Jennifer Rohn describes a dirty secret of academia:
The career structure for scientific research in universities is broken, particularly in the life sciences, my own overcrowded field. In coffee rooms across the world, postdocs commiserate with each other amid rising anxiety about biology’s dirty little secret: dwindling opportunity. Fellowships are few, every advertised academic post draws a flood of candidates, and grants fund only a tiny fraction of applicants.
The scientific job market has been tight for decades, but the recent global recession and accompanying austerity measures have brought it into sudden focus for young — and some not so young — researchers, who face a widening chasm between their cycles of contract work and a coveted lab-head position.
This is a familiar lament, but I also propose a solution: we should professionalize the postdoc role and turn it into a career rather than a scientific stepping stone.
Consider the scientific community as an ecosystem, and it is easy to see why postdocs need another path. The system needs only one replacement per lab-head position, but over the course of a 30-40-year career, a typical biologist will train dozens of suitable candidates for the position. The academic opportunities for a mature postdoc some ten years after completing his or her PhD are few and far between.
Rohn’s solution is close, but not quite there:
An alternative career structure within science that professionalizes mature postdocs would be better. Permanent research staff positions could be generated and filled with talented and experienced postdocs who do not want to, or cannot, lead a research team — a job that, after all, requires a different skill set. Every academic lab could employ a few of these staff along with a reduced number of trainees. Although the permanent staff would cost more, there would be fewer needed: a researcher with 10-20 years experience is probably at least twice as efficient as a green trainee. Academic labs could thus become smaller, streamlined and more efficient. The slightly fewer trainees in the pool would work in the knowledge that their career prospects are brighter, and that the system that trains them wants to nurture them, not suck them dry and spit them out.
What’s needed, I think, is a switch to the research center model:
It sounds good, although, as Rohn admits, the implementation will be tricky, to say the least. But what she’s describing is the ‘center model’ which is often disparaged. I’ve argued that the center model needs to be more common in science:
Before everyone freaks out (ZOMG!! YOU EATED ALL TEH GRANTZ!!), I’m talking about shifting funding. But one advantage of large project-oriented or center-oriented* grants is that they are educational ‘sinks’–they soak up surplus PhDs. As long as the economic incentives are for academic researchers to produce far more PhDs than are needed to replace themselves**, we will continue to have this problem. And after all, isn’t the point of training all these people to then have trained people doing stuff?
Personally, I work at a large science center, and one of my roles is to work with outside collaborators. From my perspective, I am doing far more interesting and relevant science than I would be as an independent PI. I’m also not required to do jobs (i.e., straight administrative stuff) that many PIs, at some institutions, are required to do–I can focus on the research. I never say never, but I can’t ever see myself wanting to return to academia. My pay is better, and I (usually) have some time for a life.
Whether these are large government centers or private ones isn’t that important (there are advantages and disadvantages to both). While academic labs have the advantage of being (relatively) quick and nimble, at the same time, they simply aren’t well-suited for large scale projects. We don’t have to invent a new model for permanent research scientists, we just need to reallocate more funding to the current one.
That’s where I disagree with drugmonkey: rather than trying to stuff scientists into an academic framework, we must build an alternative framework.
Related post: drdA makes the excellent point that this stems from too many students being trained. Of course, there is a strong incentive for the current players to keep the existing system in place, even if it’s not working for many of the parties involved (including the taxpayer). Poorly-paid workers are all the rage these days…