On Science careers for post-docs….

and some PIs are good guys (really)

I have been reading about David Willetts round table discussion from both Athene Donald and Jenny Rohn. These two fellow Occam T bloggers have been writing about science careers (particularly with respect to post-docs and early career researchers) pretty prolifically in the last few months as have been lots of other folk (see Lewis Dartnell’s blog for instance (apologies to Lewis, I can’t find the actual blog )). All of these posts make not only for an interesting read, but are excellent food for thought about science careers beyond the post-doc and early career level.

One recurring theme that I keep noticing, largely in the comments on these blogs (sorry to not link here but there are such a multitude), is the feeling that the current academic research structure in the UK is ‘all for the glory of the PI’ and there is a huge amount of waste in the system – in terms of helping post-docs move into permanent (academic) posts.

Dealing with the second point first, I think I am safe in re-stating there is a dearth of jobs for post-docs making the transition to a more permanent PI post. With fellowships only funding to the 3-5% level there are not many available. Even if the criteria were opened more widely this is not a lot of people. Not to mention being awarded a fellowship traditionally was a near-as-dammit guarantee of a permanent post- word on the street is no longer! Many people with permanent academic research jobs are having trouble finding money in this current economic climate, it simply ain’t there. Fellowships have always funded to this level, the alternative (if you want to stay in academic research) is to apply for a lecturer position at a university and do research from there, where this was usually the more obvious option. But, again, no longer! There are scant few new faculty positions available in the UK (but there are some) and even when there are, having enough money to do your research is far from guaranteed.

But how much is this a product of the economic crisis? How much of this is a product of a financial structure where there are just simply less jobs? Its something I think we all need to think about. It may not just be the structure of academic science itself, it may just be that the structure is rapidly changing and that less money is forcing this change.

And now to the first point, I think its important to remember that PI’s (for the most part) can’t create positions that are not technician, post-doc or PhD studentship positions. To be a PI in the strictest sense you have to hold a grant, most grants are temporary. If a PI has long-term post-doc grant funding has been strung together to keep said post-doc.

The reason why I am saying this is is there seems to be an undercurrent of blaming PI’s for the suppression of post-docs. I am NOT saying is that this doesn’t happen, it does, you see it in many research departments, there are some PI’s with huge (and not so huge) research groups with post-docs who have been there for ages and seem to not be able to get out. And, as in any career, there are also nasty supervisors who keep people (by writing them bad references and whatnot) for ages. But it is worth remembering that many of them don’t. I have had some excellent supervisors in academia who helped promote me, push me intellectually and build my confidence. When I was a lab technician my boss encouraged me to go back to graduate school, even though he thought I was a good tech (he said); my PhD supervisor sent me to give research talks on my own. One of my senior colleagues told me just last week how proud she was of the fact her first two post-docs were now running their own research groups. This does really happen. It just doesn’t seem to get registered as often. It may just be that PI’s need to be educated to teach people about their further opportunities, maybe the PIs themselves don’t know, especially if they have been successful in the current system, they have never had to tackle the same problems.

PIs and post-docs alike are in a new world, the academic structure seems to be to be changing and while the boat is rocking its not always easy to clearly. I was glad to see that David Willetts had a round table discussion and that the likes of Athene Donald and Jenny Rohn were participating and giving us their impressions. This is a good thing, the more we can open up this discussion the better. But I think all sides of the debate have to keep an open mind (I am not saying this didn’t happen at the round table, it in fact seems like it did!), listen and be careful about not blaming each other but put our heads down together to fix the science career problems.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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7 Responses to On Science careers for post-docs….

  1. Hi Sylvia, thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Actually, I haven’t seen anyone blaming PIs for not “creating” permanent staff positions. At least in the threads I’ve been exposed to these past few months, it seems well understood that it is HEFCE, the university and/or the funding bodies that create such positions – they have created the few that exist now, and have also been responsible for slowly taking them offline. Many PIs in SiV’s recent consultation mentioned that HEFCE was largely responsible for causing the diminishing pool of permanent staff in the UK, and expressed strong opinions that having more of these positions would be a good thing.

    • Thanks for commenting Jenny.
      I haven’t heard people blaming PIs directly for lack of jobs, but the general feeling of ‘for the glory of the PI’ seems to blame PIs…

      at any rate, its hard for me to see how HEFCE or the universities can create jobs for post-docs or the like, given that they can barely create jobs for lecturers, readers etc. This I think is the interesting question. HEFCE isn’t there to do/support scientific research, they are there to support teaching at the higher education level, so they don’t seem to be the ones with a dog in the fight. At least as the structure is now. What is fascinating about this very debate is that it seems to be leading to the conclusion that a huge change in the structure of education/science research needs to occur in the UK. Not just a matter of a bit of rearrangement to the existing structure.

      I was happy to see you were on that committee….

    • In many ways the start point for this in the UK, back around 15 years ago, was the decision of the then Conservative Govt that a big chunk of the research money previously distributed via HEFCE would henceforth be distributed via the Research Council grant system. The main change this imposed was that HEFCE-funded technicians quickly disappeared (or disappeared everywhere outside core facilities) with the idea being that PIs had to ‘earn’ technician salaries back by obtaining research council grants. Of course, if you weren’t research council fiunded….

      The actual reality was that in most cases technician posts simply vanished for good. For instance, before this happened, the Department where I worked had two technicians for every three academics. Afterwards it had one for every five, if that. And fifteen years on we have no technical staffing at all outside the core facilities, unless you put a 50 or 100% tech post on a grant that you get funded.

      Now, fifteen years ago these technician posts were fairly low paid and non-graduate – somewhat like apprenticeships, in fact – but I reckon that, had such jobs still been around, they would by now be filled by people with BScs (at least) and possibly with PhDs. And they would also preserve the basic principle that Universities especially would have sub-PI permanent scientific research staff.

      Anyway, to return to the basic theme of the post – the disappearance of these permanent scientific posts in the UK was absolutely a policy decision from high up in Government. Some Deans and other senior people certainly did try and sell the idea on to rank and file PIs with “you can earn these jobs back via the competitive grant system’, but I don’t think many people were fooled.

  2. It is also worth noting that the lack of permanent jobs in academia has been a problem for as long as I’ve been in it. Almost 30 years ago I nearly ‘brain drained’ to the US because there seemed so little possibility of getting a job here, and then the Royal Society started their URF scheme and I was fortunate enough to get one of the first batch and so gave up a faculty position in the US. In some ways the RAE (and presumably REF) have been instrumental in creating more new jobs and mobility as a new kind of market is created. While it is true there are fewer permanent ‘staff posts’ with the erosion of the concept of the well-found laboratory, it isn’t true there was once a golden age for academic jobs.

    What has probably changed is the number of people who are able to do PhDs and postdocs overall. The money going into RC grants, the volume of people who are able to stay on, has changed immensely. Maybe the argument is going to have to be either we don’t have those jobs in any number or people have to accept they are not a passport to job security as they set out along the path.

    Finally, as was pointed out at the Willetts meeting, nowhere in the world seems to have this problem cracked.

  3. Thanks Athene

    I don’t mean it wasn’t a problem 30 years ago, I mean it was less of a problem around 50 to 70 years ago. But even in that time frame I have no data so should probably not focus on this. Also coming from the US, if you got your PhD in the 50’s in a scientific subject you more than likely would have a related job at the end of it. That being said, even that was not a passport to job security (many of those people were made redudant from government jobs in the 70s and 80s).

    I think one of the issues with this debate is that academia is being portrayed as the ultimate end game – eg sucessful scientists are academic scientists, and this is not necessarily the case. On another note, I am not sure how academia can create jobs for people in long term post-doctoral positions, given the current structure and I am not sure this is where we should be looking.

    You also bring up an interesting issue, that is, should a PhD be a passport to job security? I am not sure about that one. Why should be PhDs be any different than anyone else in that respect? People that are highly trained in other fields don’t have that guarantee. The ‘market’ or need for all sorts of skilled people is constantly changing, at least in Western society…

  4. Sylvia, you’ve got it exactly right: “What is fascinating about this very debate is that it seems to be leading to the conclusion that a huge change in the structure of education/science research needs to occur in the UK. Not just a matter of a bit of rearrangement to the existing structure.”

    And I think the appetite exists to attempt just that at the highest levels – at least from what I was hearing at the RS discussion. It’s a fascinating time to be involved in this and I’m optimistic that it’s not just all talk.

    On this, “I think one of the issues with this debate is that academia is being portrayed as the ultimate end game – eg sucessful scientists are academic scientists, and this is not necessarily the case. ” Actually, this isn’t true on most fronts – there seemed to be broad agreement at the round table (and Science is Vital would certainly concur, as would Vitae and other interested parties) that one of the key ways to solve the problem is to reshape the academic landscape by encouraging and facilitating PhDs to find jobs in the wider world, sooner rather than later. The taboo about non-academia jobs has been dissipating for the past few decades, and now the push is to see what we can actively do to give PhDs and early-stage postdocs the advice and training they need – and the validation that, yes, it’s a good thing to go out and do something else.

    Having said that, I still passionately believe that making things better for the academic career structure is also an important goal to at least discuss, even if in the end it proves intractable in the current austere climate.

    • Thanks Jenny.
      I am reassured to hear you say that in Science is Vital and in other parties that people are loosing the idea that an academic post is the Shangri La of the science world. This is a good thing, but I do think that attitude still exists. I hear it all of the time from lots of people in informal discussions – either that they are ‘failed academics’ because they do something else or from academics themselves who many times refer to scientists not in academia as not being ‘real scientists’ – This I find really worrying; it may just be unconscious bias, but I think this bias is real…

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