Shame. Or should that be ‘Postdocalypse’?

Not IUPS-related tonight – but something that should concern the people there – should concern *us*. Especially the people WITH senior positions.

Scientific research has a lot going for it as a job.

There’s the big money, for a start.

[Actually, that was a joke, as my scientific readers will have spotted. The money is pretty lousy compared to other higher-end ‘graduate professional jobs’, at least if you factor in the years spent getting your PhD, aka your ‘Union Card’, and some postdoctoral experience. I don’t know what a PhD with quantitative/ mathematical/ computer skills makes going into finance, but I strongly suspect it is rather more than a postdoc gets. And I don’t know what a moderately successful lawyer with twenty-plus years experience makes, but I suspect it is a whole lot more than I earn after 25 years as a lecturer.]

But… the money is a living wage.

I live on it, so I should know.

And there is lots of other stuff to put in the plus column. You get to do something interesting and challenging. And, hopefully, something ultimately useful. You get a varied job. You get to solve problems. You get a lot of freedom to set your own timetable and what you are going to do. You get to travel. And you get paid to read, and think. I mean, how many jobs are there where they pay you to READ?

So all of those are positives.

And: for many – probably most – people in scientific research, there is much, much more to it. For most scientists, the ones who get or want tenured or permanent jobs, science is a vocation. For one example of how I know that, try the story here.

But, and increasingly so these days, a career in scientific research is an awfully hard road.

That is especially true for those in the trying-to-transition-to-a-permanent-job phase of a scientific career.

For an example, you should read this post by my Twitter mate ‘DrBillyo‘, aka Dr Bill Wilkinson. It says it far more eloquently than I could.

I think there are real systemic problems with a profession that does this to its most highly-skilled junior members. That takes people’s dedication, and years of training, and just lets it all go because they weren’t quite lucky enough.

Other people have said this on Occam’s Typewriter. I’ve said it before.

People have said it elsewhere.

It is time, in my opinion, that the Great and Good of science did something about it. At the moment, far too many of those in positions of power simply look a bit glum and wring their hands. The response when the problem is discussed often sounds a bit like the guys in The Sopranos when they learn that one of their fellow wiseguys has been ‘whacked’ (killed)

“Fuggeddaboutit. Whaddya gonna do? This, it’s the business we’re in.”

Well – it shouldn’t be.

Not like this.

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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5 Responses to Shame. Or should that be ‘Postdocalypse’?

  1. Thanks for the link and for spreading the word of my post.

    We all know that everyone can’t make it to be Vice Chancellor (or even to lab head), but Academic Research is strange in not really allowing people to remain long term in less senior positions such a career postdocs.

    I could accept the situation more easily if I saw my peers get the breaks instead of me. If there were better people getting the opportunities. But there’s so few people willing to take a risk hiring an unproven PD to be a lecturer, that this leap is almost unheard of in the last 5 years.

    • No problem, Bill.

      Agreed about the lack of ‘experimental officer’ / long-service postdoc people. I think that was the feeling when we discussed this a while back on Jenny Rohn’s blog (see e.g. the mega-thread here from a few years back), and I notice my mate @xtaldave said the same thing in the comments on your post.

      Also agree on how reluctant Univs/Faculties are to take the risk at present, which is definitely heavily influenced by (RAE as was and) REF. I suppose there is a small chance things will ease up (for those places that do well) after the results, but…

      As I said in Brum, at a Russell Gp U not far from me a Faculty Research Dean was heard to tell a meeting recently that they weren’t hiring junior lecturers ‘As an act of kindness because they KNEW how hard it was for junior lecturers to get established’. This promoted a collective jaw-drop around the room of the “Did he REALLY just say that?” variety.

      Of course, the idea was that they would take on research fellows, and the hope was the ones that ‘hit it big’ would then later join the Faculty a level up…. I think this is also influenced by the kinds of things Paul Nurse has voiced about what would happen to people at the Crick ‘going out to the Univs once their reputation is made’. But….

      As we talked about, there are multiple problems with this model.

      1. Who does the teaching in the meantime? (the answer often being teaching-only staff, possibly on short-term temporary contracts)

      2. Who says people ‘parachuted in’ at Sen Lecturer/Reader/Prof this way will ever be prepared to teach students? My gut tells me most of them would try to get research-only deals.

      3. Consequently this sort of idea drives a wedge through the Univ Dept, increasingly separating teaching (and those that do it) off from research.

      Anyway, I can just about see that the Dean in question was trying to strike a sympathetic note… but it sounds like the ‘counsel of despair’ to me, at least from the POV of the rank and file (you and us!).

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