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The Black Hole

Hiring faculty earlier could bring balance to the sexes

Get ’em while they’re young, says David Kent.


One of the biggest challenges facing early career researchers in biomedical science is the substantial shift in human resources for training periods – PhDs take longer, postdoctoral fellowships take longer (or are multiple), and the average age to first faculty position keeps getting later and later. We at the Black Hole have highlighted these issues numerous times before and often hit a brick wall with respect to mechanisms that would create meaningful change for our best and brightest so they don’t find themselves in a complete career panic in their mid-30s. After much thought and many discussions with colleagues in the U.K. and in North America, I finally think I have one that is reasonably easy to employ and would give a massive advantage to young women (and men) showing incredible promise early in their careers – “fast track” defined-term faculty positions.

Many researchers in the “black hole” of postdoctoral work find themselves on short-term contracts (sometimes just six months or a year) with virtually no idea what might come next after that ends. Not surprisingly, many young scientists cite “career stability” as a major reason for leaving academic research when they decide to start a family or invest in a mortgage. This is particularly problematic in “two-academic” households where both partners are in precarious career positions – and you can probably guess which partner is more likely to make the sacrifice. Now that biomedical science advanced training periods in North America typically span the entire early 20s to mid-30s, it’s no wonder that so many people jump ship for a bit of career stability.

Traditionally, people have argued for “permanent jobs” (i.e., the coveted tenure track position) and railed against fixed-term contracts – I would suggest something slightly in between: long fixed-term contracts with real leadership roles. In a way, I’m speaking from the comfort and experience of my current situation: I am on a period of seven years of funding where I manage a lab group, supervise PhD students, and direct the research. At the end of this period, Cambridge owes me nothing with respect to my future, but this doesn’t worry me from a mortgage and family perspective because I have seven years where I am (more or less) fully protected. That’s actually not too bad and if I don’t have some success in that seven years, the reality is that I don’t deserve to be kept on here in Cambridge.

The argument I’m really making is that such a “test drive” period should be done earlier in people’s careers (N.B., most people considered my job appointment as very early, at the tender age of 34). Sure, there might be a few more mistakes in hiring a cohort of 29 or 30 year olds (though I’d argue quite a few are made already with older researchers!), but the benefits seem to outweigh the drawbacks by quite a margin and I’ve tried to highlight the main benefits below:

It gives people a chunk of protected time

First and foremost, five to seven year positions would give people actual career stability. Moreover, it would give a sense of seniority and respect that should be commensurate with the experience they already have acquired.

It is an early indicator of future success

As we’ve written about before – a more regular assessment of one’s career trajectory often helps with the decision to make a productive, happier (and earlier) move away from academic research into one of the many areas that eventually capture the majority of biomedical scientists. These positions would be early indicators of success for those that obtain them, but would also catalyze some good thinking about future options from those that do not.

It recognizes things they are doing anyway

Many early career researchers are given the job of supervising student projects, training lab members, teaching, etc., and it is often difficult to quantify these activities in non-academic job applications. Having people in research group leader / faculty positions will formally recognize these roles and situate people for much smoother transitions following on from these fixed-term positions due to the defined roles and responsibilities (e.g., management jobs in industry).

It takes advantage of temporary resource investment

Sometimes, the biggest obstacle to making an appointment to a faculty position is the worry about the long term cost (and therefore the long term source of funding) for a particular individual. Fixed-term positions would allow universities and/or institutes to take more risks on who to hire with the knowledge that they have not signed up for 30 years of potentially low productivity. It would also allow such institutes to take advantage of smaller focused investments that might only have a five to ten year lifespan (e.g., a targeted donation to stimulate research in a given area)

What the package should look like

For universities that might consider getting people earlier in their careers with these sorts of fixed-term positions, there are several important things to include in these packages:

  • Ability to take on graduate students
  • Resources to undertake research (their own salary, a research assistant and consumables)
  • Ability to apply for independent research grants
  • Realistic time frames and deliverable targets (e.g., teaching vs. research balance, expectations for research productivity, etc)
  • Administrative and human resource support (e.g., excellent parental leave policies where positions could have no-cost extensions in time and for the really progressive, extra funding to hire additional people to complete research in their absence)

Wide adoption of such a style of faculty member would result in cohorts of 28-34 year old researchers getting a strong show of faith in their future ability to be world leaders in research and give them a reasonable time frame in which to showcase their potential. It would allow for career interruptions like parental leave with enough time to make up for the break and would give a lengthy period of financial stability for things like houses that young scientists can often only dream of in the expensive cities they find themselves living in.

Most importantly in my mind, it just might help retain young researchers with incredible potential before they feel forced out of science because “life got in the way.”

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. David Fernández / May 10, 2017 at 15:50

    A model somewhat similar to what you suggest is what Mathematics departments in the US are doing right now: most postdocs here are not formally postdocs, but 3-year long non-tenure-track assistant professorships. This provides some much-needed stability for young researchers to launch their research programs without excessive rush, while at the same time officially recognizing all the responsibilities that they perform (for example, in my current position I have been able to do a fair amount of teaching, including advanced courses, and undergraduate research supervision, in addition to my research, which has diversified greatly thanks to the freedom granted to me during these three years). I imagine that an analogous position for five years instead of three could only result in much better results in all fronts. So here you have some empirical data supporting the ideas that you put forward in this article.