How do you judge the worth of a researcher? In particular, can you tell how excellent she is by how quickly she gets from point A to point B in her career?
The funding bodies used to think speed was of the essence. Hence the ‘sell-by’ or ‘expiration’ date of post-docs applying for fellowships: “Thou shalt not be be X years beyond the awarding of your PhD” – where X would tend to be about 4-7 years.
I’ve written about this before, and just to give you an example of how sell-by date is a lousy measure of excellence, here’s the example I gave in that older post:
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.
So three cheers for the UK Medical Research Council, which yesterday announced the results of its 2014 Careers Review consultation. Here’s the key bit:
We are taking a fresh approach to supporting careers by removing eligibility criteria based on years of post-doctoral experience. This will allow for variations in career paths, recognising that the speed of career progression can be affected by factors unrelated to a person’s scientific potential.
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council abolished the sell-by date years ago – and there may be other major funders that have followed suit. (Can you let me know if you know of any?) This current news is definitely a step in the right direction: it’s a victory for older scientists, for scientists with complicated family or personal lives, for scientists who dabbled outside of academia, for scientists who maybe just had a string of bad luck or a series of unsupportive supervisors.
For scientists who are human, in other words, and not charmed charmless turbo-gunners with ten Nature papers and no social life.