Dedication? Or lack of imagination?

Over in the comments at Athene Donald’s blog there is another of those extended discussions of UK science careers going on, prompted also by Jenny Rohn’s recent posts on fellowship schemes and the work of the Science is Vital campaign.

Among the comments at Athene’s blog is a recent one from psychologist Tom Hartley. His first paragraph really nails something:

“I think Stephen [Curry] is right to highlight the plight of senior postdocs. It can’t really be argued that these are not competent and productive scientists since they have been hired and rehired on successive short-term contracts in a highly competitive market. These people are evidently playing a pretty important role, albeit not as research leaders. They will typically have accrued very specialised skills which really will be wasted if not put to use in one of the few labs (at widely scattered geographical locations) which use the same techniques. As the Science is Vital submissions showed, PIs are often very sorry to lose these people.When I talk about waste here I am not arguing that the individuals careers have been wasted, but that the scientific establishment, and the absence of an effective career structure is wasting their talents by forcing them out of science while training and retraining newcomers to try to fill their shoes.”

This chimed with me, as I have commented before on the waste of talent and know-how, and the sheer unfairness, when senior postdocs (people with maybe six to ten years post-PhD experience) have to leave the business. I got my PhD in early 1987 , and in the nigh-on 25 years since I have seen a fair few not just good, but really first rate, scientists I have worked with leave research science in the UK.

Let me tell you a story to illustrate this.

For a good chunk of my career, I used to be part of a kind of linked complex of small research groups in Manchester working in the area of epithelial (mostly exocrine) cell physiology. Nearly a decade ago now one of my buddies and I did a kind of unofficial ‘audit’ of our complex of linked PIs/research groups, and compared ourselves to a couple of our main competitor outfits. These included one in Australia, a country which I would say has a rather similar research culture to the UK.  At the beginning of the 90s we had rated this outfit as being very much comparable to us.

When we did our audit, one of the things that very much stood out was that our Australian competitors had the same two senior postdocs in place in 2001 as they had had in 1990. Our Australian PI friends had been sufficiently successful in grant-raising to be able to keep these guys, both excellent scientists, first on successive project grants and latterly on fellowships. We reckoned this was a key part of the way our Aussie friends had inexorably ‘pulled away’ from us, in terms of papers published and funding, over the decade in between.

The two senior postdocs in question are now (2011) a full Professor and an Associate Professor in leading Australian Universities. Both are prospering in research.

In contrast, in our Manchester co-op during the 90s we had almost never been able to hold on to our best postdocs for even the full duration of a three year contract (grant). The reason for this was not beccause they were unhappy, or felt they couldn’t do cutting -edge research. It was unambiguously that we could never tell them, in all honesty, that we were likely to have the grant money to keep them on when the grant employing them ran out. Under these circumstances, the better people would regularly leave before the 3 year mark rolled around, as they did not want to leave finding the next job to the very last minute. It was typically only people who were a bit less good, or who had other personal reasons for staying local, who would do the full three years.

Anyway, three of our four best postdocs from this period left at around 30 months into a 36 month (three year) grant/contract because they were offered something elsewhere, either something more open-ended (notably in industry), or just a further 3 years on a grant in another city or country.

The consequence was that, unlike our Aussie friends, we (the PIs) had to keep training and re-training new people ourselves to do the same jobs – including quite ‘bespoke’ stuff like patch-clamping and calcium imaging. And skill level in our labs thus never rose beyond the ‘2 yrs in-house training’ mark. Nor did we generate in house a supply of people who could easily ‘spin off’ to their own fellowships, as we were mostly taking UK people straight from PhDs, or employing short term visitors from overseas (e.g. Japan) to ‘mop up’ the leftover ends of grants.

The 1990s were, of course, a time of notorious scarcity of research funding in the UK. The relevance of that to now, and the next few years, should hopefully not be lost on anyone reading this.

The need to contract-hop ultimately did not really benefit the best postdocs that we had trained either. One of our two top ones,  as good a research scientist as I have met, actually did become a PI – probably a bit too young, paradoxically. However, after several years of struggle in an English University he eventually tired of juggling stupendous and mounting teaching load and a young family with trying to write six funding proposals a year, and opted for a teaching-only post in a US medical school. As he put it to me a year or two later:

“I decided it was better to do one job well, rather than several jobs [at the same time] half-arsed”

The other one left academia to work for a large consumer products company with a research division, but eventually found the ramifying bureaucracy there too much and quit research, re-training as a hospital radiation safety professional. So both our best postdocs of the 1990s were ultimately lost to scientific research, though they did end up in jobs related to science, or perhaps more accurately to medicine. But these two guys were, in the unanimous opinions of us PIs who had seen them work, at least as good research scientists as any of us were. They were the ones we would all have bet on to go the distance to PI and lab head, and beyond.

Now, as long as supply of trained scientists exceeds demand, this sort of stuff will probably continue. And some people, possibly even including the President of the Royal Society, might defend it as a kind of ‘minimal media selection‘ experiment – ‘only the strongest will survive’, and so forth.

But I wonder. Perhaps to succeed in the chase to PI you need, apart from strength and determination, a kind of lack of imagination as well. The imagination, I mean, to decide that this **** simply isn’t worth all the struggle, or worth the implicit gamble on your future that carrying on the struggle (staying in the business) implies.

The imagination to see that there are other things you can do to earn a living.

Or – could one person’s lack of imagination… be another person’s dedication?

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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18 Responses to Dedication? Or lack of imagination?

  1. Rich says:

    this post really hit the nail on the head for me. I am an Australian senior postdoc with six years experience of lab hopping. One thing I can add is, while I cannot speak for all Australian postdocs, it is my experience that many labs here are also unable to offer reliable and stable employment conditions. In other words, Austin’s description of UK postdoc careers appears to be strikingly similar to my own Australian experience and so I don’t think science funding in australia has avoided any of the problems mentioned here. I’d also like to say that some (good) PIs are able to remove some of the uncertainty and stress, and so reduce the chance of a premature departure, by promoting a culture of faith – faith that one of the (many!) grant applications will be successful, that money to extend the position will appear, etc. But this is rare

    • Hi Rich. I’m sure Australia has basically the same constraints on funding as in the UK, so I’m not surprised to hear the same problems in the system are apparent.

      In the specific example I gave, one difference was that the PIs in our Australian rival outfit were rather better established and better known in the field than we were. For instance, one was a very famous elder statesman figure in Australian physiology whose obituary a few years ago stated (pretty amazingly) that he ‘never had a grant turned down’. I think that there probably was also a bit of a ‘biggish fish in small pond’ factor for them in the Aussie setting that we didn’t have here. Anyway, whatever the precise reasons, they were just a lot more successful at generating continued funding than we were, even though I think we were clear that in terms of published science we were running neck and neck with them in the early 90s.

      What the story really shows, I think, is how completely the difference between success or failure in science basically reduces to whether you can get funded. That is true for PIs and their labs, and also for postdocs in them.

  2. Julie McVey says:

    After 15 years as an academic researcher, almost 5 of them post-doc, I left the field to do a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology. Jobs for post docs were becoming too expensive (out of a finite grant) compared to that of RAs who could be trained – and enrolled on Masters or PhDs to fulfil university capability building quota. Chasing a job every three years isn’t good for a woman who wants children. Also I always thought “this time next year I could be working in a supermarket”. Now having the D.Clin feels very different (even in a shaky jobs Market) because no-one can take that away from me – I will always be ‘a psychologist’, but I couldn’t say that when I was doing research. It (I) was expendable.

    • I have some of that same feeling with medics, Julie. Because they have a professional vocational degree, they are always a medical doctor, and thus seen as qualified for something.

      It definitely doesn’t feel the same as a scientist, and these days that sense even extends to PIs. The Universities in the UK are keen to shed payroll, which basically means people who are viewed as ‘underperforming’ in research. I don’t feel all that secure myself, even with tenure, and I find myself thinking that I don’t know what I would do if I had to find another job. I am, of course, not obviously qualified to do anything else.

  3. Thanks, Austin, for developing this thread further. I think it can run and run because there are so many different aspects which feed into the overall problem. One thing you highlight is characteristics beyond simply lab skills, such as tenacity or -as you put it- lack of imagination. I think that is one of the reasons that makes defining who are the ‘best’ so impossible. It is rather the same with athletes as far as I understand it. It isn’t just about innate ability but psychological traits too: the willingness to get up at unearthly hours to train and to pick yourself up when you’ve lost some event. Maybe we need to focus more on the bigger picture in our discussions, and not just talk about research skills per se. But that looks to me like a topic to be ‘hived off’ itself!

    • Yes, probably one for another thread.

      Of course, the importance of the ‘tenacity’ factors (relative to something like scientific skill, or even ability to generate scientific ideas) might be specific to the particular funding milieu. Thus tenacity (or ‘ability to tolerate keeping on banging your head against a brick wall’) becomes more important as funding gets scarcer.

  4. Matt Wall says:

    Great post, which really resonated with me. I’m in my mid-30s and on my third post-doc and am frustrated and apprehensive about taking the next step. I really want to stay in research, but I really don’t want to do another post-doc (low pay, no job security, etc.) so my only options are a faculty-level job or industry. Everyone I know who’s started a junior lecturer job essentially puts their research on hold for two or three years while they cope with the demands of teaching and scrabble desperately for research money – I really don’t want to do that! I am looking at industry, purely so that I can carry on doing research but would much prefer staying in academica.

    One of the most frustrating things is the ban on non-faculty level staff being PIs on grants – I’m essentially reliant on others for my grant money when I feel I could be writing grants myself. Of course, the current job market and cutbacks on grants from funding bodies just makes the whole situation that much bleaker… My current contract is over in a year, and I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do!

    • The thing about non-tenured staff being PIs on grants is a long-standing problem, Matt. I often think there needs to be some kind of halfway house between ‘named postdoc on a grant” (which doesn’t really confer any status) and PI (which for a postdoc basically means a fellowship application, for which the bar is high and you nowadays need difficult-to-get Departmental approval upfront).

      The early years of tenure track in the UK have also got much more difficult as the Univs are putting the squeeze on passing probation. So after the big scramble in the first couple of years to get the first grant that you describe , there is now a probation hurdle about 4 yrs in, and then perhaps a second grant hurdle too (which might be even harder as you no longer get any ‘starter’s benefit of the doubt’).

      All in all it isn’t much like the more relaxed era I started in.

  5. Laurence Cox says:

    I did make the following comment as part of my response to rpg’s posting on 9th October:

    Now I agree that the career structure in academia needs fixing and this report is a very good contribution to that, but I do not think that the career structure in academia can be considered as completely separate to the career structure in science outside academia. The Royal Society’s own publication “The Scientific Century” (March 2010) has a relevant figure (1.6), which shows 53% of PhDs having careers outside scientific research, 17% in non-university research and of the 30% post-docs, only 3.5% having permanent research positions and only 0.45% attaining professorships. If we just look at the 26.5% that drop out of academia after one or more post-doc positions, are the authors of the report suggesting that all of these should be permanently funded – or perhaps a lower proportion, but above the present 3.5%?

    The consequence of deciding to fund all existing post-docs in permanent positions is to increase funding for them by by a factor of 8.5. Is this what “Science is Vital” is asking for? It concerns me that this level of increase in funding for Science is likely to be unachievable in the present economic climate, leading to the probable outcome of the report being shelved until the economic situation improves (and then forgotten about after a few years). Another option might be to reduce the number of PhD studentships to allow more post-doctoral funding.

    If “Science is Vital” really wants David Willetts to take notice then there needs to be more meat in terms of the costs and benefits (I accept Jenny Rohn’s point that the study has all been done by volunteers in their spare time), because you have to make a case which is convincing to the Civil Servants in Willetts’ department. I don’t suggest scrapping the existing report but developing it further – for example, what are the costs associated with scientists dropping out of science after one or more post-doc positions; what are the benefits of permanently funding post-docs? If these can be quantified and the present system of funding shown to be wasteful, then you have a much better chance of achieving changes to the funding system.

    • Good point about costs being a big part of the argument for the politicians, Laurence. But I think it would actually be hard to quantify the costs associated with ‘postdoc wastage’ as they are mostly not direct. After all, someone still fills every single postdoc vacancy and every academic one.

      The cost is really indirect in various ways, like loss of expertise and skills and the consequent need to always train new people, which inevitably reduces the complexity of what you can do in the lab. Another cost is that the people we do keep in the system are not necessarily the best scientists. At the very least, plenty of people just as good are lost, and that is a waste – or, if you prefer, a cost.

      I guess there is a school of thought which says that ‘the more people competing for each vacancy, the hotter the competition and thus the more rigorous the selection’ – but I don’t really think that is true. What it actually does, I think, is make random factors more important as they are often the difference between success and failure – which can’t possibly be a reliable way of sifting out the best people. But how you put a numerical figure on what all this costs is a tricky one. In a way you only see the costs over time, as I hope my story makes clear.

  6. Steve Caplan says:


    That’s certainly an interesting way of looking at things–a lack of imagination in some scientists being unable to get off the treadmill because they can’t think of anything else to do.

    To a certain extent, I’d be inclined to agree with you. I’ve seen graduate students who have no idea whatsoever what a Ph.D. will (and particularly WILL NOT) do for them once they’ve graduated. I’ve seen post-docs who seem to be in the system for what seems purely like inertia.

    Now don’t get me wrong–I have always been an advocate of higher education/graduate studies for as many people as are willing and able, because I think that the more people who know science (or history or literature or any other academic field) the better off society is. At the same time, it’s clearly necessary to ensure that those coming into science know what “success in science” means, and what the options are for careers in science. Not only for the 1% that go on to PI/group leader positions, but for the other 99% as well.

    I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I was a graduate student (and probably long before that) I fell in love with the idea of doing research–but more than just guided research. I wanted to direct my own research focused on my own ideas and plans. So in my case, I don’t think it was lack of imagination, because I was very much aware of alternate careers, both in and out of science. But I was very committed the goal of “doing my own thing.”

    While today I can see that the funding situation has reverberated down the ranks and clearly set fear into the hearts of many young (and otherwise) aspiring scientists–and while I am also frustrated by the lack of imagination by political leaders in seeing that basic science will make or break a country’s future–I still wouldn’t trade my job in for anything else. Except maybe a chess grandmaster. But first I need to come out of retirement and cross the 1400 level…

    • Hi Steve

      Sorry to take so long to reply. I think that’s a key point about wanting to pursue your own ideas. When we interview prospective graduate students, we always stress basic intellectual curiosity (as opposed to a well paid future) as being a reason to do a PhD – but to go on and run your own show (even if only a one man/woman one) you need more than that.

      A lot of the people who leave research after a PhD in our programmes clearly leave because they realise either:

      (i) they don’t like bench research enough to do a half dozen plus more years of it; or

      (ii) they’re not driven in that way to pursue their own ideas over many frustrating years

      …or indeed both. But again, that still leaves us with the people who love doing experiments, and being part of a project, but don’t ultimately want to be the ‘shot caller’.

      In the olden days there were various jobs for these kind of folk as technicians, super-technicians, ‘experimental officers’ (sort of postdoctoral level double-super technicians, of the kind you might find running an EM or confocal facility) and other more ad hoc jobs. Nowadays in the UK these kinds of things are incredibly rare and PI has become pretty much the only permanent scientific grade, at least in the Univs… and even the faculty post isn’t as permanent as it was.

      This discussion reminded of a person that used to be employed in our faculty a decade or more back as a high-level (postdoctoral) EM person, who was an acknowledged expert in the fiddlier versions of immuno-gold labelling. I think at one point this person was on some kind of independent fellowship linked to a prominent PI, but when it came to it they were not seen as ‘independent PI material’, and were told they would have to leave. The kind of not-entirely-joking comment you would hear about people like this was:

      “Well, yes, X is awfully good at what s/he does.. but what if we were to give him/her a faculty job and then Prof Y [their PI sponsor and collaborator] were to get run over by a bus? What then?”

      This particular person ended up getting an offer to run an EM imaging core facility at one of the big US research Universities, and is still there, AFAIK. And in the inevitable “what goes around, comes around’ way, a few years later a committee of our Cell Biology PIs decided that what we really needed was to try and hire someone to run an immunogold service.


      Anyway, I don’t know what the solution is, and I don’t think anyone else does either, judging by the repeated threads we have about this. But personally I think the inflexibility (or ‘clearly defined and separated nature’) of the roles we now have in the system (technician / postdoc / PI) is definitely not helpful. The US system is rather less restrictive than the the UK one, but that may just reflect the extra money that floats around the US set-up.

      Regarding jobs outside academic research, I don’t think I was much aware of them until I was in my early 30s and had been a PI for a few years. As I’ve often said, though, had I become a postdoc, let alone a serial one, I really don’t think I would have stayed in science. But the business does have a hold, as you might infer from the fact that I didn’t jump in my late 30s or early 40s – when I was actively considering it and had some second interviews and even job offers in various other things (industry, science admin, science publishing, teaching post in a new medical school).

      Of course, the possible downside of sticking with it is that you eventually become unemployable for anything else. I speak from experience. And I do still wonder about some of those decisions, as several of my past posts probably reveal.

      Finally, talking of chess, I have noticed that people I play against in the inter-club league are much more interested in my rating than was the case in my youth way back when. When I tell them I don’t have one, some of them look more than a bit suspicious..! I told the latest guy (ELO c 1750) that I was probably playing around 1700-ish, but he still looked like he thought I was trying to con him somehow.

      • Steve Caplan says:


        I think that you may be suffering from “the grass is greener on the other side of the pond” syndrome! I think the situation here is VERY similar. There are basically no positions available for advanced researchers with post-doctoral experience. Every single form of fellowship is EXCLUSIVELY designed to turn these researchers into independent PIs–whether this is what they want or are able to do seems irrelevant to the funding agencies.

        The situation in the US, despite a respite of sorts when Obama rolled out the ARRA funding (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act), is in dire straits. Some NIH institutes are running at 5% or 7% receiving funding. Universities want to recruit more PIs, to increase funding for their institutes, but overall it’s hard to grow when fewer investigators are being funded.

        There are 2 tries for an NIH grant (down from 3, with the idea that this will allow researchers to get funded more quickly). I’m told that a recent reviewer panel met and not a single first submission made it. With upcoming budget cuts proposed, it appears that this will only get worse.

        Perhaps in the long run, this will lead to fewer post-doc positions overall, as researchers in most places will opt for graduate students.

        I’m afraid you’re right that there’s no solution on the horizon. The only bright spot that I saw was the recent choice of Chris Kaiser as head of the National Institutes of General Medical Sciences–the institute that really supports basic biomedical research. He’s a first-rate scientist and a keen advocate of basic research.

        As for chess ratings–I would guess that you are above 1700 from your comments and annotations. I’m about 1400 (or was), which I guess wasn’t bad for a newcomer of my age after a couple years. I suspect that your opponents are afraid of losing points, and playing an unrated player is dangerous, because unrated players can be excellent but simply not have a rating–yet in the way points are assigned (in the US at least), when you play an unrated player, it’s like playing an 800 point player. So there’s little to gain and a lot to lose in rating points.

  7. Great post, Austin, and sorry it took me so long to read it.

    Laurence, Science is Vital’s aim was actually to start a discussion, and we threw out some possible solutions to get the ball rolling, based on what our respondents recommended. Science is Vital is not merely advocating an increase in permanent positions. We believe that a bit of an increase would be good for science because it would provide more continuity in labs, but the real solution will probably involve making sure that people who aren’t going to get a permanent research job don’t get stuck into a long-term postdoctoral pattern but get out earlier. The earlier people destined to work outside research get on with it, the fewer longer-term postdocs there will be to worry about and the money that used to fund these successive postdocs can be reallocated amongst those who remain in research.

    That Royal Society graphic you reference shows a very large wave of people leaving research after a long way into the academic system. This is the wave that I think needs attention – it needs to peel off earlier.

  8. Thanks for all the interesting comments. Hoping to respond to them individually over time. I’ve just done several now.

    As a general point I completely agree with Jenny that the key worry, at least for me, is people leaving ‘ a long way into the system’ – it is both a personal loss for them and a loss to the system as a whole.

    I have less worries about people who decide, e.g. after a PhD or maybe a PhD and a year or two as a postdoc, that they don’t want to be a bench scientist or ultimately a PI. Plenty of other science-related careers around.

  9. PS Tom Hartley just posted on Twitter this rather grim graphic from the Royal Society:!/tom_hartley/status/126264105853140992/photo/1/large

  10. Tom Hartley says:

    Austin, I think you’re right about the technician/postdoc/PI distinction being unhelpful, and I’d add teaching fellow and lecturer into the mix. If these roles were a little more interchangeable/fluid and associated with increasing terms (with experience/achievement) such as ~7 years for someone with ~6 previous years postdoc, I think we’d have a more stable situation. HEFCE funding would be combined with research council funding (or from a new joint body) to simultaneously support research and teaching (esp. graduate, technical teaching) which is a more realistic model of what universities actually do. I think this would have to involve more targeted funding of the PhD supply to match mid-career demand within Unis as currently too many leave academia AND science altogether – not really helping anyone as far as I can see.

    More on this topic here:

    (a light-hearted, but heartfelt rant by yours truly)


    (discussion broadened – by me – in the comments)

    and here:

    (Dean of UCL Engineering Studies gives frank advice)

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