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Blog

Attention, early-career physicists

By Margaret Harris

Do we have too many PhD students? Should we be training them differently? What can we do to improve prospects for early-career researchers? Should the government get involved, or is this something the scientific community should handle on its own?

These were just some of the questions debated on Tuesday evening at London’s Royal Institution, where a crowd of about 50 gathered to air concerns about scientific careers before a panel that included UK science minister David Willetts and the Cambridge physicist Athene Donald. Organized by the pressure group Science is Vital, whose founder Jenny Rohn also appeared on the panel, the event aimed to move beyond the perennial debate about science funding to highlight other problems in science careers.

Panel moderator Evan Harris – himself a former MP and one-time science spokesman for the Liberal Democrats – began by asking everyone to “concentrate on the negative”, and audience members obliged. Short-term contracts for postdocs make career planning hard and family life impossible, said one. The constant need to get recommendations for the next short-term job discourages us from reporting bullying, added another. Janet Metcalfe of the career-development group Vitae argued that there is “not enough honesty” when senior scientists discuss job prospects with junior colleagues. One audience member even compared the current system – in which many PhD students and postdocs chase a tiny number of permanent jobs – to a pyramid scheme.

Some partial solutions did crop up in the discussion, including the idea of creating permanent “senior postdoc” roles for researchers who want to remain in science, but don’t want to manage a group. The existence of such roles would prevent some talented, well-trained people from leaving science, Rohn observed. However, she also suggested that senior academics had little incentive to make it happen, because PhD students did the same work and were much cheaper. “There is an inherent exploitation element to science careers,” she concluded.

At this point, Willetts arrived (he had dashed across town after an early soiree with the Association of British Science Writers, and Harris picked some audience members to repeat their questions for him. In his replies, Willetts made a few good points. However, he ducked on the central question of the “career pyramid”, invoking the Haldane principle of research autonomy to argue that ministers have no business telling the scientific community how to structure its members’ career paths.

Nobody really challenged Willetts on this during the discussion, and when I spoke to Donald afterwards, she agreed that he had a point. “This is really a problem for the community,” she said. However, she added that if senior scientists feel they are too busy to step back and consider the bigger career picture, and ministers believe they should stay out of it entirely, that leaves nobody willing to take responsibility.

Donald also pointed out that some features of the current funding system – such as rewarding scientists who publish lots of papers – give senior researchers an incentive to take on as many PhD students and postdocs as they can. For the academics, this produces a virtuous circle: more students and postdocs means more papers, which attract more research funding, which means you can hire more people and do still more research. But for the junior researchers, it adds up to – well, if not quite a pyramid scheme, then something disturbingly similar to it.

Science is Vital is drafting a document summarizing these issues, which it will deliver to Willetts’ office in due course. The organization is keen to hear from as many people as possible. So if you’d like to contribute your views, you can do so via this link. Alternatively, you can add your comments below, and I’ll pass them on.

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2 comments

  1. Thanks, Margaret, for writing this up. There is a podcast available at http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2011/05/26/science-careers-has-the-science-establishment-let-down-young-researchers/ of the whole event, and I have written up some further thoughts at http://occamstypewriter.org/athenedonald/2011/05/26/career-progression-and-the-research-landscape/
    As far as the whole ‘debate’ went, I felt it was unfortunate it was not possible to challenge some of the things Willetts said – or more specifically didn’t say. He was able to evade answering questions about funding cuts, for instance, since he could choose which parts of the questions he answered and there was no comeback. So, Vitae’s budget is slashed and it isn’t obvious what will happen to all the useful work they do. Nevertheless, let us hope he was in ‘listening’ mode.

  2. John Duffield

    Interesting stuff, well done for highlighting it. I was at a wedding yesterday sitting next to my nephew, who has a degree in astrophysics. Sadly he came out of it disillusioned, and now works in IT.
    It isn’t a new problem mind, this article dated 1994 gives an indication how long it’s been going on:
    http://philip.greenspun.com/careers/no-phds-need-apply.text
    Note this quote:
    “Universities are stripmining intellectual capital,” says Nelson. “They’re deriving the profit from all these bright, dedicated young people, then throwing them away like yesterday’s newspaper because there are more coming.”

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