BSCB Postdocs: Postdocs forever? How can we mend this broken system?
Iman van den Bout
Did you know that less than 7% of scientists below the age
of 35 will get a tenure track position in America? Unfortunately, I expect that this percentage will be very
similar here in the UK and may possibly get worse as funding streams dry up due
to government austerity measures. Throughout the years, articles have regularly appeared in major
scientific journals lamenting the state of the science career path and
especially the plight of postdocs.
The current career progression in science has been compared
to a nail on an ironing board with the ironing board resembling the many PhD
students and postdocs vying for the minute number of permanent independent
positions available. Amazingly
however it seems that we still do not appreciate the obscenity of this
system. The 2011 Careers in
Research Online Survey 2011(1) shows that 80% of scientists still held
fixed-term contracts with some still on these even after 5 previous contracts
at the same institution. Only 40% of respondents felt there were enough
opportunities for progression or promotion at their institution. Yet, 75% still aspired to work within
the higher education sector either teaching, performing research or a mix of
both. Striking, no? Are we collectively sticking our heads
in the sand holding thumbs that we will be the lucky ones that do get that
coveted PI position? The reality
this observation underlines is that most of us will have to give up our dream
and commitment to our chosen career and settle for a, in our own opinion,
second rate career option.
Can the scientific endeavour allow this wastage of young,
committed and ambitious talent without any consequence? It seems at the moment
that it can but make no mistake the really bright young ones are good at sizing
up their options and opting out of the science career for something more
beneficial leaving science with fewer and fewer people to choose from.
How can this deficiency be addressed? One of the solutions was proposed by
Jennifer Rohn in an article published in Nature recently (2). She argues that postdoc careers should
be professionalized. This means a
permanent position on a level somewhere between scientific officer and the
PI. While this would be good for
people not willing or able to lead a research group it will be limited in its
scope and will not help those still intent on achieving some scientific
independence. It can form part of a package of solutions which could include
Firstly, funding agencies should allow and actively promote
PIs to apply for grants together with their postdocs in a collaborative
setup. Both parties will be named
on the grant application so both can take credit for it. Next, postdocs should have input into
who is employed on the grant money and they will supervise these
employees. Any publications
arising will have the PI and postdoc as co-last authors. This setup would allow a PI to have a
number of these subgroups in his lab which would be beneficial for him since
there are more people working in his lab while has to supervise fewer people.
The postdocs, on the other hand, can establish themselves as independent
scientists and get used to running a small group.
Secondly, science student numbers should be restricted. Selection of the best students should
begin earlier making the reduction in numbers more gradual and giving students
that did not make the cut the opportunity to pursue another career before
having invested too much in their education. There should also be honest and
realistic career advice given to students early on to inform them of the
obstacles of academic research and the possibilities for alternative
In the end nothing will change unless we as postdocs start
to make an effort to inform the parties involved that we want change. Joining efforts from campaign groups
such as 'Science is Vital' is essential and I implore you to take the time to
add your comments on their website which they are using to compile a report for
the minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willets. Vitae and The Concordat are also
looking after researcher issues. Furthermore, a number of universities have postdoc societies that may
have some say in university issues.
Repairing this broken system will be beneficial for postdocs
but also for science as a whole and all those involved in its endeavours.
Iman van den Bout,
Paterson Institute for Cancer Research,
University of Manchester
Careers in Research Online Survey (CROS) 2011 Analysis of UK
aggregate results, Vitae, 2011
Rohn, Jennifer. Give postdocs a career, not empty promises.
Nature 471, pg 7, 2011