In which I seek the evidence – and ideas

A post I initially wrote about the consequences of putting arbitrary sell-by dates on post-docs seeking fellowships has been rebutted by my esteemed OT colleague Athene Donald. It’s an interesting post and I encourage people to have a look at it along with the many comments (and, since I don’t want you to interpret the below quotes out of context, do go back and read them in their entirety). However, I’d like to extract three assumptions that came up that interested me the most – and I’d love to hear your views on them (paraphrased below):

Assumption 1. People who’ve taken a bit longer to achieve a decent track record and a portable line of independent research are less likely to become world-leading scientists (and are therefore less worthy of funding).

Athene speculated that funding bodies probably see meanderers as a bad risk: “I think the general view (of those on the committees) would be someone who has, apparently happily, taken postdoc after postdoc probably lacks the creative spark to go off and be an independent leader.”

She acknowledges, of course, that appearances are deceptive. But is it a generally sound assumption? There is also an alternative hypothesis: someone with more experience might actually do more for the money than someone with less experience. Athene admits she knows of no evidence one way or the other, and neither do I (aside from an unscientific gut feeling that experience is a good thing, not a detriment) so I’m throwing this out to the crowd: has anyone seen any such studies? If so let me know.

It would be reassuring if the eligibility criteria used by the bodies that fund science turned out to be evidence-based.

Assumption 2: The current fellowship evaluation systems of the major funding bodies is as fair as is humanly possible, and it’s not theoretically possible to remove arbitrary experience cutoffs without crippling the system.

I think this one is a non-starter, personally. As far as I’m concerned, anything that doesn’t violate the laws of physics is not impossible, and I wouldn’t accept this argument as a reason not to take a look at how things are done with a fresh eye. (I heard the word “impossible” quite a bit at the beginning of the Science Is Vital campaign, for example.)

Deevybee noted: “Like Athene, I have sat on committees that evaluate postdoc fellowships and I can only support what she says. When you have a heap of 50 applications in front of you and know that you can recommend 5 of them to go forward to the next stage and only half of those will get funded, the last thing you want to see is broadened criteria.”

The thing is, we’re brainstorming here, so we’re allowed to be creative. Nobody is suggesting that we ought to dump 200 more files of the same length onto poor Dorothy’s desk. How about if those files were shorter in the first round, more manageable? As a nice analogy, do you remember when pre-submission enquiries started becoming increasingly common? Many of the scientists I knew worried that they wouldn’t be able to make the quality of their paper shine through in an abstract format, and a few journal editors in my acquaintance were similarly concerned. A few decades later and, by and large, the humble “pre-sub” has become a genre appreciated by editors and authors alike for the most competitive journals, probably saving years of wasted time on both sides. I’m not suggesting fellowship apps could be dealt with by abstract alone, but the analogy is meant to show that (1) it is theoretically possible for selection criteria of complex science to be successfully streamlined, and (2) it doesn’t necessarily make more work to let in more applicants if your streamlining has been designed with care to compensate for the increase.

As an aside, I’m not convinced that removing the cut-off dates would lead to the magnitude of inundation feared. As Athene mentioned, many postdocs don’t want to be independent. One way to test this is to ask the RS to supply the total numbers they received last year for the URF compared to this year; the difference might be this elusive figure. It wouldn’t be perfect, as numbers can fluctuate year by year, but it would be a start.

Assumption 3: People who are directly affected by an issue cannot think about it dispassionately or objectively.

Although this issue does affect me directly, I am genuinely trying to explore it in a manner that is balanced and that takes into account all the factors. I don’t think my post or any of my comments has been particularly heated. Rather, I’m just enjoying the stimulating discussion – despite the implication that folks in my plights should just suck up and “take the cards they’re dealt” and that we’re too close to the issue to see the other side. I’ve been interested to hear from people who are adversely affected by these issues, and I’ve been interested to hear from others who are on the other side and are helping to allocated the limited resources as fairly as they can. I would also point out that it’s possible to turn this around: those on the other side are also capable of being overly passionate and could be at the risk of not weighing the opposite argument as fairly as they could either.

I’d suggest we think about this as scientists – with curiosity, with a practical bent and with maximum creativity. Is it a good idea to open up fellowship applicants to all mid-career postdocs? If so, what’s the best way to make it happen logistically – how could we consider streamlining the search for great projects and the future PIs to make them happen?

All ideas welcome!

About Jennifer Rohn

Scientist, novelist, rock chick
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50 Responses to In which I seek the evidence – and ideas

  1. rpg says:

    I think point two is key, here. Dorothy is surely wrong about that. If we’re going to talk about doing the best for science in this country, then surely you _do_ want to widen your net. It strikes me as particularly near-sighted to have seemingly arbitrary cut-offs. How much talent are you missing? Not the sort of ‘talent’ that ends up as a pen-pushing PI one step removed from the science they have been trained to do. Multiple post-docs can sometimes be the only way to continuing doing the work you love, and are good at. You are just the type of person who should be eligible for fellowships and long-term funding. After all, I notice that other trades tend to advertise for ‘experience’ rather than some arbitrary length of time in that particular industry.

    (Also, I’m sure Athene and Dorothy wouldn’t want people to characterize their argument as “Please don’t make more work for the great and the good” either.)

    Point 3 is particularly pertinent here on the internets. It’s far too easy to demonize people who disagree with you (see my recent post). Also, it’s incredibly entertaining watching people exhibit the same behaviour they’re accusing others of. *munches popcorn*

    Something else to think about: what would, in an ideal but funding-limited world, a mid-career postdoc look like?

  2. I don’t think Dorothy was arguing that widening the net was a bad idea in principle: it’s just not workable with the current system. I don’t have any direct experience with this point but I accept the arguments of those who do.

    But I *do* think we can think more about it – that’s it’s not a hermetically sealed process. I think it’s right and proper that people being directly affected by it have a chance to comment on it. Are early or midcareer postdocs ever given a say when these things are discussed? (I thought A. mentioned this in her comment thread but for the life of me I can’t find it.) If so, I’d love to talk to someone who’s been consulted, and hear how their opinions were accommodated – or not as the case may be.

  3. cromercrox says:

    by and large, the humble “pre-sub” has become a genre appreciated by editors and authors alike for the most competitive journals, probably saving years of wasted time on both sides.

    I don’t know if I come under ‘by’ or ‘large’, but I am not a fan of presubs. They make a great deal of extra work for us editors, who have to judge, on the basis of even less information than is contained in a paper, whether they are being sold a girrafe in a poke.

  4. rpg says:

    Actually, I don’t accept that argument. See what Cameron said about making the net wider, and making the selection random—this is an experiment I’d live to be able to do in some sort of parallel universe.

    I also think that the arguments of those affected by the process should be heard, and given more weight than those administering the current system. I know it’s not a democracy, but one would have thought that those whose livelihoods are affected by the system should get a good hearing at least, without fear that their concerns would be so lightly dismissed.

  5. Henry, I’ve worked at journals that had pre-subs and those that didn’t and I vastly preferred the former. I’m sure not everyone likes them, but they certainly do allow a journal like Nature to consider more papers.

    I’m curious: did the advent of the presub at one’s favorite mag starting with N really lead to that many more submissons? I’m surprised: I would have thought that it wouldn’t deter chancers to have to submit a whole paper. I thought Nature rejected 90% on presub and sent the rest out for review, with a 20% success rate. That sounds like a huge amount of work saved, if not by the editors, than at least by the referees.

  6. cromercrox says:

    I don’t know. All I know is that many presubs on their own are simply impossible to evaluate on the evidence presented unless you happen to be familiar with the work.

    Richard has just told me to Fuck Off, so I’m Fucking Off now.

  7. I guess the challenge, for winnowing a few more fellowships, would be to come up with a shorter form that can distill the essence of a person and a project. Cameron’s had some interesting ideas about metrics – in the end it all comes down to metrics, doesn’t it? But scientists should be able to come up with new ideas…it all comes down to whether people think it’s worth it. Obviously that point too is debatable.

  8. rpg says:

    I was replying to Jenny above.

  9. Grant says:

    *Sigh* I wrote a long comment only for the browser to crash (it didn’t bring back the form contents). As I’m short on time, I’ll have to defer this to later…

    In the meantime, a nutshell take of loose “brainstorming” thought:

    – define a “standard” career path

    – map existing career steps to this (1st post-doc, 2nd+ post-doc, research fellow, senior RF, etc.)

    – have grants say what step(s) they target

    – have applicants target the step they believe that can justify from their skills, experience, etc.

    Nothing about x number of years or age, similar to how job applications work. Career path here is series of steps, not age-related. People can opt to stay at level if that’s their thing. (As an extreme example, handful actually want serial post-docs, e.g. to travel the world; it’s not for most, but it shouldn’t be shamed either.) People can opt out for a while, or move between industry and academia (provided it’s recognised that publication records can’t readily be maintained in most of industry). etc.

    There are two-step grant applns in NZ – I’ll get back on that (no time right now).

    Also, other thoughts when I’ve time.

  10. Grant says:

    BTW, I’m aware that the varying length of post-docs can confound this if not taken into account.

  11. Steve Caplan says:

    Having read both Athene’s and Jenny’s great posts and the threads from the two blogs, I’ve decided to post some thoughts of my own as a comment on both threads.
    Rather than comment specifically or reply to specific points, I’ll just make a few of my own.

    First, there is certainly no argument that “life isn’t fair.” This goes for just about anything, including genes for disease and health, being born to a family with means to support the children as opposed to a family suffering from famine in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Extending the “life isn’t fair” into science careers, we can note that a naïve student who chooses a bad lab for her/his Ph.D research will have a hard time, if ever, recovering from this disadvantaged start. He/she will not publish well, will get poor training, and will be unlikely to get a post-doctoral position in a top quality lab to show the productivity and ingenuity needed in today’s world for a faculty position. Of course there are exceptions, but they are few and far in between.

    I currently serve on two separate review committees: At NIH, my committee deals exclusively with student and post-doctoral trainee fellowships, whereas at the American Heart Association, I chair a committee which deals with all grants and fellowships, from student, post-doc, transitional and investigator grants.

    This means that I personally review over 50 fellowships (and/or grants)/year, and am exposed to many more.

    The criteria for all training grants are similar, no matter the mechanism: for example for post-docs, there is a very high percentage of the score that is given directly for the sponsor/mentor. Without reading a word of the grant, or looking at the applicant’s own CV and publications, the fate of an application can already be sealed. If the mentor lacks funding, or lacks a good track record in publications and in mentorship (graduating or generating active scientists), the fellowship will already be damaged beyond repair. Yes, reviewers are wise enough to realize that a PI/sponsor with a lab for 7 years will not have the same extensive record as a successful PI after 20 years. Those considerations are taken into account.

    The next important thing is the applicant. Again, for a post-doctoral fellowship, publications are crucial, because as Shakespeare said, “they are the measure of all things.” So a post-doc who published only a single publication in a 5-6 year Ph.D. in a so-so journal will be disadvantaged. A post-doc with 2 good publications in that time frame will be competitive if all else is good, whereas a post-doc with 4 excellent papers and 3 more co-author papers from the Ph.D. is already at a strong advantage before the application is even looked at. Now such a very strong applicant could offset a so-so mentor, and a poorly written application can harm even such a highly successful applicant. But that’s the way things work.

    One can argue about whether these are the correct criteria—whether they identify the best scientists. One can even argue “does it matter?” After all, in these cases (unlike the ones described by Jenny that make or break a career), a sponsor needs to show he has alternative funding for the applicant. And if the sponsor already has other funding to support the applicant, in the long run does it even matter for the applicant’s career if she/he gets the award? Perhaps—but also perhaps not.

    Are there considerations for maternity leave and so-called “non-traditional career paths.” Yes, but again, perhaps not enough. On the other hand, unlike from what I understand from my fellow bloggers in the UK, institutions in the US generally allow 6-12 weeks of paid maternity leave. Not a year.

    What is a fair time? I don’t know. My spouse had 2 months paid leave as a post-doc at NIH, and we took a third (unpaid) month to visit her family in Israel. As an employer now, my own personnel receive 2 months of paid leave from the university (but of course, paid for from my research grants). I honestly don’t know how I would feel if over a 5-6 year period I had to pay a technician 3 years of pay for 3 maternity leaves. 2-3 months seem manageable (and necessary). But if it were a full year, despite priding myself on fairness and “gender-blindness,” when hiring I don’t know if thoughts would creep up about whether it would be less risky to hire a male vs female for a position. Especially if my tenure and career were riding on it.

    Back to the review process; I’m not implying that it is perfect here in the US. As a reviewer, I struggle as much as anyone else with the disappointments of my own grant applications. I do, however, feel that in general there is a willingness to discuss each and every one of the applications on an individual basis. This means that cases where there was a personal family tragedy, health issues, even divorce and/or depression are very carefully weighed and considered. Even cases where a sponsor moved to a new institution in the midst of a student’s Ph.D., or tragically died.

    Less tragic instances are also considered. A talented person who decides to return from an attempt to become integrated in industry. Two maternity leaves in the course of a Ph.D. And so on.

    In summary, I think an applicant with a strong publication record and the right pedigree who puts together a decent proposal is in excellent shape for obtaining an award. However, despite the stiff competition, I do believe (at least in the US system) that there is enough flexibility to consider and fund outstanding applicants who don’t fit into the generic pattern.

    How do we ever know what’s the best career path to take? It’s extremely tough, and there’s no golden rule. In a seminar that I attended where a prize was awarded to the late Judah Folkman in the 1990s, he told the story of a post-doc in his lab who worked for 7 years trying to purify an angiogenesis factor from human feces. He explained that there is a very fine line between persevering and being pig-headed. In this case the post-doc identified the factor, got a “Cell” paper under his belt (no pun intended), and earned his record in history as a highly determined and successful post-doc. In many other cases, and ones that are not so well recorded, such post-docs might not identify the factor and go down in history as obstinate and pig-headed.

  12. Jenny, in my post I stated specifically what happened to the Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships when the criteria were relaxed (not the same alterations as years postdoc that you have been concentrating on, but nevertheless a relaxation of rules). The numbers went up by a factor of at least 2 as I recall. We hadn’t seen this coming and the panel was the same size as previous years. It was an unpleasant experience, not least because we were very worried time pressures – the timetable for assessment was no different and the grant admin had a fantastic load of references etc to sort out – made things even harder to do thoroughly.No, it isn’t a case of the great and good not liking the increased workload, rpg is most definitely right! It is the great and good feeling their best efforts aren’t good enough to be as fair as one would wish because of overload. Very different. But, I think you are wrong about assumption 2 – there really would be a problem.

    Thank you for posting this thoughtful response to my post, but I don’t think it amounts to a rebuttal. It simply continues the dialogue. This is an emotive subject and one we will probably never agree on! It doesn’t mean the dialogue isn’t good….

  13. deevybee says:

    I think the voices that aren’t being heard here are those of the newly qualified PhDs who haven’t had a postdoc. The point about broadening criteria isn’t just about committee workload – it’s about reducing the chances of the early career scientists if you let those with more experience compete with them.
    It’s also definitely *not* saying the more experienced are no-hopers. Rather just that we squeeze out the newly qualified and less experienced – and they probably would be squeezed out because their cvs are less impressive and there’s less evidence to go on.
    I see the current criteria as protecting one stream of funding for this newly qualified group. If we don’t let them get their foot on the bottom rung of the ladder, we risk losing a generation of researchers.

  14. @Athene It seems you didn’t read my post very carefully. I specifically stated that it would not be optimal to widen criteria without first putting thought into streamlining the assessment criteria. I think it’s debatable that an early-career fellowship like the DHF would respond in a similar way to broadening than the later URF, but again, those shrinkage data will be available and could be taken into account next year so one could make a better estimate. One could also gather data from the ERC fellowship, which is also cross-discipline and whose cut-off is 12 years. What are their numbers? There is really no need to guess, and decide in advance there’s no hope. One could even conduct a scientific survey of potential candidates.

    @Steve – thank you for your thoughts from across the pond. It’s great to see that so much thought is given to the individual experience. I wonder if the very active National Postdoc Association has helped keep things fairer, or if it’s self-imposed morality, or a mixture of both?

    @Grant – thanks for these ideas. It’s an interesting thought to regularize the career structure. This sort of thing would be useful if there were more and varied types of permanent positions at the other end.

  15. Sorry I didn’t see your comment in the moderation queue until just now, deevybee.

    I’m not sure I completely agree with your point – after all, these younger scientists only need to gain a few years of experience to help them become competitive, and as we all know there is no shortage of postdoc positions to allow that to happen (especially as they’re junior, with modest salary requirements).[note added in retrospect, for clarity: this last statement refers to the molecular/life sciences. I appreciate it’s not as easy in other fields and I apologize for the confusion!] Meanwhile, committees will still probably favor the quick over the meanderers, because on paper they look more impressive. Are you 100% sure this will “lose” a generation?

    (It’s a separate point if it’s ok to lose younger scientists and not older ones, but I think we don’t need to go into this.)

    Outside of science, as others have pointed out, people compete freely with people of all ages and are judged on their own merits and experiences. Something similar could theoretically work for science too. It would be interesting to at least discuss how this might be possible – as a thought exercise – which was the point of my post.

  16. Grant says:


    You certainly could tackle it by standardising career paths 🙂 It wasn’t my intention. (In fact one of my criticisms, in NZ at least, is the focus dominantly on one measure of success [the Performance Based Research Fund, or PBRF, score] must make it hard for departments to want to take on a diversity of roles, some which whose contributions to PBRF gains are indirect or longer-term.)

    I just mean to suggest defining a ‘standard’ path that actual positions are mapped onto. This isn’t much different to writing ‘post-doc or equivalent’ other than trying resolve the ‘equivalent’ ahead of time through a series of ‘standard’ career steps, rather than trying to identify a group by counting years, etc., which I thought was your main concern. Sorry if I’m not being clear.

    Either way, it would always help if there were more and sounder careers at the other end!


    Excellent comment. I agree with most of what you say. Maybe I’m reading her wrongly (or you wrongly!), but isn’t Jennifer’s main concern that the application criteria allowing you to apply (not the assessment criteria, once you’ve applied) are blocking some people who’d otherwise fit the objectives of the grant? (As I wrote on Anthene’s thread: I think eligibility criteria and assessment need to not trip each-other up.)

  17. Grant says:

    Outside of science, as others have pointed out, people compete freely with people of all ages and are judged on their own merits and experiences.

    That’s really what I was trying to drive at, making a framework that shifts the focus to the positions that are being filled (at least in a theoretical framework sense), so that the application criteria were the career step without any reference to age, etc., a bit more like job applications are in many ways. It might be instructive to compare academic and non-academic science job advertising, etc?!

    Forgot to add earlier. Some grants in NZ have a preliminary proposal round of short applications, followed by inviting a subset to submit full applications. In my own experience the preliminary stage still requires a fair amount of work, but at least you don’t have to work out the fiddly details of the project, and the committee is looking at shorter applications (1-2 pages descriptions for the grant I’m familiar with). It’s a reasonable scheme, although like a lot of people I feel frustrated at the lack of feedback if you fail at the preliminary round.

  18. rpg says:

    I think Jenny’s right here, that the newly qualified tend to get postdocs, and then they have the chance at fellowships.

    Naturally, if you set aside a pot of competitive fellowship money for yolk-dripping PhDs, then that might free up some postdoc positions for people in Jenny’s situation… ?

  19. @Athene Another piece of data for you. The MRC Non-Clinical fellowship is earmarked for excellent early/mid career scientists with 6 or more years of post-doctoral experience. There are no other restrictions. Last year, only 31 people applied (and 4 were awarded). This implies that experienced postdocs are not likely to desperately apply for everything they can get – they do put some thought into what the committees want and are cognizant of their own weaknesses.

  20. deevybee says:

    Well, this must be discipline dependent. I initially thought you were being ironic in stating “as we all know there is no shortage of postdoc positions to allow that to happen”, but reading on I decided you must be serious.
    That is certainly not the case in my field. There are very few postdoc positions. ESRC used to operate an excellent one-year postdoctoral fellowship scheme which was very popular – despite its short term, it gave new PhDs a chance to publish work from the thesis and prepare applications for other fellowships. These were axed by ESRC this year. Despite the fact they must have cost relatively little, they apparently produced a huge and costly admin burden because they were so heavily oversubscribed. There are very few funding routes for early-career postdocs in psychology/behavioural neuroscience. We are certainly losing bright people from my field.

  21. Hi deevybee, sorry that I wasn’t clear that I was talking about molecular/life sciences, because that is where the biggest older-postdoc glut is circulating at the moment. I concede the point: in that case, making fellowships broader would indeed have bigger repercussions for younger scientists in your field, and possibly others. It sounds to me as if this lack is an issue that needs some agitation, in its own right.

  22. Frank says:

    Jenny said: It would be reassuring if the eligibility criteria used by the bodies that fund science turned out to be evidence-based.

    Ha ha ha! Sorry, but I have very little faith that funding bodies have even heard of evidence-based policy, let alone practice it! I think there is much more gut-feeling-based policy and I-had-a-good-idea-in-the-shower-based policy.

    Perhaps Science is Vital and Westminster Skeptics should get together and look at the need for evidence in deciding funding allocation schemes?

  23. A few replies to various comments:

    I’d be very keen on seeing some real evidence on this. It’s clearly not ethical to actually do a control experiment but I wonder whether one could tackle the existing submissions data with a Bayesian approach? There are social science approaches for tackling these kinds of quantitative problem but I don’t know enough about them really. The US seems to be much further down the road of looking into this than us but less sure about any action on applying the lessons learnt. The stimulus funding in the US made a potentially very useful experimental test bed for policy and the downstream effects are being watched very closely.

    To add some weight to Deevybee’s comment I’m also seeing a serious break in availability of good PDRA and even PhD positions and have spoken to growing numbers of people that have just walked away from further research. Outside the golden triangle and further away from the medical sciences the financial cut backs are starting to hit hard. Definitely a feel of a lost generation from my perspective. I too had to read Jenny’s sentence re: postdocs being easy to find several times to assure myself she wasn’t being sarcastic.

  24. Grant says:

    Frank & Jennifer – I wonder if some of the research into peer-review (i.e. for journals) might stand in for research on reviewing grants, or would they be too different to (tentatively) carry any conclusions across from one to the other – ?

    This commentary still gives me a chuckle and makes you think: “Indeed: Cost of the NSERC science grant peer review system exceeds the cost of giving every qualified researcher a baseline grant.”

  25. Matt Cliff says:

    The Wellcome RCDF scheme certainly had a 1 x A4 preapplication stage. I don’t know what the success ratio was. (I was encouraged to defer a year)

  26. Cameron, apologies to you as well for not being clear about the discipline I was referring to. I’ve made a note in the offending comment to make that clearer!

    I agree it would be interesting to apply mathematical approaches to screening – I too would love to hear from someone who knows more about this.

    One way of looking at “lost generations” would be that someone in their early twenties who walks away from research might have an easier time retraining for a few career or finding an allied job than someone who is older and has been in the system for a decade. Although age-discrimination is illegal, it could be harder to start afresh if you’re in your mid-40s. I’m speculating here, as I don’t have stats to hand. I do know that when I sat on recruitment panels for editorial jobs, the 40-something ex-postdocs applying for junior editorial posts (typically filled by 20-somethings) were seen by some of my colleagues as suspicious. (This was back when knowing they were 40-something was legal, but the employment history in a CV makes it pretty easy to work out age.)

    Having said that, losing ANY trained talent, young or old, is a waste of money and has a significant human cost. This is why we still need to look at ways of preventing the glut from forming in the first place, and look into expanding the number of permanent, non-PI job types that are available for talented bench scientists. That of course is a separate issue.

  27. Matt, I’m sure those stats are public, when I have a moment later I might try to find out. I can’t remember their cut-off – is it something like 8 years? or possibly 10? A piece of A4 – nice and streamlined. I wonder how the committee feels about their ability to assess the project and person on that basis? Would love to hear from someone with experience in that role, if it isn’t confidential to convey general impressions.

  28. Jenny, not a problem. Just wanted to illustrate the difference in perspective from where I stand. I’m seeing a lot of good people fail to get decent postdocs. And even a lot of good people just not want to even try. I take your point that it is a more rational career path for people to move away from a research focus earlier rather than later – and I agree with your general take that the research career system encourages people to stay on and then spits them out.

    I’m actually less worried about the “loss” of talent as long as that talent and experience is applied effectively somewhere else in society. I’m much more worried about the loss of opportunities that we have in the research community because of the rapidly dwindling diversity of perspective, experience, and background that all of our systems seem to be driving towards. Says the white, male, middle class, getting to middle aged researcher who has never worked anywhere except a research intensive institution.

  29. Cameron, I fully agree that if the people who get spit out, either early or late, land on their feet in a position that suits their transferable skills and is of value to society, one could feel a little bit better about the vast amounts of money put into their training. I sincerely hope this is the case for the many brilliant scientists I see hemorrhaging out of the system around me.

    If I were truly dispassionate, which I strive to be, I’d even say that the bottom line is that excellent science continues, so as long as the flawed system we have fills up the labs. I guess the danger is that the prospects in oversubscribed fields get so dire that people give up before they even start, and turn away from training to be researchers in the first place. This is why, in the UK at least, we need to prepare very carefully for the next election at the grassroots level and work out a long-term game plan for persuading the government to invest more in science, not less.

  30. cromercrox says:

    When I was a graduate student my funding body (anybody remember the SERC?) put on a summer school in which we’d learn about careers other than research – things such as journalism, marketing and advertising, and general-purpose skills such as negtotiation, team building, putting together a pitch. There was a great deal of role-play (a lot of it seems very like the tasks contestants do in ‘The Apprentice’), and for two or three days we grads worked hard and played hard. The bottom line is that the SERC appreciated, even then (this was the mid 1980s) that only a few of their grantees would end up as researchers, no matter how much they wanted to end up as professional scientists, and they wanted to open our minds to alternatives … and possibly avoid disappointment later. By that time I’d already decided that I didn’t want to pursue a career in research. I’d discovered I had some skills as a writer, and I was already making the contacts that would help me get a job at Your Favourite Etcetera. But the exercise was nonetheless useful and eye-opening.

  31. Thanks for that, cromercrox. Fortunately, there is a lot of such goings-on in the life sciences as well – maybe not the Apprentice role-playing, but certainly our PhD students get plenty of chances to hear about life outside research from invited speakers (in conjunction, of course, with the inevitable pizza and beer, all funded by the department). I am also frequently asked to speak as a poster-child for all the things one can do with a science PhD that don’t involve research. People are taking this much more seriously now, which is great; it used to be taboo to even allude to the idea that you might not want to stay in academia. And those were dark days!

    And yet. It’s human nature to think, it’s a long shot but I’m going to go for it anyway because I passionately want to do research. I think it’s hard, especially when you’re younger, to suppress the urge to just go for it regardless of dire prospects. And then as you get older, you’ve invested more and more into it, you’re still just as passionate and you’re loathe to leave until pushed in case that lucky break comes up. I think people need to be briefed about alternative careers as much as possible – but it might not entice that many people away from the academic path. Unless the pessimism and cynicism gets more deeply entrenched, as I alluded to above.

    Time will tell!

  32. Grant says:


    That’s very interesting. I’ve tried encouraging similar sort of thinking here. Pity I hadn’t know about this when I wrote on the topic and I could have pointed at it. To be fair some of the newer biotech courses will be doing this, albeit only for those that choose them. Likewise there are almost certainly courses run by the university covering some of this sort of thing (that probably aren’t well-known to most).

  33. JHB says:

    De-lurking to post something which I haven’t seen stated explicitly in any of the related threads so far…

    I know a number (> a dozen) of independent Fellows (Wellcome, RS URF, NERC, etc.). Without exception, their Fellowships were awarded on the back of dutiful work done in well equipped laboratories on ideas developed by their PIs. Also without exception, they’re all competent, none are brilliant, and none give any indication of becoming ‘world-leading’; all have turned into, or seem destined to turn into, middle-of-the-road lecturers who are funded on the coat-tails of big departmental initiatives. The upshot is that Fellowships give every indication of being additional funding streams for established labs and ideas, rather than opportunities to actually assess researchers for their creative, didactic, or visionary potential. In most cases, the application/eligibility criteria back this up (e.g. would you hire somebody, as URFs are hired, for 10 years on the strength of a CV, recommendation letter, and 2 side proposal, without any interview or entrance test?).

    Against this, ‘the system’ tends to reply that selected Fellows must be good because they have, and continue to, publish. However, I’d argue that this is more a reflection of their environment – give *anybody* job security, a couple of PhD students, and decent and relevant equipment, and they’ll publish.

    So, I don’t know whether the Talent Myth has been debunked yet, but it certainly fits with a lot of what I’ve seen. The obvious conclusion is that it might be worth reining back a little on the ‘brilliant young scientists’ spiel, taking some of the focus and funding away from Fellowships and investing more in infrastructure and salaries, so that existing postdocs are less dependent on their PIs, more members of a department, rather than a group, and are encouraged (and given the resources) to develop as independent researchers as early as possible.

    And no, I haven’t figured out the details for that, but this is just a blog comment!

  34. As I understand it, the biomedical field has far more different fellowship opportunities than, say, the physical sciences because of the various chairites. Yet Jenny you are implying that is where the problem of glut is worst. The need to take stock at an early stage of what career paths are open to you beyond research is vital. Leaving academia should not be seen as a ‘waste of talent’ , because scientific talent is needed in a huge number of other places. That this is how so many people see it is not only depressing but short-sighted. I wrote about how PI’s ought to help with this here but as ever postdocs need to take control, and push their PI/careers’ service for advice as appropriate. But it is absolutely vital that researchers recognize that there is life beyond academia, even interesting and rewarding life, and that they may (as Cromercrox has said on one of these posts) find something they are much better suited to. Mind you, like Cromercrox I went on one of those SERC summer schools and was asked to be the metaphorical secretary and make the tea in the committee role play, being the only woman present. It was a long time ago, but even then I found it deeply discouraging.

    In terms of demographics and monitoring – in other words getting the evidence that is so vital and that Frank seems so dubious funders bother about -you may want to look at this document the Athena Forum (which I chair) put together after a meeting with research funders to try to disseminate best practice. In this case it was specifically around women but it applies across the board. There are several examples given in section 3, and all the funders present are very aware of the issues. The Athena Forum is hoping to go back to the funders soon, a year after this event, and see what changes they have implemented in the meantime on the back of the discussion we originally had. I don’t think it helps anyone to assume the worst about people’s intentions without gathering evidence to back such cynicism up. What funders are doing may not yet be adequate, but they are most certainly thinking about these matters.

  35. On assumption 1 – I’ve been a little bit of a meanderer, starting out in basic/translational lab science and ending up in applied epidemiology. ‘Fortunately’ I’ve got my meandering out the way prior to the start of the ticking post doc clock. I’ve also been lucky to find myself a couple of good mentors/supervisors who have championed me and helped me progress, without whom I’d have got bogged down in reflection on the ‘failure’ of my initial foray into a science career and wouldn’t have had the confidence to apply for things that actually worked out for me.

    Although I very much doubt I’ll ever do another Western Blot or PCR experiment, I wouldn’t say that my experiences from my lab days were worthless to my current position, as they did teach me about the general principles of research, and I have a better understanding of the basic science evidence base than some of my peers. Fortunately epidemiology is a field where it is impossible to apply a ‘one size fits all’ criteria to background and my peer group comes from a wonderful array of scientific and clinical disciplines. In contrast, the laboratory biomedical sciences seem far more prescriptive and rigid in their assumptions of what you do at what age and by which milestone.

    On the second assumption – sometimes arbitrary cut offs may be necessary. But when one arbitrary cut off (e.g. one to three postdocs) is switched for another (3-8 years), it seems to me that such decisions should be properly justified, as in that specific case I can’t see who gains from that switch (neither the funders nor applicants), but there are clearly people who have been disadvantaged.

  36. Athene, in my post I was asking for data about meanderers being less successful/valuable than those who achieve things quickly. I couldn’t see that addressed in the document you cite – although I’ve had to look at it quickly, being up to my elbows in galley proofs – will have time for a closer read later as it looks interesting, thanks. (I took part in the initial survey so am keen to read the conclusions.) Meanwhile, I haven’t been able to find any evidence one way or the other myself, which is why I put out the call to see if others have. There may well be compelling evidence and funding bodies are therefore applying experience cut-offs as an evidence-based policy. If so, someone should know about it so hopefully we’ll hear back soon. (I’m not as cynical as Frank on this, so am open-minded to the idea that the various policies are indeed evidence-based.)

    As far as the ‘wasted talent’ issue, I remain to be convinced that it’s not a waste of money to train someone for 15 years to do highly skilled lab-based tasks, when a few years of postdoc experience, or even just a PhD, might be all that’s needed. Can you not concede that there is some point beyond which the highly expensive specialized training becomes superfluous for many non-research jobs? I fully agree with you that earlier on, it’s not a waste.

  37. Jenny, no the evidence isn’t about meanderers but success rates by gender. Sorry, there has been so much correspondence on this I may have got confused as to what evidence Frank said wasn’t available.

    Again, biomedical fields are clearly different. 15years of training sounds far more than the sort of thing we’d be talking about in physical sciences, whree I guess it is ‘earlier’ in your terms. If we’re talking about as long as 15 years yes I would agree, but that is where taking stock earlier is important. It is clear that in some cases, not all but some, postdocs just drift on without thinking what they might do ultimately, and that is undoubtedly a waste. Perhaps this whole debate has been bedevilled by field specific differences, as started to appear earlier in the comment thread.

  38. Athene, you’re right that field differences are going to make a big difference to the discussion. And a few of the big fellowships – RS and ERC – are open to all disciplines, which confounds matters because applicants from different fields will be under different restraints. A real mess, I’d imagine!

    I don’t know any postdoc who’s been in the game for a while who isn’t thinking very hard about options – and trying every avenue possible. As you say, there are probably drifters, but I don’t know any personally, and in these times that’s not a sound strategy. Bottom line: many of us want to try to stay in research despite the fact that we’ve done two or three postdocs and haven’t yet found a way to a permanent position. We’ll try as hard as we can, because it’s our passion, and then we’ll surrender if this doesn’t pan out. But in the meantime I still think it’s acceptable for people like us to question (politely, respectfully, constructively) the criteria under which we’re judged for these career lifelines. This is what I have been trying to do. It’s great when people on the other side – like Stephen Curry – support this idea – but it’s entirely understandable that the vast majority of those questioning the system, or supporting this questioning, will be those who are judged and affected by it. This is not unreasonable or inappropriate in my view.

    So I’m curious – what would someone with your experience make of the A4-sized first-round application for the Wellcome CDF mentioned above?

  39. As I say, I haven’t been involved with the URF scheme so I may be out of date, but it used to be 2 sides of A4 for the proposal itself, which is a real discipline to write. I have no trouble with short applications in themselves. And to correct JHB above, URF’s have been interviewed for a few years now, though for many years they weren’t.

  40. JHB says:

    Ah, OK; I stand corrected on the URF interviews! But I stand *by* one of my other points (and pick up Athene’s comment on the importance of postdocs taking control of their careers early), which is that the system as is places too much responsibility on PIs who, consequently, have too much influence on their postdocs’ career prospects. Many postdocs hit the 6-8 year wall without having tried to write a grant simply because they aren’t told about how careers work.

    Sounds silly; is heartbreaking.

    Well, sad, at least…

  41. I am a bit scared to even comment on this – but here goes. I am curious as this idea of ‘waste of training’ – I am not sure that I belive the economic arguments for that it is a ‘waste’ – is it?
    It may be that someone is more highly skilled in a technique – a post-doc with 5 years experience (which are expensive to hire) than a PhD student, but the PhD student could use the training and it is frankly alot cheaper. it will just take longer but won’t necessarily be impossible. I think being highly skilled technically doesn’t necessarily mean much from an economic perspective. Unless someone has a unique skill for instance, but I think so many people (relatively) can be trained.

    I am not saying this is right or wrong from the scientific progress point of view but just from an economic point of view the waste argument doesn’t make sense to me (and I would assert that economic points of view are paramount at the moment!). Not to mention, if you just focus on technical skills, then why not be a technician of hire a technician if that is what you are after. I think the technical skills highly trained argument as waste doesn’t really work – from a practical point of view.

    That being said, I think what is important about training is not the tangible, i can do this technique or run this piece of kit, but the intangible, eg I have a great idea which will USE this piece of kit and techniques. Ideas are intangible and researchers turn them into the tangible, ideally. This may be all on your lonesome, by collaboration, whatever.

    I think the fundamental problem at the moment which relates to all of these discussions is there are not enough funding mechanisms availible – Fellowships don’t fund very far (mostly to the 3-5% level) and there aren’t many permanent jobs and there aren’t many mechanisms by which to fund anyone! let alone those who have chosen a different path.

    The original argument Jenny brings up is interesting, I think. Jenny and I graduated high school the same year, we both have PhDs – I am eligible for fellowships that she isn’t. Why? Because I got my PhD when I was older – so I have less experience after my PhD than Jenny does though I certainly had a meandering path before I began my PhD. But demographically, publication-wise and in many ways wise we are somewhat similar on paper – with the exception that Jenny has literary talents, and was away from academia at a different time than myself…

    Just my wee contribution, I am enjoying reading everyone’s comments

  42. Ah, I think you didn’t get what I meant by ‘waste’. I was referring to the fact that it’s important to, say, have scientific training for certain jobs outside of research – running a programme of events at a science museum, for example. My point is that while it would be great for this person to have a PhD, you don’t need to have been trained for 10 postdoctoral years in, say, the minutiae of crystallography, to be effective at that museum role.

    So it follows logically that if that person was destined to become a museum events organizer, the public funding that went into his or her 10 years of post-doctoral research might better have been spent training someone who was going to be a scientist for life. Of course that person contributes a bit to the scientific record, and that’s all well and good, but it might be far better for the system – and better for the person certainly – not to have wasted all that time and effort if they were just going to end up at a job that a 22-year-old, newly-viva’d PhD student would be just as good at. It certainly would be far better for the person’s financial stability.

    (And if you’re not overtraining the museum event organizer, that ten years of funding could have gone into the pot to help others become researchers.)

    Of course you can never know if it’s not going to pan out and if you will be forced to leave research to become a museum events organizer at the age of 45, but it would be far better to have a system that could (a) produce enough people trained to do non-research sciencey jobs that they get on on with *early*, as well as (b) produce true research apprentices: people who are in it for the long haul, and know they have a reasonable chance at getting some sort of research job at the end, be that PI or permanent researcher or what have you. To do this will require more science funding, a rethink of the career structure and, just possibly, for some oversubscribed disciplines, the regulation of how many people are allowed in at the beginning.

  43. Thanks for the clarification – I am not sure I would say it is a ‘waste’ still though. It may seem like a waste but you never know where people are going to go and how they build on previous experience and how it eeks out in the right places. I also don’t think its wasted time in terms of the body of science as a whole, the work the people that have been post-docs for lots of years have done means something – the larger body of scientific research has been added to over that person’s training life-time (even if they choose to do something different in the long-run) – and we never know which science will ultimately become important. So still economically I think its ok – most post-docs are supported by a PI whos science career is built on mutual labour.

    Personally for those people that leave the system it may be wasteful – I don’t think though you can always predict a) who will be the best scientist (as you say) – this usually comes AFTER time even when the scientist themself is dead. Lots of science turns out to be nothing much in the long run and b) what discoveries will be most important. In this sense science is a very inefficient industry/business. Which I think is part of the problem, people tend to see it this way (or rather governments that want ‘results’ for their money).

    I see your point but I think ‘waste’ and who should be doing what hard thing to disentangle – especially as that changes over time for lots of us – hence your original post – Also if you had asked me when I was 24 for instance I would definitely not be in it for the ‘long-haul’ – this isn’t so easy to tell….

  44. BioScienceMum says:

    When I was applying for fellowships, 6 months into my first postdoc position (which was for a single year), I remember checking the URF guidelines and finding that I wasn’t eligible because I didn’t have the specified number of years postdoc experience under my belt. So I have a vague feeling that the URF guidelines have changed twice… from 2-8 years (or thereabouts), to 1-3 postdoc positions, then back to 3-8 years. Can anyone confirm or deny? If so, this could provide the data you’re looking for on application rates.

  45. Girl, Interrupting, I think you are right in what you say – you just never know what will happen. Still, it does strike me that if 95% of postdocs are working say 4-10 years before leaving to do a non-research job, imagine if all the money that supported them could have been channeled into more fellowships for those that do want to devote themselves to research. It’s the repositioning of the funding that interests me. You could actually turn this around and say, if 95% of postdocs are being trained at public expense but end up going into the private sector, perhaps the private sector should be contributing more towards postdoctoral training, since they are reaping a lot of the benefits – skimming talented people from the glut – essentially for “free”.

  46. I’m with Girl, Interrupting that your definition of waste is too all-encompassing. There are many jobs – in public and private sector – where first hand knowledge of research is incredibly useful, even if not a prerequisite. I would include in this category within the public sector MP’s (seriously; I am sure the fact that the Cambridge MP Julian Huppert was a serious research-active member of staff in my department until elected means he can and will speak up against daft policies such as homeopathic medicine on the NHS, and he certainly has a deep understanding of scientific evidence); research council programme managers; civil servants more generally, particularly in BIS, DfE, DoH etc. There is a crying need for people who really understand what university research is all about (way beyond PhD level, so that they have seen the ebbs and flows of research, fads in science etc) to be in decision-making positions. But if the mindset of an experienced postdoc is merely that it was a waste both of their time and public money, then any opportunity to do something really useful and important with their experience will be lost.

  47. I agree that the private sector should be contributing more money to post-docs etc – maybe we can go from there? Buy into basic research, support a post-doc scheme? But they tend to do so for specific purposes..

  48. Stephen says:

    I applaud Jenny’s idealism and desire to get in place a system that maximises the yield on investment but I don’t think the messiness of human lives or the freedom that our society also values allow it to work in practice. I don’t see it as necessary for every postdoc, however many years they have spent in working/training, to go on to become an independent scientist — running their own group – and agree with Girl, Interrupting and Athene that for postdocs to turn to an alternative career, whatever it may be, shouldn’t be seen as a waste, not for the individual involved, nor of the expenditure of public funds. The fount of experience that they bring to any other role will hopefully enrich it. Indeed, I think in our discussions on early career researchers at the Royal Institution back in May, emphasis was placed on encouraging people not to see leaving science as a negative move.

    For some, of course, it will be because the failure to win a place at the table represents a shattered dream. And I therefore still retain the view that fellowship committees should not be placing arbitrary cut-offs on applicants for funding. As we all appreciate, I think, the routes to becoming a scientist, or even to realising that you want to become one, are many and varied. Perhaps a way out of that conundrum is for funders in common areas to be better coordinated so that all bases are covered – with different schemes for newly minted postdocs and those with more experience under their belt. Perhaps that already happens to some degree. Of course, there’s never going to be a perfect way to do this etc. etc.

  49. I did a postdoc despite knowing that I didn’t want to be a PI, just for the pure fun of it (well, that and the easy path to a temporary Canadian work permit); I knew my future path didn’t lie in active research, but I wasn’t ready to give it up just yet, and I knew the experience would be useful in whatever future career I pursued (and I was right). I published well and I’ve never once regretted my decision, and although some might call it selfish, I had far too much fun to really care much 🙂

  50. I do agree with you guys in essence; it’s more a question of degree. I just think it’s a particular concern for the *really* long-term researchers who, in their 40s, are attempting entry-level jobs with CVs that look over-qualified and too expensive to hire. One or two postdocs, this is fine. But eventually, I do think there’s a point beyond which becoming ever more specialized in your tiny little niche will not make you a better employee for a number of non-research jobs – and it is also harder to swing for the person making the change. Whereas if you start on a new career ladder a bit earlier, I think you will have more opportunities – and this would free up more funding for other researchers.

    But that’s just my own personal opinion, which I appreciate will be in the minority.

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