What a difference a few words make.
A modest difference, you might think. But your average postdoctoral stint in the life sciences is probably something like 3-4 years. So the difference between 8 and 12+ years is significant. Realistically speaking, you wouldn’t expect to do three postdocs in under eight years. Still a modest difference, perhaps, but it’s enough to make me ineligible for the Royal Society University Research Fellowship (URF) scheme – even though under last year’s wordings, I was still within this limit.
But I don’t want this post to be about me. Most people look at my age and career path and assume I’m not a player: would a real player have done a stint in industry, or surrender to a career break in publishing due to personal circumstances, or have outside interests in science communication? This is, of course, debatable. Yet I want to make this post more general, as the new wording has ruled out a number of my colleagues (far younger colleagues with excellent track records) who took a much more traditional path – but still weren’t traditional enough.
I don’t want to invade their privacy, so let’s compare two hypothetical postdocs, A and B, both of whom published two decent first-author papers in their PhDs and were otherwise equivalent in talent and experience at the start.
Postdoc A does his first postdoc in a high-powered lab, stepping neatly into a project, initiated by a departing PhD student, that is just starting to bear fruit. He doesn’t have a family, so is able to work 12-hour days and throughout the weekend. He ends up with two top-tier papers in four years, and is able to secure another high-profile postdoc in an allied field, consolidating his reputation as an up-and-coming star with two more decent papers. Adding those to his 2 publications from his PhD, he has 6 first-author papers after 7 postdoctoral years. Moreover, his boss is happy for his protégé to take the line of research with him, so he’s in a great place to apply and succeed at a fellowship like the URF.
Not so Postdoc B. She does her first postdoc in a small but respected lab, but gives birth to her second child in year 2. The project is disrupted by her one-year break, so by the end of four years, she has only one co-first author paper (shared with the postdoc who took over her project while she was on maternity leave) and one small first-author paper. She has had to leave the lab every day at 5 PM to pick up her kids from daycare, and can’t work weekends. Most funding bodies would disqualify her break, so she’s effectively done a 3-year stint. From this, she secures a second postdoc in another decent lab, but the boss wants her to develop an entirely new system, which takes her three years to perfect: it’s a highly intricate technological advance, clearly innovative and incredibly powerful. In her third year she manages to publish one first-author paper about the system, but her boss doesn’t want her to take the bulk of this desirable prize as seed-corn for an independent fellowship; she attempts arbitration, but the head of department sides with the lab head. So instead she leaves it all behind and does a third postdoc in a high-powered lab on a project that’s quick off the mark: four years later, she has two top-tier papers, one decent one, and a portable line of research. Her track record is now the same as A’s – except that she’s been in the postdoctoral system for 10 years (not counting the break), so is not eligible for the URF.
Incidentally, this is not about gender. The above scenario could easily have been swapped: the hot-shot with no family ties could have been a woman; the maternity scenario could be swapped for that of a man who’s a full-time carer to his kids or his ailing parents, or for that of a spouse who has to follow a higher-paid, non-scientist spouse to a geographical location with no decent labs for several years. But these sorts of problems probably will fall disproportionately on women, because they’re more likely, on average, to be affected by having a family. It’s also not age discrimination per se, although such restrictions will, by their very nature, work against older researchers.
When I wrote to one of the funding bodies about their policies, they replied that “quality was paramount” – then reiterated the eligibility guidelines. Quite frankly, I don’t understand why postdoc A is of higher “quality” than postdoc B. If anything, the fact that B has triumphed over adversity and still come up on top is testimony to the tenacity of her character, which will stand her in good stead against the vicissitudes of an academic career. Who knows how A would react to a prolonged string of bad luck? What does timing have to do with quality? As long as one is between a PhD and an independent position, and is still obviously producing high-quality results, what difference do a few years make? Couldn’t these decisions be made solely on the excellence of the track record and of the proposed project?
I don’t want to pick on the Royal Society specifically – they are not alone; indeed, it seems to be the norm to impose such restrictions. Hats off, therefore, to the MRC which, with its Non-Clinical Fellowship is, to my knowledge, the only funding body available to a biomedical researcher in the UK that does not put an expiry date on postdocs.
Another thing I learned from my URF email enquiry, which wasn’t in the fine print, is that industry research doesn’t count as a career break: in other words, I have seven years of academic research under my belt (which would qualify me), but four years in industry (which scuppers it; under the old rules, it would have been considered as the third postdoc, so I would have squeaked through). This rule is in place despite the fact that it’s very difficult to publish anything decent, if at all, in industry, and impossible to take any research with you. In not letting applicants disqualify this time, it looks to me as if the RS does not want people to explore industry – which is odd, considering the emphasis on translational research, impact and intellectual property to which more and more funders give lip service, and the fact that most university departments find industry savvy desirable.
I’m interested to hear people’s views on these issues. But before I sign off, I should leave you with this thought: some might wonder how my criticism of sell-by dates fits with my views on science careers in general, and on the problem of the postdoctoral glut in particular. On the surface, imposing these restrictions might seem an easy way to shave off aging researchers who haven’t made the cut quickly enough, leaving more jobs and opportunities for the massive legion of younger postdocs coming up. But I don’t like this solution: it doesn’t account for non-traditional paths, for hidden talent, for delayed potential, nor recognize the value of experience. It favors the lucky and the unencumbered, the well-connected and the glib. Besides, making the system fairer now may lead to a bit more healthy competition in the short term, but when those younger postdocs turn into older postdocs, it will work in their favor too.
Because, despite our best intentions, we’ll never know at the start if we’re going to turn into postdoc A or postdoc B.