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Thinking career

Last week I was at a small workshop that involved discussion about career prospects for health researchers. Not surprisingly most of the focus of the discussion revolved around PhD students and postdocs. If I were to take a depressing view it seems a bit as if the early career researchers of today are kind torch-bearers of the new scientific research world with all the expectations appended to those on permanent contracts but none of job security.

The crux of the issue seems to be one of supply and demand. PhD positions are offered readily, the situation becomes much tighter for postdocs and then there is an even greater constriction at the next level up. So after a PhD, assuming you still have the stomach for academic research, what next? Apparently, if you’re brilliant, things will be fine and will get funding, which is good, but perhaps not all that comforting for those of us with standard-sized brains and capabilities.

The workshop went on to discuss a range of active measures that we, as early career researchers could take to help ourselves out, but we also talked a little about the way the system works and what implications that has. While the former is important (food for another day), it’s this second issue that has occupied some of the real-estate in my brain since. I should say that I love a good moan as much as the next person and it is tempting to use this forum to complain about how the system is unfair and working against me, etc, but that’s not my intention. I guess it was just a bit of an insight for me that I wanted to share, my thinking was also helped along by a piece I read on the often-interesting, Science Careers blog.

Now obviously situations are different in different countries, so I apologise if the following doesn’t apply to you, but I think some parts will be common. So, as far as I understand (a simplified version of) the story goes something like this. Academic research is mostly organised through universities or their affiliated research institutes. Senior researchers at the universities receive funding from government funding agencies to conduct research and then extra funding on top if they graduate PhD students. So when a senior researcher is awarded a grant to conduct a study they face a choice when it comes to finding someone to do the hands-on research work; they can employ a researcher/research assistant or they can take on an enthusiastic, idealistic, naïve(?) PhD student. The latter needs to be trained along the way, but he or she comes with the added bonus of (often) being cheaper than a usual employee, and further the university gets some cash when they graduate.

So the system encourages taking on PhD students, which obviously has a huge upside in that it provides opportunities to lots of people to further their education. But there is also a downside, that being limited opportunities freshly minted Doctors if they want to stay in academic research. There is an argument that this process ensures/enhances the quality of research by increasing competition and selecting only the most promising early career researcher to continue. There is also a career path in the traditional university academic roles, with a mixed job involving teaching, administration and research. The bummer here is that only a small proportion of time can be spent on what the person has been trained (and presumably wants) to do.

This raises a question for me. What is the point of the universities (indirectly the government) going to the expense of training PhD students to be great researchers when there is apparently little need for their services as researchers when they’ve graduated? Would it not be more efficient and cheaper to limit the intake of students and employ those who’ve already been trained to do the research work? If the issue is about ensuring only quality people end up in research couldn’t that screening be done earlier on, i.e. before the PhD to prevent the waste of resources that goes into training?

Of course there might also be an argument for the greater good, in that have more highly educated citizens is a good thing for a society. But I’ve never heard that argument and I suspect the political system (in Australia anyway) isn’t really equipped to consider these less tangible and long-term advantages. If this is the case, it should probably also be made clear to those starting out are doing so to make the world a better place, rather than set themselves on a career. On the other hand, maybe we already know that J.

What’s the answer? I don’t know. I’m not even sure there is a problem. As I mentioned I didn’t intend for this to be a rant about the injustices of the system, just some thoughts about the way the environment is structured.