The issue of scientific careers and the general scientific career structure has received a lot of interest recently. This is largely due to the Science is Vital campaign who released a report that has been sent to David Willetts. Jenny Rhon, who is the chair of Science is Vital, and Athene Donald, a Professor of Physics at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge, have both written about the issues with scientific careers. There was also an interesting astro journal club on twitter (@astrojc) last week, the review of which can be found here.
One of the primary problems with the academic career structure – as highlighted by the telescoper – is the overproduction of PhD students. We’ve convinced ourselves (and government) that PhD graduates take valuable skills into industry and that therefore we should have a large number of PhD places. Although it is probably true that PhD graduates do take useful skills into industry, it’s not clear that a PhD is the optimal place in which to gain these skills. A Bologna-like system with 3 years Honours degrees followed by 2 year research Masters degrees would probably provide the skills in a shorter time and at a lower cost. Furthermore, most who start a PhD do so because they have a genuine interest in a career in research (which today is typically in academia). It can therefore be very discouraging to then discover just how difficult this is. Less than 1 in 10 have a chance of a long term career in academia. Reducing the number of PhD places and introducing research Masters degrees may therefore not only provide a better mechanism for teaching research skills, but will also be the first step towards improving the academic career structure.
There are, however, still – in my opionion – other issues with the Academic career structure. The structure is fairly monochromatic. You do a PhD then get a postdoc position. You then try to get a Fellowship followed by a permanent academic position. One of the issues I have is the significant role that getting a Fellowship has in determining whether or not someone is likely to get a permanent academic position. I accept that those who get Fellowships will be amongst the strongest in their fields and hence are quite likely to be the strongest candidates for academic positions. However, in many cases Fellowship holders are simply moved into a permanent position without any open competition being held. Many will acknowledge that getting a Fellowship is a bit of a Lottery. The Fellowship panels also primarily consider the candidate’s research record. Therefore, in my area certainly, a significant fraction of academic positions are filled by those who’ve benefited from a system that is a bit of a lottery and which doesn’t, at any stage, consider their ability to teach. To be fair, I don’t have a problem with Fellowship holders using their Fellowship to negotiate better job prospects. I have a problem with Academic departments allowing this to happen. If the Fellowship holders are indeed the strongest in their area, they are quite likely to win academic jobs through open competition. This also allows others, who may have just missed out on a Fellowship, to at least make a case for being hired into an Academic job.
There are also other games that are played. I’m aware of situations in which someone has been offered a permanent academic job only to then be offered a Fellowship that is only open to those who don’t have permanent jobs. The University then retracts the job offer so that the person can accept the Fellowship, then promises them a permanent job at the end of the Fellowship. I’m also aware of situations in which a University has interviewed for a permanent job. The successful candidate is, however, then given a university fellowship so that they can still compete for other fellowship. They are, however, promised a permanent job after 5 years. I accept that the above are probably not explicitly wrong but seem, in my view at least, to be playing fast and loose with the rules. These are also likely to be the people who would get academic jobs anyway, so this does maintain some kind of balance. However, it illustrates a lack of transparency in the system. It also illustrates something odd about academic jobs. In most industries you hire someone when you need a job to be done. In academia you can advertise for a permanent position which would typically carry a certain amount of teaching and admin and then hire someone on a Fellowship who doesn’t do much of either for a number of years. Either you need someone to do these tasks or you don’t.
How does one fix the system. I’m not exactly sure but there have been a number of suggestions (in particular during the astronomy journal club on twitter) that we should consider permanent research positions and I think this is quite sensible. At the moment, once someone gets beyond a certain age (typically expressed as an experience level, rather than age) they find it harder and harder to get a research job. There is a perception that if they haven’t yet got an academic job, there must be something wrong with them. There’s also a sense that everyone who remains in academia/research has to effectively become a group leader (or Principal Investigator – PI). There’s no real reason why some couldn’t simply have a career as a researcher. Replacing such people every few years with younger researchers is probably not optimal. There must be a way in which we could balance the system such that some people remain as researchers and other become university academics and do both teaching and research. There are numerous aspects to consider and quite how such a system would be implemented is not entirely clear. Would only university academics be allowed to become PIs or could some research only staff progress to PI level? Would we separate academic salaries into a teaching component and a research component (as is done in the US)? How would we balance the system in terms of number of PhD places, number of postdoctoral positions, number of permanent research positions and number of academic positions?
This post has become rather long, so I’m going to stop now. I hope it has contributed positively to the debate about academic career structures. I’ve been slightly concerned that I might be perceived as anti-Fellowship holders. This isn’t the case, I just don’t see why they should be given additional advantages. They are typically excellent researchers and so should be extremely competitive in the job market anyway. I probably shouldn’t worry since, as my current stats suggest, very few people will read this post.