and some PIs are good guys (really)
I have been reading about David Willetts round table discussion from both Athene Donald and Jenny Rohn. These two fellow Occam T bloggers have been writing about science careers (particularly with respect to post-docs and early career researchers) pretty prolifically in the last few months as have been lots of other folk (see Lewis Dartnell’s blog for instance (apologies to Lewis, I can’t find the actual blog )). All of these posts make not only for an interesting read, but are excellent food for thought about science careers beyond the post-doc and early career level.
One recurring theme that I keep noticing, largely in the comments on these blogs (sorry to not link here but there are such a multitude), is the feeling that the current academic research structure in the UK is ‘all for the glory of the PI’ and there is a huge amount of waste in the system – in terms of helping post-docs move into permanent (academic) posts.
Dealing with the second point first, I think I am safe in re-stating there is a dearth of jobs for post-docs making the transition to a more permanent PI post. With fellowships only funding to the 3-5% level there are not many available. Even if the criteria were opened more widely this is not a lot of people. Not to mention being awarded a fellowship traditionally was a near-as-dammit guarantee of a permanent post- word on the street is no longer! Many people with permanent academic research jobs are having trouble finding money in this current economic climate, it simply ain’t there. Fellowships have always funded to this level, the alternative (if you want to stay in academic research) is to apply for a lecturer position at a university and do research from there, where this was usually the more obvious option. But, again, no longer! There are scant few new faculty positions available in the UK (but there are some) and even when there are, having enough money to do your research is far from guaranteed.
But how much is this a product of the economic crisis? How much of this is a product of a financial structure where there are just simply less jobs? Its something I think we all need to think about. It may not just be the structure of academic science itself, it may just be that the structure is rapidly changing and that less money is forcing this change.
And now to the first point, I think its important to remember that PI’s (for the most part) can’t create positions that are not technician, post-doc or PhD studentship positions. To be a PI in the strictest sense you have to hold a grant, most grants are temporary. If a PI has long-term post-doc grant funding has been strung together to keep said post-doc.
The reason why I am saying this is is there seems to be an undercurrent of blaming PI’s for the suppression of post-docs. I am NOT saying is that this doesn’t happen, it does, you see it in many research departments, there are some PI’s with huge (and not so huge) research groups with post-docs who have been there for ages and seem to not be able to get out. And, as in any career, there are also nasty supervisors who keep people (by writing them bad references and whatnot) for ages. But it is worth remembering that many of them don’t. I have had some excellent supervisors in academia who helped promote me, push me intellectually and build my confidence. When I was a lab technician my boss encouraged me to go back to graduate school, even though he thought I was a good tech (he said); my PhD supervisor sent me to give research talks on my own. One of my senior colleagues told me just last week how proud she was of the fact her first two post-docs were now running their own research groups. This does really happen. It just doesn’t seem to get registered as often. It may just be that PI’s need to be educated to teach people about their further opportunities, maybe the PIs themselves don’t know, especially if they have been successful in the current system, they have never had to tackle the same problems.
PIs and post-docs alike are in a new world, the academic structure seems to be to be changing and while the boat is rocking its not always easy to clearly. I was glad to see that David Willetts had a round table discussion and that the likes of Athene Donald and Jenny Rohn were participating and giving us their impressions. This is a good thing, the more we can open up this discussion the better. But I think all sides of the debate have to keep an open mind (I am not saying this didn’t happen at the round table, it in fact seems like it did!), listen and be careful about not blaming each other but put our heads down together to fix the science career problems.