I recently read Jenny’s outstanding and insightful commentary entitled “Give postdocs a career, not empty promises” published on March 2 (in your nth favorite weekly science journal beginning with the letter N).
First, I want to voice my absolute support, for what it’s worth, with Jenny’s comments about changing the structure of the scientific pyramid. I agree completely that this competitive system is cruel and a real waste of talent and experience to have highly trained postdoctoral fellows unable to find suitable jobs, and to treat the scientific workforce–-students and postdocs–as though they were disposable pipettes.
I agree completely with Jenny’s philosophy that one of the duties of a mentor is to give an indication to students and postdoctoral fellows in the laboratory as to what their chances are of obtaining faculty positions in academia. I think that is absolutely a vital and necessary thing for every mentor to do.
However, I think that the problem actually goes quite a bit deeper than that. For example, I find that newly recruited students into graduate programs in the sciences often have very little or no idea at all what they are getting into. In my institute, we have our own departmental program for graduate students, as well as an umbrella program that is used to recruit students to the Institute, and they have their choice of which departments and laboratories to rotate in. I frequently find myself interviewing students who would like to be accepted into either of these programs and I have the opportunity to discuss with them their career goals and see exactly what they know and what they would like to do.
For the most part, I find that the students have very little idea of what they intend to do and even what their options are once they graduate. Students seldom seem to have any idea of what is expected of them in the course of their graduate work in order to obtain permanent positions or jobs once they graduate. In fact, they often seem only interested in how to obtain their PhD degrees and have very little concern at this point as to what they will do with the degree once they have obtained it. It seems as though nobody has spent the time to counsel them on what constitutes a successful graduate degree and successful graduate career and how they can use that in order to obtain jobs in the future.
Many of the students seem to come with the idea that the very most important thing for them is to achieve high grade point averages in the courses that they take at the beginning of their PhD programs. Rather than sit and explain to them the nuts and bolts of my own research program when I interview them (as some of my colleagues do), instead I find it important to discuss with them what their future goals are and what they intend to extract from the PhD experience. I find that they seldom have any idea that when they complete their PhD and graduate that they will be assessed by their scientific abilities: their publication records, the techniques they have mastered, and importantly, recommendation letters from the mentor and other faculty that they have worked with.
So I would go even further than Jenny and actually say that the mentor’s role is critical in educating prospective students and/or postdoctoral fellows so that they will understand exactly how the system works.
A key issue raised by Jenny in her article is the idea of professional scientists or professional postdoctoral fellows. Jenny correctly points out that after all of the training in doing science, and the laboratory work that postdoctoral fellows have done, many of them are either not suited or really do not necessarily want to do the kind of work that a principal investigator needs to do. This includes grant writing, administration, teaching, dealing with overall bureaucracy and of course the rat race in trying to obtain funding to allow a laboratory to continue its research. Really, a principal investigator, is never actually trained in the mess of bureaucratic activities that she/he spends so much time dealing with.
Principal investigators actually learn on the job to do all of the sorts of human resource-related bureaucracy and deal with issues of personnel, etc. For this reason many new investigators find themselves in shock when they realize that their progress in academic institutes as new investigators no longer depends on their prolific ability to generate data at the bench, but rather stems from their skills as administrators–something for which they have never been formally trained to do.
Jenny has proposed that it would be a good idea to have “career tracks” that are available for postdoctoral fellows who have gone through so much training so that they may stay in the laboratory and continue their productive and experienced research studies. Personally, I think that this is a wonderful idea and have been advocating this myself for many years. The problem, of course, is the issue of money. And at least in the United States the system dictates that each laboratory is its own entity and is responsible for funding the individuals who work within the confines of a laboratory. This means that in order for an investigator to be able to hire such a super postdoctoral fellow he or she will need to be able to finance such a person in the laboratory.
Would a research institute give up on constructing a new “center” or building (with donors names and golden plaques for key contributors) to fund a pool of talented “senior researchers” to be ‘awarded’ to successful laboratories–with the goal to be able to attract additional funding? After all, without the prospect of some ‘return‘ on the investment, research institutes are unlikely to support such an idea. Would the donors and contributors be satisfied with their names on the backs of these senior researcher’s shirts? It would be great, but are we kidding ourselves?
But I’m with you, Jenny–lead on…