Science career structure

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.

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4 thoughts on “Science career structure

  1. The agenda of a science PhD student is usually fairly straightforward — they enjoy science and would like to make a career out of it. However, they are certainly not the only stakeholders in this process, so it is important to unpick what the agendas are of the other parties involved, and what impact these will have on possible career structures.

    For example, I suspect that it could be fairly disastrous if the research councils were to propose a structure in which the number of PhDs was dramatically cut and replaced with masters qualifications in line with Bologna. They would be trying to convince the Government to go from a system in which students acquire a masters-level qualification in one year, funded primarily by the student, to one in which they have to be funded for two years to do so; it would be quite a hard sell both politically and economically. They would also be sending the message that PhDs are only intended for those going into a career in academia, which would make them an obvious target for cuts, since politically it is easier to be seen to be making savings in training for “useless” careers like astronomy lecturers than it is to training for high-flying careers in industry, as PhDs are currently partly sold.

    The agendas of universities would also be worth considering apropos of the proposal to create permanent research positions in parallel to teaching ones. I suspect that in such an environment, the primarily-research positions would end up being the more prestigious. I certainly enjoy teaching a lot and would not want to give it up entirely, but a post that allowed me to rebalance things so I have a bit more time for research would be appealing, and I don’t think I would be alone in that view. While there are certainly some people who are excellent teachers who might be drawn to the posts with a larger teaching component, one of the selling points at most universities is that the science is being taught by people who are also the research leaders in the field, which would be a harder sell to make if the research leaders were mostly hidden away in non-teaching posts.

    The agendas of individual departments also factor in. You can see the attraction of having staff on prestigious fellowships as a way to boost their research profiles for REF, bring in income, etc, especially since they don’t incur much extra cost for the department. And the fellows will always be smart enough to take what they have to offer to the department willing to give something in return, in this case a permanent job. Finally, it is a relatively straightforward sell to any university since five years is off the end of anyone’s detailed planning figures, so there is never an issue with getting the funding for such a deferred post squeezed into an existing budget.

    So, while the current structure may not meet the needs and aspirations of those seeking a career in scientific academia, our agenda has to be tensioned against those of politicians, research councils, universities and university departments. It is no good denying that those competing interests exist. Rather, we have to recognize them, understand them, and see how we can convince the other parties to buy more into the things that we need.

  2. Thanks for the comment. Haven’t had one for quite some time.

    Firstly I should agree that PhD students are not the primary stakeholders here and they do do PhDs because it is fun, challenging and interesting. My view about the number of PhDs are based on two factors. One is that we are extending the length of PhDs (from 3 to 3 1/2 to presumably 4 years eventually) and introducing more teaching into the early years. Having a Bologna-like structure would allow us to put the teaching into what would become the second year of a Masters rather than the first year of a PhD and the PhD could go back to being 3 years. In this scenario, the finances wouldn’t be as much of an issue (although I appreciate that this would require taking money from research councils and giving it to HE funding councils). The second view is an opinion that I have that even though we shouldn’t aim to have a system in which all PhDs get permanent academic jobs, there is presumably a point at which it becomes so unlikely as to potentially discourage people from starting a PhD in the first place. I think we’re almost there, but I could be wrong. I have canvassed some students and the results aren’t definitive.

    As far as Fellowship holders using their Fellowships to negotiate for long-term positions is concerned, this is an entirely reasonable thing to do. My concern is partly that this does disadvantage those who don’t hold Fellowships, although one might argue that the lack of a Fellowship indicates something about one’s future career prospects. Also, those who get Fellowships have made a long-term commitment to their field and so potentially some job security is entirely reasonable. As far as REF is concerned, I have a personal dislike of the fact that an assessment exercise has such a strong impact on our behaviour, although I do understand why.

    I completely agree that we should aim understand the various competing interests. I do have a personal opinion that universities do seem very quick to bow to the pressures of government rather than trying to push for a system that they believe in. Money is important and we do need it to do our jobs, but a system that is primarily aimed at getting more money isn’t one in which I’m going to feel particularly comfortable working in.

  3. Pingback: Blogging and things | To the left of centre

  4. Very good post. The relation between fellowships and permanent positions in the UK is rarely discussed anywhere. Its lacks of transparency raises the question of whether we select the best or simply the luckiest.

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