the Seventies, but there was a time when a certain class of American men used to use the term ‘Mz.’ (spelled incorrectly with a ‘z’) to refer to strong women they felt threatened by. Many women considered it offensive, though I haven’t encountered it for years. I do go by the title of Dr in formal situations, but I’m fine with my first name or by the feminine appellation – but note that the proper, courteous spelling is ‘Ms’.

  188. Lou Woodley says:

    Hi everyone,
    I’m sorry that Kris’ recent post has caused some offence and I’d like to publicly step in to attempt to quell any bad feeling.
    Kris’ post had an inappropriate tone and was posted in an inappropriate place and he and I have discussed the reasons why. Thanks to everyone who has contributed helpful suggestions as to how he might more successfully contribute to NN. Thanks also to Jenny for clarifying her personal position above in a clear, calm manner. I hope a direct apology from Kris will enable us to move on from this and not spoil what was originally a lively and interesting debate by all of us with an interest in how scientific research should be carried out in future.
    It would also be good if we could return to communicating on a first name basis, although I have to confess to being utterly naïve about the negative connotations of Ms/Mz; Jenny, thanks for the quick history lesson for young(ish)-uns like me!

  189. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Hi Lou – no apology is necessary; I’m sure he feels bad enough. Nature Network is a friendlier-than-usual oasis on the rough-and-tumble internet frontier, so I’m sure it’s possible that newcomers just aren’t used to the fact that you don’t have to be aggressive to get attention here.

  190. Kris Hite says:

    I do apologize for my overly aggressive approach to the nature network community, specifically you Dr. Rohn.
    I apologize more precisely for personal swipes taken. I will never refer to anyone as Mz. again in my life. I was not aware of how offensive that was but I see that indeed it is. I learned in elementary school that Mizz is supposed to be used instead of Miss when you are unaware of marital status when addressing a female. I did not intend that as a sexist remark. I realize that the title of “Dr.” trumps all of that, so it was my negligence in acknowledging that proper title that was disrespectful for which I’m also sorry.
    Insinuating that you are “in it for the money” was also trollish and uncalled for and completely based on a feeling and not any facts.
    Thank you for taking the time to clarify my confused interpretation of your post.
    Sincerely,
    Kris Hite
    PS – when you write – “My own sizeable efforts in science communication, via my website LabLit.com, my published writing and broadcasting and my in-person work with children and adults in the UK (largely unremunerated) speaks to the respect I hold for that line of work. I am happy for people who want to be science communicators, or anything else, to get their scientific training over briskly and then move into that new field.”
    I as a reader see a lot more kindness coming from those words over the tone of the original revolution post.

  191. Stephen Curry says:

    You were doing so well Kris until your PS. I don’t see how it is fair for you to judge Jenny’s character based on a few lines of prose written in a blogpost that was designed to kick off a discussion. If you can’t stop yourself from making such judgements, please at least keep them to yourself so that we can stick to discussing the issues.

  192. Maria Hodges says:

    Kris, I thought you picked up on some interesting points in your original post and I hope you’ll keep contributing.
    I’m new too and I’m still feeling my way with blogs and comments, and initially the instruction in the Add your own comment section to “keep you comment brief” does make it look like it isn’t the place for a long contribution.
    Now we have comments that are as long as blog posts so I guess we’re all ignoring instructions!

  193. Kris Hite says:

    Thanks Dr. Curry,
    I am sorry if you got the feeling I was judging Dr. Rohn’s character. I was trying to say I was impressed by the tone of that quote. I was trying to compliment her expression. If I left out the “over the tone of the original revolution post.” part my comment would be more pleasant. I’m all about sticking to the issue at hand.
    I was under the impression that discussion forums were exactly the place to express ourselves. Telling me… If you can’t stop yourself from making such judgements, please at least keep them to yourself.” seems counter to the point of these forums. I would see your point if this post was about the reproducibility of a scientiic result, or the accuracy of data interpretation. but it is not. This topic is, in my mind, about the driving philosophy of how the entire system of science “should” work. Anytime we venture into the realm of what should be instead of trying to interpret what “is” it is impossible not to insert personal judgments, opinions and feelings. Telling me to keep my judgments to myself I think is defeating the purpose of these forums.

  194. Stephen Curry says:

    With respect Kris, you have mis-read what I said. I didn’t tell you to do anything. I asked you to keep character judgements to yourself (hence the ‘please’). I have no power to make you take this respectful course of action. Nor did I try to prevent you from expressing any other opinions.
    But all of this is getting away from the topic.

  195. Maxine Clarke says:

    Just to throw in my view, for what it is worth. I respect Jenny very much for her graciousness. My hat (if I were wearing one) is off to you, Jenny.
    Kris, well done for apologising – that is a tough thing to do.
    What I believe we are trying to achieve here is to stick to the topic and issues, and not the personal or character. That’s hard to do, especially for someone newish to this online world. So long as we all try, and don’t write something that we would not be prepared to say in front of a group of people that includes one’s work colleagues, ie in a professional context, it will work out.

  196. Susan Yee says:

    Thanks Jenny for writing this! As a soon-to-be graduating PhD student, your article really hit home. I’m on the precipice of making the biggest decision of my career: whether or not to continue on the academic road with a postdoc or try an alternative career. They say you have to want it so much you couldn’t imagine your life otherwise, and would sacrifice for it. With all the crazy competition for positions, even that is not enough. In doing a postdoc these days, you would be looking forward to a)years of working long hours, b) not enough pay, c)you’ve just moved and know you will have to move in a few years again, d)hoping that your project will turn into a top tier journal article (which is hoping for luck as well) if not several articles, e)trying to stand out in a lab with 5-10 other people just like you with the same desires, and even then, that might not be enough. And at the end of it all, what would you do with yourself if you didn’t get a position? A second postdoc? Leave the country? I think Jenny hit it on the nose that it’s ridiculous that such educated people have few research alternatives. Honestly, to endure all that is wanting to be a PI REALLY REALLY badly. Let’s not even talk about wanting to have a family or social life because let’s face it, that will detract from a, d, and e and worsen b.
    I agree with Jenny’s assertion too that why do people need to do a postdoc to do many of the alternative careers? For instance, while many journal editor positions do not formally require postdoc experience, they “prefer” it. It just seems like a waste of time to do a postdoc as a requirement for another non-PI job since you don’t learn any new mental skills except how to be a PI and to be an expert in another topic.
    Someone asked on one of the posts why people would do a postdoc. Likely, many PhDs do postdocs because that position has the most job postings and is something they are immediately trained to do, and its hard to switch to something else. Having checked out job postings, there are many more opportunities to be a postdoc than anything else for a PhD. Maybe they’ve convinced themselves they can work really hard and make it as a PI (like the American Dream). I like Jenny’s idea of having permanent research positions for scientists. It’s true that we all wanted to do PhDs because we love science. We all like to think about science, do experiments, write and talk about science. Very few get into science for the money. Having positions where people can just do science is great. Being a PI also requires a bit of business and people management skills that all scientists don’t possess or prefer not to think about. I think lots of people would jump at the chance to get to do cool experiments with a sense of job stability and decent pay.
    However, I’m writing this post not to just reiterate what Jenny has already said nicely but also to bring up a point for debate (if the revolution is still going to happen): How are PIs supposed to pay for these permanent people? Should the schools pay for them always? Can it be written into grants? But grants are only given for a few years at a time (which with the postdoc system pretty much works out). What if people lose grants and don’t have one for a while? Do they have to lay off these people? What would be a good policy to budget for this so that we could actually make this happen?
    In addition, wouldn’t a devil’s advocate argument be that all this competition fosters cutting edge research? Negative data happens (to everyone). But if many people are doing different approaches to the same problem, even within the same lab, doesn’t that help ensure that we are testing all avenues and statistically someone should progress? If everyone had permanent positions (even PIs are not permanent until tenured; another 10 years of semi-instability) would people get complacent and would scientific progress slow? There are many people who would continue to strive for their best I’m sure but how would you “weed” out those who don’t? I agree with points made earlier that making “the walls higher” for graduate students would be a mistake–how can you test for mental agility, creativity, and experimental “hands” without having gone through graduate school? Is scientific progress worth all the careers fallen by the wayside?
    In general, I agree that we are just training too many people who have too high expectations about the future. However, I’m not sure what a good way to fix the system that seems to be working when it comes to really great scientific discoveries (albeit at the cost of broken dreams).

  197. Ian Brooks says:

    Excellent comment Susan. My reply got a bit long winded and OT, so I posted it as a new thread at my blog A Meandering Scholar if you’re interested in a discussion of some of your points.

  198. Darren Saunders says:

    Apologies for the late comment, and not reading all the above replies to original post (a new baby will do that to you) but there is an interesting debate going on here in Aus at the moment that provides an interesting/iluminating contrast to the situation being discussed here.
    For a number of years (forever?) the supply of medical graduates in this country matched the number of available training places (internships) via carefully controlled limits on intake to training programs (ie medical degree places). This also had the effect of nicely regulating supply of their services and hence driving prices through the roof.
    More recently, Australian universities figured out they could charge an absolute fortune to local and overseas students to study medicine in Australia and hve gone on massive enrollment binges. The problem has now born fruit, where suddenly there are not enough internships to match the rapidly escalating number of medical graduates and some are missing out on getting a position at the basic entry level into the profession.
    The sense of entitlement of these graduates is stunning, they literally expect there to be a position to walk into at the end of their training, and for many years that has been the case. Now that the status quo has been disrupted and a small proportion of them are facing having to consider alternative careers or (gasp) overseas relocation, the level of complaining through various media and professional bodies is amazing. Given the lot of most grads destined for research careers it’s very hard to have any sympathy, but they seem to have got the attention of politicians, who are jumping through hoops trying to accommodate them!
    Maybe those of us in research could learn something here?

  199. Austin Elliott says:

    Darren, you probably didn’t spot it amidst all the comments, but I said something about UK medical training back up the thread here. It sounds to me like the Australian situation echoes the UK one but is a few years behind.
    In the UK all graduates from UK medical schools are currently guaranteed a place to complete their “Foundation Training” (the first 2 yrs in-hospital that medics do after graduating, and that they have to complete to be “fully licensed” to practice). The big bottleneck comes after that, details in my earlier comment.

  200. Jennifer Rohn says:

    Thanks for your comments all – I’ve been offline all week so haven’t had the wherewithal to reply.
    Thank you for your apology, Kris – it is accepted, of course.
    Susan, you bring up two important points: how do we pay for thees hypothetical permanent staff, and how do we keep them from growing soft and complacent? I don’t have the answer, but I might hazard a few ideas. The funding bodies spend lots of money now funding studentships and fellowships – if there were fewer trainees, this money could go towards permanent staff instead. But I suspect it’s more feasible that the university or institute itself would pay, as they currently pay for teachers and professors – but I think they’d be getting a lot more for their money than paying for trainees, so it might work out.
    About keeping one’s edge – how about the 5-year review that many PI’s now get? You’d have to keep your game up to prove that you’re still worth having. Nothing too scary – just a routine review confirming that the funder is getting its money’s worth?
    These are just a few ideas, in haste – more appreciated.

  201. Working for the man

    I wonder if US President Barack Obama is onto something here. You may have heard that he’s asked asked for a 6% increase in the NRSA stipend—the National Institutes of Health’s ‘training’ stipend—for postdoc fellows. He’s …