Career Progression and the Research Landscape

Career progression for postdocs is a key issue that affects the health of our science base. It formed the basis for a discussion with Science Minister David Willetts at the Royal Institution this week, an event hosted by Evan Harris as ‘guest lecturer’ at the RI, and tied in with the Scienceisvital campaign, created and spearheaded by fellow Occam’s Typewriter blogger Jenny Rohn. Jenny and I joined the panel (making it pleasantly balanced by gender). One outcome of the debate is that there will be an opportunity for comments raised both on the evening and through the feedback site to be pulled together by the Scienceisvital team and sent to Willetts’ office for further discussion, a step he positively welcomed in his closing remarks. I am not going to discuss the details of the debate, since this can be found in the podcast (plus a personal account from one attendee here) but want to discuss some wider issues in the context of funding that the debate raised in my own mind, and tie the discussion in with a talk I heard the next evening from Ottoline Leyser, who heads up the BBSRC’s training panel.

Postdocs see themselves, understandably, as at the bottom of the food chain. Jenny has written previously about the wastage she sees – not to mention the frustrations she and her peers feel – about the current system in which the pyramid of employment is steeply sloped.  The anxieties that these early career researchers feel arise from job insecurity, low pay and being exploited in some cases, by PI’s who might be only interested in large-scale paper-producing factories and not the well-being of any individual postdoc. Ottoline described this very well: instead of individuals at the postdoc stage being able to enjoy and share the discoveries of science she felt the machinery in which they were operating resembled a hamster wheel, with the consequences being a generation of disgruntled postdocs who not only felt the system had let them down, but also that any career choice other than academia represented ‘failure’.  Thus, postdocs who join a big team can see themselves as simply expendable data-producers, sometimes not even paper-writers, whose opportunity to gain first-author papers may be limited.  The knock-on effect when it comes to subsequent job applications are all too obvious. So, to use Jenny’s analogy of an ecosystem, those at the top appear to survive at the expense of gobbling up those at the bottom.

Ottoline’s suggestion to improve the situation? It may surprise readers to know the tool she sees as a way forward is the Pathways to Impact statement. By causing PI’s to think hard about the training element – and of course then deliver against it – she thought the current vicious circle which produces disgruntled PDRA’s who no longer necessarily even still enjoy the excitement of their science could be transformed. By disseminating the joys of their science to a whole range of users including the public and schoolchildren, the PDRA’s might be able to gain a wider perspective about the world beyond academia and acquire useful skills which any future employer might welcome.  Furthermore, this might encourage these same postdocs to recognize that jobs outside academia do not necessarily equate to failure, a view which I fear is one that PI’s may not only inwardly share (perhaps we need to validate the route we ourselves have chosen), but also convey explicitly or implicitly to those they employ. This is a disaster. For instance, the evidence that we need more inspirational teachers is STEM subjects is manifest, but if postdocs enter the teaching profession believing they have failed rather than that teaching is a challenge to be relished, we are dooming both the individual and the children they teach to an unsatisfactory fate.  I have written before about some of the other challenges: the PI’s must be open and honest about opportunities for progression, something not all senior academics are terribly good at; the postdocs themselves also need to take responsibility right from the outset.

Jenny’s solution to the pyramid is to create more permanent post-doc positions, something which was more common in the days when the phrase ‘the well-found laboratory’ meant something in terms of actual cash – in other words a model which has been lost in recent years.  However, some careful thought would have to be done about the numbers’ game to ensure this delivered what is intended in ways that are affordable, which doesn’t accidentally lead to shifting problems elsewhere or block off talent at a different part of the career ladder.  Nevertheless, it is clear such positions would be attractive to postdocs and PI’s alike.

However, to return to the Willetts debate, I would like to introduce another dimension. Margaret Harris from Physics World, an ex-atomic physicist, highlighted a different problem. She pointed out that atomic physics – an area undergoing something of a resurgence in research terms and accompanying grant funding – has consequently many graduate students and postdocs but, at the moment at least, few permanent positions to which they can aspire. There are many areas where grant funding may be currently flowing because of the scientific buzz about them but permanent positions are not necessarily being created in sync with this.  As Willetts was able to point out (conveniently for him), the Haldane principle means the government ‘does not’ step in to influence what research councils are funding. The research councils of course do not have any substantive influence over where lectureship posts are created in universities, though they may at the margins, or what distribution between sub-disciplines there is or should be . So, no one has responsibility to look at any developing mismatches between supply and demand by (sub-)field.  There is no joined up thinking which could ease the problem identified. We can all think of many fields where these problems arise (let alone ones which were once seen as sexy, but no longer are.  This means they may be unable to attract funding in the current different climate from when the posts were first created so faculty are left high and dry without funding, or indeed postdocs, although there are lots of staff). So, leaving aside the pyramid, we have in essence an inbuilt randomness about supply and demand. I have no solution to this to propose, I merely note the inherent instability in our employment sector and the disconnections between different parts of the employment landscape.

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11 Responses to Career Progression and the Research Landscape

  1. @stephenemoss says:

    The scientific career structure is almost certainly a disincentive to smart graduates thinking about their futures. In law or medicine for example, it is more than likely that providing you pass your exams and complete the necessary training, you will emerge with a job as a lawyer or medic. But in science it is not merely possible, but actually quite likely, that you will embark on many years of training, with long hours and poor pay, and end up without a job.

    Clearly, one way to mitigate the loss of talent that occurs at the level of the senior post-doc would be to inject substantial additional funds into the science budget (either via RCs or Unis) to provide permanent positions for such individuals. More realistically, the problem might be addressed without increasing the science budget by imposing a constraint on the numbers taking PhDs in the first place. If the number of PhDs were cut by say 80%, the stipends doubled and proper running costs provided, one would expect intense competition for those places and thus selection of the most outstanding graduates. The number that then completes appropriate periods of post-doctoral training would generally be of suitably high calibre, and much more readily accommodated in academic positions or as ‘permanent’ post-docs.

  2. Jenny Woods says:

    Stephen: This is the ‘shaving the pyramid’ comment that I found so worrying during the debate itself…and I do hope you are making it for the purposes of discussion rather than truly believing it?

    Firstly, many of those leaving academia after completeing their PhD go on to very satisfying careers directly within science-based industries, hence strengthening the economy of the UK.

    Second, if they decide to go onto careers outside mainstream science, their analytical training is invaluable – within IT and finance for example.

    Thirdly, PhD-level research is good research! These young researchers themselves add significantly to the body of understanding of these subjects – by reducing the number of funded PhD positions we reduce the amount of research carried out overall to the detriment of scientific progress.

    We need to recognise these points and explain them to the early-career scientists – I felt like a failure for moving from an academic career into a different career path until I was told by a Director of one of the Research Councils “That was exactly what we expected you to do”. There was a slogan we had at the time “Research and Skills for the Nation’s Needs”…i.e. vital everywhere not just within the university system. As it happens, I’ve now come back into the university fold, hopefully enriched by my time in other areas.

    I think the solution lies in being innovative and flexible about careers, creating new categories of post – the long-term PDRAs discussed, but also others… new types of teaching post, new types of research administration post, new types of outreach post, combinations of these with different weightings, making it easier to move into and out of academia… and valuing all of these contributions which enable individuals to drive forward science according to their wishes and talents.

    We also need to think flexibly about the funding system and the way that success within it is measured… but I’ve probably said enough for now

    • @stephenemoss says:

      My comments were indeed intended in part to provoke comment. I strongly agree with something Bruce Alberts once said, which is that the world would be a much better place if everyone had a science PhD. Isn’t it extraordinary that even our minister for science doesn’t have a science PhD?

      Greater investment in science and postgraduate education would clearly be a much preferred option to reducing PhD numbers, and more sensible from an economic perspective. However, with no change in the current budget for RC studentships, I do think it might be better to have slightly fewer students and to provide a more generous stipend and running costs.

      I couldn’t attend the debate the other day, and perhaps this would be a controversial view but I have seen over many years the financial strictures faced by my own PhD students. Digressing slightly, their discomfort is not helped by the knowledge that the clinical PhDs doing the same type of work in the same lab are paid substantially more.

  3. Stephen,

    In the same way that uni admissions tutors can not predict the successful undergraduates from the less successful undergraduates based solely upon A level grades, those responsible for PhD students can’t predict from a brief interview those candidates that will fly versus those that will sink.

    Some PhD positions are undersubscribed, whereas others are oversubscribed by a factor of ten. However, its often the undersubscribed ones where the money is flowing more freely so anyone with half a brain can get enrolled, though not necessarily flourish. A major cut in PhD
    numbers in isolation would make it genuinely competitive in some areas (good) but cause others to become a random lottery.

    PhD stipends that are offered are pretty decent (outside the South East at least) and higher
    stipends wouldn’t necessarily attract a better class of applicant. The most highly motivated candidates would probably still embark upon a PhD for less money.

    As mentioned by Jenny, a rapidly declining pool of PhD students would cause many excellent research groups to sieze up, since the head scientist is often tied up in teaching/admin for a large chunk of the year and many labs require full time researchers plugging away. This wouldn’t be in the interests of anyone working in UK uni research since lower productivity would reduce UK competitiveness and in turn the Gov’t could shut down their funding stream and push potential PhD students overseas.

    Many countries in Continental Europe and N. America have an objectively better system by ensuring large numbers of students embark upon an intermediate master (by research) course which does allow the wheat to be separated from the chaff, followed by a longer PhD. Still, this isn’t the way UK funding for postgraduate degrees is heading, since only PhD’s (for science subjects at least) come with Research Council funding for stipend and fees, but not other PGR programmes. I see no appetite for this Bologna approach in the UK, and complaints about poor career paths would surely get worse – a recent PhD of mine who had been through the German/masters + Canadian/PhD systems was in his 30s by the end, versus 24 or 25 for a typical PhD graduate in the UK.

    Many students embark upon a PhD with the stated aim of a career in academia, but before the end do choose to go into the wider world once they have weighed up the pros and cons of a uni research career, and some actually intend a PhD to be an end in itself, using it from the outset as a stepping stone towards teaching or another career etc.

    • @stephenemoss says:

      I would be interested to know whether PhD students think their stipends are pretty decent. I agree they may not look too bad, but often the brightest graduates will see how much better they could do in professions other than science. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, there is the disincentive of the poor science career structure once the PhD is over. It has been noted that ‘a PhD student is someone who forgoes a proper salary at the present, in order to forgo a proper salary in the future’.

      • PhD stipends were low for a long time, but they began to improve markedly in the mid 2000s. By the end of my PhD (2008), they were above £12k tax free, and I certainly never had a problem living on that. I also don’t think I’d have necessarily done better if I’d got a job straight out of university. My science-graduate housemate had a job in IT, for example, and he took home (after tax) about the same as I did. And I know which of us was (usually) having more fun at work.

        Of course, both of us were making peanuts compared to graduates with high-flying financial jobs. But that’s a separate issue.

  4. Jenny Woods says:

    Sadly not extraordinary the Minister has no science doctorate, given the general lack within the House of Commons.

    At the risk of making this comment thread digress from the important article it sits under, I will however pass on a point made at the session on ‘Working with Policy Makers’ at the excellent Science Communication Conference held this week – which is to recognise that Ministers do become subject specialists, through receiving intense briefing for the area they represent. I’ve been impressed by our Minister (Party ideology aside!) whenever I’ve seen him speak. It’s the other Departments we need to convert to science enthusiasts too, particularly Treasury…

  5. @tstephenemoss – during the debate itself, the general sense was that cutting PhD places was not the right place to go, but restricting the supply of postdocs to enable more ‘permanent’ postdoc positions to be created would be preferable.

    I entirely concur with Paul that you cannot judge from a brief interview whether a student will flourish as a research student or not. Even if you have evidence of a final year research project on which to judge. Unfortunately, even at the start of the postdoc track I think it is difficult to judge which postdocs have what it takes to be a productive independent researcher. That transition is not always straightforward because you have to switch from being simply a very good experimentalist/theorist/ etc who loves research. who is able to imbibe and deliver against a whole suite of approaches and will work hard, to someone with the imagination – and good luck – to dream up new experiments which open up new directions. Probably simultaneously with being able to write fluent prose, network and challenge others in the field. Succeeding at moving into independence requires a lot more than simply being a wonderful producer of data and papers, and I have seen incredibly smart people falter because of lacking some much less obviously desirable characteristic than simply intelligence and drive. Nevertheless, I suspect there are many postdocs who would benefit hugely from being offered advice to move on to pastures new away from academia, and yet are ‘used’ as a safe pair of hands for far too long.

  6. Andy Parnell says:

    Dear Athene,
    as someone who has just come back to planet Earth after experiencing five minutes of fame, I can vouch for the approach you mention of disseminating science publicly to many different groups. The interactions I have had with radio stations, public interest and industry magazines have been very fruitful and rewarding as well as good on the job media training. When speaking with a chemistry professor from Sheffield he seemed stunned that our work has made it to the Independent online, I am sure he would not have been as amazed by reading our paper on the same work in Soft Matter (this is not to denigrate Soft Matter). I would just highlight that the senior academics working on the project gave me the chance to pursue and write a press release on our work. In the end this may be more beneficial to me in helping my career than an established academic. I am not sure if this would be the same in all research groups, but I would like to hope so.

    If you want to learn more just type Parnell and Fraud into google and look under news.

    • Andy, I had indeed spotted your story on the Independent site! However, trailing it as Parnell and Fraud may give people the wrong impression – you are of course fighting fraud not being arrested…..
      I guess one question would be, does this make you think differently about careers beyond academic science? The article in today’s THE about lack of jobs for postdocs – which Jenny Rohn contributed to – reinforces the message that non-academic jobs should not be seen as failure. But many people in your position see it as exactly that. I wonder if the buzz of speaking to the media, sharing your science but in a different less traditional-academic-way, makes you reconsider your position on this.

      • Andy Parnell says:

        Dear Athene,
        in answer to your question I refer you to your own comments about the debates you had at the Hay festival. As my concern is that the exciting debates as well as the dynamic environment that I currently work in would not be the same in a company. I would also lose some of the freedom to pursue my own ideas to some extent. I agree that there is a perception that postdocs have failed if they cannot become lecturers, but then I know a number of successful postdocs who would rather not become lecturers and lecturers who want to be postdocs ! Perhaps a model similar to the CNRS in France would be helpful for some of these highly skilled people who want to solve challenging problems.

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