Solutions?

I was going to write the next instalment of my thoughts on the Women of Outstanding Achievement but I find my thoughts very much focussed on the careers of post-docs at the moment, so if you want to read that blog post you’ll have to tune in next time 🙂

I went to a very interesting debate at the Royal Institution recently to discuss whether the scientific establishment is letting down junior researchers (Post-docs and PhD students). I didn’t blog about this initially because I don’t generally write this blog with my fellow scientists in mind, I started it in order to start a conversation with the rest of the world. However my thoughts have returned to this subject many times over the last couple of weeks and as many people have called for more honesty in science so that new recruits know what they are getting into I thought I would share my reflections with you. Those of you who don’t work in scientific research may have some very useful thoughts of your own and if you do I’d love to hear them.

These are the problems as I see it:

  1. There is a big conflict of interest between what is in the best interests of the head of the lab (Aka Principal Investigators) and what is in the best interests of the post-doc. It’s not quite this simple but put briefly lab heads need post-docs to focus on research and produce lots of data and post-docs need to develop a range of skills and experience whether they wish to continue with scientific research or move into something else.
  2. Post-docs have a lot of very valuable knowledge and skills. Those are lost when post-docs move on to other things and very often this also means that there is no one remaining in a given lab to provide that expertise. All too often in labs time and resources are wasted as new members of the lab re-learn what was already known but has been lost.
  3. There are too many jobs at the bottom and not enough jobs at the top. David Willetts said that science would always be a pyramid and he’s right, pretty much all industries are: You don’t need 500 CEOs for 500 members of staff, there would be chaos! However, as Jenny Rohn so brilliantly put it there isn’t a pyramid in science it’s more like a flat line with a spike!
  4. Post-docs feel let down by the system because they can finish 6-8 years of post-doctoral training after 4 years as a PhD student and find that not only have they not been successful enough to get a faculty level position but that they are ill equipped for moving into other careers. The second part of this problem is that employers outside scientific research don’t always understand or recognise the value of post-doctoral training.

Solutions I think we should consider:

  1. As many people, but particularly Jenny Rohn, have suggested permanent post-doctoral positions, a sort of staff grade scientist, would firstly make the structure a little more pyramid like and would secondly prevent vital expertise being lost and having to be re-developed.
  2. The carrot and the stick! We need a measure of lab heads as trainers, since this is one of the jobs they do. I know any scientists reading this now think I’ve lost the plot but let me explain. Training others is a key part of the job lab heads do, one that takes up a large amount of time and one for which they get no other recognition than the satisfaction of knowing they did a good job and helped someone else. I know we’re in danger of becoming obsessed with metrics in science but we’re scientific, it makes sense to measure things so that our decisions are evidence based. Lab heads should be recognised and rewarded when they do a good job of training and supporting others, and perhaps penalised by funding bodies when they do not. This would help to reduce the conflict between lab heads and post-docs and would also help to address some of the bullying and equality issues that still exist in science. The best way to do this would require some careful thought.
  3. Professionalize post-doctoral training – not only would this address some of the problems for post-docs it could also be used as part of the metric above. Through the Society of Biology it is possible to gain chartered biologist status, what I am basically suggesting is that this could be developed and extended into something even more useful but perhaps with chartered status still at the end of it. Post-docs could be required to submit: a paper written by them; a 5 year research plan (Wouldn’t necessarily have to use this but develop it as a training exercise); a small grant proposal and evidence that they had developed a range of skills like communication, problem solving, leadership and teaching/training at the end of their post-doctoral training. This would provide two things, firstly the opportunity to think about and develop the skills they need and secondly evidence of what they are capable of which would be useful both when applying for faculty level positions and when applying for jobs outside scientific research.
If your on twitter you can find other blogs on this topic and follow the conversation through the hashtag #scicareers.
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