The first is that the Medical research Council (MRC) is scrapping the ‘years after PhD’ limit in awarding fellowships. The second is this editorial in Nature highlighting the problems Postdocs face in modern academia in terms of getting proper pay and a reasonable ability to have a proper career in research. Reading this MRC release and the Nature editorial I was struck by a few thoughts.
Let’s first ask ourselves whether someone who has just finished a PhD can realistically plan a career in academia playing according to the rules of “maximum Postdoc time”, usually at most 10 years after obtaining the PhD. After this time, a PostDoc can no longer apply for certain fellowship funding. Let’s start trying to focus what a Postdoc researcher (Postdoc X) set on having an academic career would have to do to move on from a Postdoc position to a “tenured” position. Postdoc X must maximise the output from Postdoc time itself, in the hope to be competitive in the event of a “tenure” position opening up, because the clock is ticking. Postdocs usually undertake short-term Postdoc contracts where Postdoc X works on a specific project. Postdoc X will have to decide very quickly whether the project will (not ‘can’) actually yield high impact publications – realising after a couple of years that the project is, in fact, going nowhere glamorous is a waste of time Postdoc X cannot afford. Thus we should imagine Postdoc X assessing the situation quickly and ruthlessly and then walking into the office of Professor Y and calmly state ‘I think this is going nowhere, I’m leaving for a better project’. Anybody with even a minimum grasp of reality knows that this situation is pretty unlikely. First of all it assumes that Postdoc X has an unlimited amount of job offers and an unfettered ability to move to work on a different project somewhere different. We all know that the amount of jobs available is not unlimited to start with, and thus it might be impossible for Postdoc X to apply for a new suitable position as soon as it is clear that the current project will not provide high impact results as required by the “maximum Postdoc time” rules. Thus Postdoc X will be stuck in a bad project wasting precious time – here I assume that Postdoc X lives in the real world and will have financial needs (food, housing) and commitments (rent to pay with a contract that goes with it), until a new position appears. On successfully getting appointed to the new post, Postdoc X will have to repeat the assessment exercise to see if the new project is really a better project or not (and obviously all the above applies to the new project). Obviously slamming the door on the nose of Professor Y might not help getting good references in the short term or a good long term collaboration, but as the clock is ticking Postdoc X cannot afford the luxury of worrying about these things. Professor Y on the other hand cannot hope to find Postdocs to work on anything that requires a long-term approach – ever, unless Professor Y finds Postdocs who are inexplicably happy to sacrifice their careers for the career of Professor Y.
All the above, incidentally, only applies to people who finish their PhD and who immediately know what their next move will be. As the MRC discovered this is true in about 56% of the cases (at best, because the MRC only asked those people who had actually managed to get funded by the MRC). Most people (69%) also complained that they did not receive sufficient career advice and guidance. Again, since the MRC asked people who eventually managed to get funding this figure is probably low compared to what we would get if we were to ask every PhD graduating. So in reality people who finish their PhDs and start with a Postdoc position are junior and inexperienced in terms of career paths (which is not surprising: until they finished their PhDs they were students, and the goal imposed on them was graduation, not career plans). Having a hard deadline will force Postdoc researchers to make career decisions sooner rather than later, but it is easy to see that for the overwhelming majority of Postdocs these decisions will not come from a position where people can say ‘I made fully informed decisions with full complete freedom in how I made them’.
Let’s be honest here, forcing people to leave academia after so many years of postdoctoral experience unless they secured a permanent position is a bureaucratic approach that has no basis on the reality of academic work. It is bad enough people have to leave due to economic reasons, forcing them out because of a bureaucratic choice is disgraceful.
The second important consideration I have to make is that, despite all the trumpet blowing and hand wringing, any academic institution, any funding body, any government and piece of legislation that supports time limits for how long people can be a Postdoc in their academic career is working to keep those who take a career break out of research, many of whom are likely to be female researchers. This conclusion might not seem obvious, so let me elaborate. The first few years of Postdoc life have the inconvenient habit of tending to coincide with the time when people try and have families. As we all know women are disproportionally affected by child rearing. If we are forcing a hard deadline for leaving academia after getting a PhD, we are effectively raising the bar women have to jump over to be able to stay in science. Readers might say ‘the hard deadline can be made to take in consideration parental leave’ – unfortunately reality has different plans. Let’s imagine a female scientist working as a Postdoc. She is involved in a project, but at some point she decides to have a child. Obviously the project goes on, with some form of maternity cover, formal or informal. The project does, happily, yield some very exciting results. What credit does the female scientist who took maternity leave gets? Please note that the “maximum Postdoc time” rule guarantees a scramble for the largest slice of credit, since everybody is fighting both against the clock and against one another – not being ‘there’ is clearly a serious disadvantage. So, even accounting for the time formally ‘lost’ does not account for opportunities lost, because these are impossible to quantify. If we add on top of this harsh reality the fact that women do most of the heavy lifting in child care, thus women have to face a greater challenge managing personal responsibilities and career development. Some of you might say ‘what about the fathers!?’ If the father is another Postdoc, he will have to face the same problems, and the issue of lost opportunities applies to the father as well as the mother. Thus our Postdoc couple could decide that, since the mother’s career (and often her finances) are already suffering there is no point of having two careers in jeopardy. So, not only the “maximum Postdoc time” rules damage mothers’ career prospects, they also discourage couples from a more equal sharing of parental care, especially if it is a generous amount! How on earth can people say they want to support a greater participation of women in science when they actively undermine this participation with such obtuse rule?
Once more I have to fall back to the old adage ‘for every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong’. The problem of academic careers does not even have ‘a solution’. That is because it is akin to the problem of ‘what I should eat?’. I need to eat every day, thus I cannot just find a way of eating now once and for all, freeing me from the need to eat in the future. In addition, since my health requires I eat a varied and balanced diet I cannot just settle on the same food all the time – hence there is not a single answer that solves the problem of my nutritional needs in one single move. A number of different reasons went into creating the current boom in people with postgraduate qualifications, and the current stagnation in academic jobs. Looking for a simple silver bullet will not solve the problem, and as I mention above it is likely to cause more unexpected problems. Trying to give every Postdoc a fair shot at choosing an academic career is a problem that will never find a simple solution, and it will need a constant monitoring and constant efforts to keep in check.
I am therefore almost surprised to end on a positive note: well done to the MRC for scrapping a stupid policy that only damages young scientists (especially women), and does nothing to support them. Hopefully every other funding body, academic institution and legislative effort will follow in their steps.