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Solving the Postdocalypse – A Guide for PIs and CIs

Chances are, if you are a PI or CI (Principal or Chief Investigator), you haven’t even heard of the postdocalypse.  You don’t engage with social media, so you don’t hear the cries for help.  Your thoughts about your research team are focused on developing academics, so you don’t consider the need to cultivate alternative careers for the people you lead.  If you are slightly more empathetic, you may give passing thought to gently letting down those team members (PhD students or postdocs) that you know will not make it on the academic track.

However, if you have heard of the postdocalypse, then you’ll know that the academic training system is in crisis.  The majority of all research performed at universities/research institutes is carried out by PhD students and postdocs.  They are in the engine room (or perhaps wearing a blue shirt on the bridge of the ship), powering your metrics.  They perform a critical function as we boldly go toward the boundaries of our knowledge universe.  But there is a problem: there is only one captain’s chair on the ship.

The limited number of jobs for full time/permanent academic researchers has resulted in quite troubling statistics: in science, less than 1 in 20 PhD students will find their way into some form of permanent academic position.  The numbers are equally stark for post-docs: 1 in 10 will find their way to some form of permanent academic position (numbers are based on UK statistics for scientific careers – see Figure 1.6 in this report link HERE).

These numbers might not be troubling except for the fact that PhD training and postdoc supervision/mentoring are implicitly based on the assumption that the academic track is the preferred option.  The end result is that the PhD students who do not progress to a postdoc and onwards to academia feel as if they have failed.  That feeling of failure will eventually dissipate as they realise that there are many more options out there, and they (hopefully) pursue career paths for which a PhD is a valued qualification. A PhD is a passport to a number of professional jobs that require problem-solvers with high level communication skills.  PhD-qualified researchers have a future in industry, in teaching, in government, in finance, and in law.

For postdocs, the situation is more awkward.  Researchers who progress down the postdoc path with only an academic career in mind are endangering their future employment.  They become expensive to employ, they become too specialised, and if they do not transition to a tenure-track or junior CI/PI position under-written by teaching responsibilities or industry/fellowship funding within 5 years, they can earn the tag of ‘eternal postdoc’ or ‘permadoc’, and may have to leave academia in a manner not of their choosing (in science, approx. half of all postdocs will eventually have to pursue a career outside of science altogether – statistics again from the report mentioned above).

Failure to secure that tenured/permanent position results in more than just re-assessing one’s path – it can lead to prolonged periods of job uncertainty and potential unemployment. This is why they call it the postdocalypse.

But how can PIs/CIs help to solve it?  How do we direct/mentor the vast majority of PhD students toward jobs outside of the university sector (and thus slow down the progression of the postdocalypse)?  How do we rescue the lost postdocs (so they can escape the postdocalypse in a positive manner)?  I’m not in favour of solutions that require large injections of cash from government or from the university sector.  That is a total fantasy that will never happen.  I am in favour of a solution that completely alters how research is funded.  It is also a solution that requires CIs and PIs to step up and accept the responsibility of fixing the system, and making it sustainable.

Below is my solution.  I’ll put it down as numbered points, in an attempt to mask the horror somewhat.  The points below are Australian-centric, and science/engineering-centric (as that is my background).  However, many aspects could be translated to other countries and other academic disciplines.  It is also based on a traditional academic model that does not include/focus on research institutes (which can often have large numbers of research-focused staff on fixed/short term contracts, often renewed for a long period of time).  Anyway, here goes…..

 

  1. PhD scholarships distributed by universities (i.e. APA) should be awarded to students who choose research projects that involve an industry partner/end user (or other/similar stakeholder, such as a government research organisation).
  2. PhD scholarships for curiosity-driven research (not connected to a partner) should be awarded to CIs/PIs who win those scholarships from national competitive grant schemes (note: national competitive grants should also allow scholarships for industry-linked projects).
  3. Funding should NOT be awarded to CIs/PIs from the national competitive grant pool of funds for the purpose of recruiting postdocs. CIs/PIs should only be able to win funds for PhD scholarships (for curiosity driven or application-linked research) and project support expenses.
  4. Postdoc/mid-career researcher funding should only be awarded by national research councils in the form of fellowships (where the fellowship applicant is CI1/PI1). These fellowships could be curiosity driven or application-linked.
  5. Postdoc funding from industry/end users can be used for any form of research approved by the industry partner/end user.

 

Ok – did I make you spit out your coffee?  Which point did you find most offensive and why?  I have solid logic behind every single one.

Number 1 is a no-brainer.  The first priority of a university (after knowledge generation) should be graduate employment.  If only 1 in 20 PhD students will land permanently on the academic track, why should universities direct scholarships to projects that will be less likely to produce an employment outcome?

Number 2 addresses the fact that curiosity driven research is a luxury – not a right.  As such, it is a privilege that should need to be earned, not taken for granted.  If CIs/PIs want to be able to focus on the fundamentals, and the ideas are of high quality, it should be no issue to win the scholarship funding for them.

Number 3 means that there will be a whole lot more money in the grant system.  If we limit national competitive grants to funding PhD student projects, then there will be a lot more money in the system for everyone, including EMCRs (early and mid-career researchers).  If we strip out postdoc salaries from grants then EMCR CIs/PIs will have more chance to get grants and build teams with PhD students.

Number 4 would rely on that increase of available funding from Number 3, and would provide a more viable fellowship pathway for researchers who would prefer not to rely on teaching to under-write their salary.

Number 5 needs no explanation.  If you can persuade industry to fund your work, you can do whatever you and your partner agree is reasonable: fundamental or applied.

Some CIs/PIs will complain that points 3 and 4 mean that they won’t have people to run their labs.  To those people I say this: change your perspective.  We should all take a more active role in the actual generation of our research outcomes, and this includes more hands-on lab management.  You did get into this business because you can do research, didn’t you?  I mean actually doing the work, not just writing about it or talking about it?  Take this as an opportunity to get back to your roots – do what you know you are good at.  And if you are a good enough mentor, you will attract fellowship winners to partner with you, and then you can share the load for lab management in a way that is less like the indentured servitude to which many postdocs are currently shackled.

The solution means that PhD students are connected with future employers from day 1.  If they want to move toward academia as a career, they can focus on producing papers, academic networking, early career awards, and then apply for fellowships.  If they would prefer to follow the non-academic path, they’ll still need to produce papers, but their networking can focus on industry/employers, and perhaps seek research placements with partners.

The solution means that curiosity-driven research will be the preserve of competitive grant winners, but it will also mean that success rates will be much higher, which will allow EMCRs to win their own fellowships and grants.

The solution also means that postdocs will be able to pursue applied industry-linked research as a potential pathway into non-academic research employment.  If you can prove yourself as an end-user focused researcher, and develop your project management and communication skills, you will be able to find a path into employment in research outside academia, and be highly valued by your employer.

However, the solution also acknowledges two facts.  First, if you want to guarantee your ability to do academic research, secure a traditional academic job (with teaching) or forge a career that can connect with a funding council fellowship pathway (although that latter option is easier in some fields and some countries).  Some higher education organisations allow you to pursue a research-focused career provided you can develop high levels of industry engagement, but that model is not widespread or mature at present.

Second, industry/end user engagement is essential – for PhD students, for postdocs, and for PIs/CIs.  No matter what we do, the majority of our students and postdocs will leave academia.  Cultivate the relationships to ensure that this is a “stepping up” process, whereby they move onward and upward into non-academic careers.  Don’t treat it as handing them a red shirt as you beam them down from the academic starship.

 

David

6th June 2015

P.S. if you want to comment or discuss, tweet to @dabeattie99