In which I question my own sell-by date

The scientific profession is inherently broken.

I’ve blogged in the past about the glut of increasingly desperate post-docs battling it out for a diminishing pool of permanent positions funded by a dwindling pot of research funding. As the culture of our profession stands at the moment, a healthy lab head can churn out 40 trainees over his scientific lifetime – but the only significant source of permanent positions in academia are those same lab head jobs (senior tech jobs being almost non-existent these days, especially permanent ones). So after replacing himself, this leaves 39 scientists in surplus. Industrial and public sector labs will soak up a few, but the rest will have to leave research permanently.

The solution, I’ve argued, is to reduce the number of trainees and to increase the number of permanent, non-lab head positions in the academic scientific career structure: to nurture and cherish the scientists we train, not exploit them for cheap labor to enhance the lab head’s CV and then spit them out when they’ve run their contract-work options into the ground.

Am I bitter? You bet. Is this stance personal? Intimately.

Age discrimination became illegal in the EU in October 2006, but science cleverly gets around this problem by putting restrictions into their fellowship eligibility criteria. At some arbitrary span of time after being awarded a PhD – typically 5-10 years – researchers apparently turn into pumpkins.

Let’s look at my specific example. I received my PhD in June 1996, nearly 15 years ago. Most funding bodies allow you to subtract time out for a career break. Some only allow childbirth or compulsory military service as good excuses, which would rule out my four-year stint in publishing, but for the bodies that don’t care why you left, this will still put me at 11 years when my current fellowship expires. So when the Wellcome Trust awarded me a career re-entry fellowship at year 7, it was with the knowledge that when I emerged at the other end, I would no longer be eligible for any further Wellcome schemes: I’m too past-it for their senior fellowships (10 years) and too junior for their Investigator scheme (which requires an accumulation of corresponding authorships and grants, something that a re-entry fellow can’t realistically expect to obtain when the sponsoring institution doesn’t see us in that junior lab-head role).

At this point it seems clear that I can’t launch straight into a lab head position. It took me quite some time to get back into the swing of things after my career break, and four years was not enough time to build up my CV to effectively compete. What I really need is another fellowship to bridge my way: there seem to be a few options, but I’m already a pumpkin in the eyes of many besides Wellcome: the BBSRC (10 years); the HFSP (10 years), the MRC (6 years, though they allow extensions for “exceptional circumstances”), and so on. In the interests of my non-British readership, I had a look at funding websites in the US and the EU, but was forced to retreat straight away by the veritable wall of jargon. (“F Kiosk”, “SF424 (R&R)” and “PHS 416-9”, anyone? No, me neither.)

I honestly question the validity of an arbitrary sell-by date, which seems so sacrosanct that only “exceptional” circumstances warrant their breach. Is a researcher really qualitatively less attractive at year 11 than at year 10? It shouldn’t matter how old or experienced a research is: she should be weighed on her individual merits. Of course, in a system that churns out a vast glut of young trainees, perhaps the rationale goes something like this: If she didn’t make it in 10 years, she probably never will, so expel her from research and give a young person the chance instead. It reminds me of a scene I saw at Euston Station the other day: a group of tourists coming off the bottom of an escalator and just standing there in bewildered confusion as columns of descending commuters yelled at them to get out of the way so they wouldn’t get knocked over. I was one of the people yelling: can you blame me? If you reach the end of the line, shouldn’t you step aside?

The problem is that everyone is an individual, with his own story to tell. I washed up here at year 11 through a complicated web of cause and effect: yes, a lot of my own career decisions influenced the outcome, but so too did things out of my direct control – a biological model that didn’t pan out, the decision by a post-doctoral supervisor to relocate his lab to a country where I couldn’t follow for personal reasons, a biotech company that went bankrupt. I may be a 40-something post-doc, but this doesn’t mean that I’m not an asset to science, that I don’t deserve a chance to carry on if my CV and track record are good enough.

I propose we call a spade a spade: arbitrary sell-by dates in senior fellowship eligibility criteria constitute age-discrimination, plain and simple. Shouldn’t they be illegal?

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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43 Responses to In which I question my own sell-by date

  1. Pingback: Occam’s Typewriter – a new science blogging network | Code for Life

  2. Paula says:

    Well said, Jenny. But it used to be even worse. As recently as 5 years ago, lots of these fellowships actually had age (usually around 35) as a criteria.

    Good luck in the new home. I’ll be following, as usual. 😉

  3. Jenny says:

    As recently as five years ago, it became illegal. I don’t really see how things have changed – it’s amounts to the same thing, doesn’t it? Unless you were a child prodigy and got your PhD at age 10. 🙂

    Thanks for your good wishes!

  4. Paula says:

    Didn’t realise it wasn’t illegal then… It doean’t amount to the same exactly since you had to have 5 years post-doc experience AND be under 35. At least now one of the restrains is gone, which does allow a bit more possibilities.

    But I totally agree these are artificial ways to define expertise. As you said, why are you not worth supporting if cv and science are good after x years but fine at x-1?… Basically, it’s camouflaged age discrimination.

  5. Jenny says:

    Glad you agree. Maybe this post will make a little noise.

  6. Paula says:

    Judgeing from the results of your last post asking for change, hopefully it will! 😉

  7. Austin says:

    I won’t repeat all I’ve said elsewhere about this, Jenny, but just in one respect:

    “If s/he didn’t make it in 10 years, s/he probably never will”

    – I think that is definitely implicit in the thinking, though rarely voiced in print. One thing it misses is that some people don’t want to be PIs, with all that it implies, but want to keep doing bench science.

    And, of course, in some ways the “shouldn’t you step aside?” thing applies to PIs, too. The people targeted in voluntary severance campaign are those aged 50+ with non-“stellar” research programmes, but that doesn’t mean they are not contributing, or wanting to go on doing what they do . See e.g. what is happening at Imperial to the plant sciences people.

  8. rpg says:

    some people don’t want to be PIs, with all that it implies, but want to keep doing bench science

    Me. Right there.

  9. Dyskinesiachick says:

    You sum up the situation perfectly, and at my institute there are countless brilliant post-docs who are struggling to get funding. This isn’t helped by the University and grant funding systems who seems to delight in delaying release of funding once promised. Wrangling over contracts and exactly how much money is on the table at the end of the day means that post-docs with 2 or 3 kids are surviving on 1-2 monthly contracts, IF their boss can afford to use their ‘slush fund’ to bridge the gap. I shouldn’t complain, I’m one of the lucky ones who got a lectureship at 7 years post-PhD, but I see so many older, non-productive scientists at my institute and others sitting in jobs ticking along in teaching only roles, science having gone down the pan years ago. Those posts could be more usefully used and appreciated by younger or just ‘other’ scientists, of any age. We were also lied to. There should have been a whole generation of senior scientists reaching retirement about now, opening up some permanent posts. But universities are either not filling those posts to save money, or taking on ‘professional tutors’ who do no academic research. Not only are we lossing fabulous scientists, we are creating a huge gap between teaching and research, even at supposedly strong research led universities.

  10. Jenny says:

    Austin, I used senior fellows as an example, because I am one, but you’re absolutely right that this applies to people further along the ruthless conveyor belt too. Thanks for reminding me of that.

  11. my path was slightly different, but the end result — destruction of my scientific career — is just as devastating.

    one thing that frustrated me to no end is finding that many of the grants i applied for in the USA were designed to reward very rigidly defined scientists — those who were younger than 35 AND who had graduated within the previous 10 years. apparently, no one had to work their way out of poverty and through school in the USA, huh? but alas, that’s only one of hundreds of ways that a career in science is hugely discriminatory against anyone who might be different.

    whilst i am commenting here, i thought i’d mention that your rss feeds are broken.

  12. Mike says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I agree with much of what you say. You’re certainly caught in a tough position, rocks and hard places. But to act as a Devil’s advocate, one important reason to put upper time limits on fellowship applications is to prevent established scientists from taking ‘sabbaticals’ at the expense of younger scientists. This certainly happens in some cases (they’ve had to put similar ‘over-qualified’ limits on a variety of positions in Spain), and preventative measures are required.

    Having said that, I agree that an arbitrary post-PhD time limit is probably not the most appropriate preventative measure for everyone. Especially when considering the current huge competition for limited post-doc/non-PI funding which you touched on above.

  13. Jenny says:

    Is it still legal to discriminate by age in the US, Grrl? I’m out of the loop with my home country. But yes, agree with all you say. (and thanks for the tip about rss – we were rushed into launching early by circumstances, so it’s not all ironed out yet.

    Hi Mike! I think as far as senior fellowships go, one could avoid that problem simply by saying that people with established careers are not eligible. Would that work perhaps?

    Personally, I think the Royal Society has done it well. For their senior fellowships, it says something like the person should ideally be fairly early on in their career, perhaps with 1-3 postdocs. Doesn’t stipulate how short those postdocs have to be. That would, for example, work for me.

  14. Mike says:

    In general, definitely, maybe. A variety of problems could arise – a senior researcher could fall out of love with their research line and need some time to investigate new lines instead of teaching, their research line could be scooped, they may wish to move abroad but not have a permanent position abroad… I’m sure you can easily come up with more.

    So, in general, almost certainly, possibly not. My take on the underlying point of this post is that it’s hard to come up with general rules for the type of people who do science. This is true of other professions as well, but we’re not other professionals, so might as well limit our discussion. I accept that there has to be some lines drawn in the sand somewhere, but knowing where is tricky, and someone is always going to be closer to the line than others.

    Note to IT Support: I know you’ve just moved in, but is there going to be a comment preview function coming?

  15. Jenny says:

    I guess in an ideal world, we’d all be judged as individuals on our own merit when it comes to funding. But I agree without rules, people would almost certainly cry foul and it would lead to a lot of aggro.

  16. rpg says:

    Um, I dunno Mike. I’d have to see if there is a plugin. Thanks for the tip.

  17. presumably it is illegal to discriminate based on age, but (a) it happens all the time (it’s especially harsh towards women) and (b) there is a legal loophole that makes age discrimination “okay” (well, defensible) for at least some funding structures and organisations.

  18. Jenny says:

    Thanks for clarifying that. I tend to agree.

    BTW, what browser are you using, with regard to the rss problem? Thanks!

  19. nico says:

    As you pointed out earlier in the other place Jenny, the churn of postgrad and postdocs and the funding model are the reasons for these draconian limitations.

    Instead of investing in people (as I understand universities and research centres like to call it) properly, you can now buy software that will supposedly help the beleaguered PIs carry on research continuity. Although I am sure those tools are very useful, nothing replaces a good tech (or two!) that knows that this incubator doesn’t hold temperature very well, or who is the only person that has actually performed that old out-of-fashion technique that doesn’t come in a kit.

    PS this new place looks great! Who did the decorating ;-)?

  20. forsyth says:

    “those who were younger than 35 AND who had graduated within the previous 10 years”

    One of the problems in the past was that young academics found it difficult to get conventional grants, because they had no track record. Special awards were introduced, aimed at them, to try to address that and encourage them. There are sometimes similar programmes within large companies. (I’d probably have appreciated one myself when I was young and clever.) They impose restrictions such as those above. I think it shows the difficulty of trying to codify such things, at least in a simple-minded way. Perhaps the trouble wasn’t that the academics were young, but that the granting system was biased towards researchers with a history or existing projects that were doing well (or the naive new researcher did not know how to cast a proposal to suit the flavour of the month). In any case, something that was intended to help one group ends up hindering another.

  21. Matt says:

    This is all compounded by the fact that today’s job market expects young scientists to be highly mobile and highly flexible. Say you get a job coming right out of your PhD doing research at an industrial lab (lucky you). Before you know it, your supervisors are asking you to do product development at another site. Then, you could very easily end up doing management or intellectual property work at corporate headquarters. These transitions happen often and very quickly in an industrial setting. But you wanted to do research and now want to get back into it. The company that you work for doesn’t want you at the bench. So you decide to take a chance at a fellowship, knowing well that it’s highly likely that you won’t get funding and that most will turn you away because you’ve been out of the “game”. And, it was never your decision to get out of the game to begin with. It is a tough road. And, I agree with you Jenny that more permanent/non-PI positions are needed.

  22. Jenny says:

    @Nico – the continuity issue is one that I didn’t mention but is indeed one of the boons of having permanent staff. It goes without saying that the lab head slowly loses all the Sacred Knowledge – and when a lab has a sudden turnover of multiple people, this can really hit a lab hard. The sheer problem of making a technique work, or even finding a tube of that (poorly labeled) all-important DNA or antibody, just gets compounded with time.

    @forsyth – yes, codifying it indeed a problem. I wasn’t aware of the history of senior fellowships – that’s very interesting indeed. There must be a way to solve the problem fairly, but I haven’t worked it out yet. Perhaps being a bit more flexible: 10 years preferred, say, but willing to view all cases on an individual basis.

    @Matt – to be honest, at least in the UK where I’m based, industry savvy is seen as a bonus, not a flaw, in academia – or at least in those departments interested in possibly exploiting IP or even doing more translational research. So it might not hurt to try for that fellowship…although of course I don’t know if you’ve already tried and failed, so apologies if I sound too ‘Pollyanna’. 🙂

  23. In Canada, they decided we were not competitive enough in producing Ph.D.s, so they have reduced funding in government labs (killing nice permanent non-faculty positions) in favor of “star professors”. They have also made it so that your ability to get a grant is largely dependent on the number of Ph.D. you train.

    This is view as a quest for excellence. Have few permanent researchers selected from a vast pool of Ph.D.s.

    In their eyes, there is no waste.

  24. ricardipus says:

    I seem to recall having come across “young investigator” type grants which do the same things many have mentioned above… you know the kind of thing, applicant must be early in their career, blah blah blah and then, hidden away, is some kind of “must be under 40 years of age” clause or something similar.

    Discrimination is rampant, and I believe that no matter who you are, you will find it. I’m a 40-something white male, and because of that there are all kinds of awards and fellowships I can’t apply for (including, for example, the aforementioned young investigator type things). It’s annoyed me in the past but I guess fatalism just got the better of me, and I accept it as part of professional life now.

    P.S. If we’re identifying blogging issues, the “you forgot to put the CAPTCHA code” splash screen needs an apostrophe in the word “browser’s”. 😉

  25. Jenny says:

    @Daniel Do they not ever pause to consider the fate of all those disposable scientists? It is very sad.

    Of course, I’ve argued before that having a PhD is useful for many other jobs, and it is right that we should train at least some of them for other purposes. Where I feel more uneasy is with the eternal post-docs – there is no need to do 10 years of post-doc’ing to become a journal editor or patent lawyer or to manage science grants or a science museum, say. So to string a huge glut of post-docs along where research jobs don’t exist for them is cruel.

    @ricardipus My problem is I don’t just like accepting things. I like to *change* things. But this is one hell of a big oil tanker.

  26. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    When I was doing my undergrad, one of the best students on the course was already in his late 40s. He was absolutely intent on a research career, and after a lot of back-and-forth, finally managed to persuade one of the department’s professors to take him on to do a PhD. I wonder what happened to him?

    (Hmm. PubMed says two first author publications, in 2003 and 2004 (he would have started his PhD in 1998), and a first author review in 2009, all with the same PI and at the same institution from which we both graduated with B.Sc.s. No other publications. Interesting).

  27. Jenny says:

    @Dyskinesiachick Sorry I didn’t reply to your comment – I somehow missed it until now. Thanks for your thoughts, which really resonate. In particular I applaud you for maintaining these sentiments despite having made the transition – I find that a lot of PIs somehow develop amnesia about what it’s like for those behind them on the belt. And what you say about the “lost generation” really resonates.

    @Cath Fingers crossed that your mate made it. It can’t be easy to be a mature PhD student – it’s bad enough being a mature postdoc.

  28. ricardipus says:

    Cath – I am reminded of a certain Dr. Alan Coulson, who was I believe for many years a technician for Fred Sanger. He got his PhD quite late in life and of course has had a very successful career since.

    Of course, he did work for a dual Nobel laureate and was one of the key technical drivers behind both the C. elegans and human genome projects, so I guess he’s a bit of a special case.

  29. rpg says:

    I was always an immature postdoc. Fact.

  30. Frank says:

    A certain Nobel laureate, now President of the Royal Society, has been heard to suggest that researchers do their best work before the age of 40. The implications of this for recruitment to a certain major new biomedical research institute will be interesting.

  31. Pingback: “The hard part about playing chicken is knowing when to flinch” « Anomalous Distraction

  32. xtaldave says:

    Referring to the original fellowship conundrum, I have put some thoughts here.

    The fellowship game is a tricky one, and I fail to see how setting largely arbitrary time limits on a scientists career help promote better science.



  33. Jenny says:

    @xtaldave That’s a great blog post, with a good example of how even people who had a much more ‘normal’ career progression than I did can still get themselves into potential trouble if they aren’t blessed with very good luck. Everyone should go read.

    I hope it all works out for you!

  34. I think the fundamental problem is that research careers are seen as rigid, not fluid. Either you manage to get a permanent post at one of the rare research-only institutions, or you get a (semi, these days) permanent post as a lecturer. The idea of a person who weaves a complex web of skills through various appointments and sidelines, who takes career breaks, and who forges an independent research profile, is completely alien to many funding bodies and HE organisations.

    One of the reasons my employer, the Human Communication Research Centre in Edinburgh, is so successful is that they have nurtured a culture of self-funding contract researchers who are appropriately bridged and supported in finding funding for themselves. (Unfortunately, they then proceed to recruit their permanent staff from outside, but that’s another matter.)

    And one of the reasons I am in the UK and not in Germany is that careers like mine are next to impossible in Germany, which has a very strict, hierarchical structure with lots and lots of PhD student worker bees at the bottom and very few full professors, who are effectively civil servants (!) at the top. I elaborated on this broken system here

  35. Jenny says:

    Maria, that link seems to have been stripped out. If you tweet it to me I can restore it somehow. (Still working out how the back end works here…)

    But thanks for your insightful comment. it’s always good to remember that things could be worse, and it’s great that your place is more flexible. However, it must lead to a lot of stress, as you are never entirely sure that you’ll get your next funding contract, and when times are tough, I guess the bridging money is not 100% guaranteed?

  36. Austin says:

    Jenny, if you are logged is as the blog “owner” you can click the link under ANY comment to edit it. The edit screen makes it easy to add in a link by “highlight, click, and paste” – much like the main WP post-editing console with the “HTML” view on.

  37. Jenny says:

    I know that, but what I’m saying is that the link isn’t there any more, even in the back end – hence I don’t know what link to add back. Suspect a spam measure? Maybe I can switch it off, since the authors are all moderated in the first instance anyway…?

  38. rpg says:

    As far as I know, links shouldn’t be stripped out.

  39. I am impressed by your call to arms and your willingness to fight !

    Fellowships are hard because they are looking to reject you – so even if you apply they fund so few people and indeed they are not permanent. And the arbitary age limit, be it a result of law or unconscious bias – does indeed exist as do a whole host of other ‘limits’

    Its sad and I think reflective of the general theme in the academic industry – where if you tread off the beaten path you tread out of the sphere of fundability – often – and I think the biggest problem is it limits the base – ppl with a vairety of experiences often have a very bright look on things (i think) and the system as such seems to be biased against just that – you also have to work for the ‘right people’ on ‘hot topics’ and have x number of nature papers to be ‘at the top’ so maybe this is a part of that greater concern.

    it should be different – and let’s fight it is a great response and lovely to see. I myself – with so many grant rejections this year, feel like giving up – I am tired.

    Great post

  40. The major reason it happens is that the person forgot to paste the URL into the HTML before they hit “post comment”…!!

    Easy to do, actually. If you use the a href=”” and /a HTML tags when you are typing the comment , meaning to then paste the URLink between the “”, and then forget, you get highlighted text but no hyperlink: e.g.

    text to highlight

    Done it myself many a time. Anyway, human error always first possibility, before something weird. Though think it is possible for links to be mysteriously stripped. I suspect can happen if an IP address has been blacklisted as a spam source.

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