A couple of weeks ago we posted a little piece about how research is set up in many universities and how this has an impact on opportunities for early career researchers, see here. It seems that we are not the only ones thinking about this, recently two separate committees in the US produced reports that address the same issue. Importantly, these committees report to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) i.e. the people who guard the big pile of money that funds healthcare research in the US. That being the case, there could be some significant implications for researchers in the states moving forward and perhaps also in other parts of the world as things trickle down. Read more about the reports on the Science Careers blog here.
Obviously these types of committees produce documents big enough to kill you if they fell from a height and address all sorts of issues in the system, but I’ll just cherry-pick a couple points that might be relevant to us. On the depressing side, the report quotes that early career PhDs have: “little expectation of finding an academic research position that utilizes the training they received as a graduate student and a postdoctoral fellow”. This has come about as the size of doctoral programs is driven by factors that have little or nothing to do with career opportunities. Perhaps just as importantly they recognise that training programs don’t really prepare graduates for anything other than academic research positions, despite evidence that a decreasing proportion will actually obtain such a position.
In response, the authors of the reports make several recommendations. Firstly, to better prepare PhD students for careers both in and outside the academic world. It is noted that this will require universities to prioritise preparing doctoral graduates for 21st century careers, as opposed to maximising their usefulness to professors for conducting their research. This would likely mean involving relevant private and public sector employers in designing programs.
Another recommendation is to shift the funding of research students and postdocs from research project grants to fellowships and training grants. They note though, that this shouldn’t come with an overall increase in the number of scientists being trained. Inevitably this means less money available for the project grants themselves, which the authors note may prove a sticking point, and a source for opposition to the recommendations from senior researchers.
The reports also recommend that research groups and labs should employ staff scientists in place of students and postdocs. This would then provide additional career opportunities as researchers progress in their careers. This issue is related to the issue outlined above as graduate students and postdoc are often funded by project grants.
It will be interesting to see what, if anything comes of all of this. It is clear that some of these recommendations will be met by opposition, and most universities aren’t exactly know for their flexibility. On the other hand, when it’s the people holding the purse-strings doing the talking, others tend to listen. If you’re reading this from the US, I’d be interested to hear if these proposed changes are making the news there, what the buzz is, and what you think of it.